I was just starting my education career when the Nation at Risk report came out (Wikipedia provides a good overview – including a link to the full report). (Wow! Have I really been an educator that long!?) It was the report (or at least the first “modern” report) that warned that America’s schools weren’t doing the job they needed to to adequately prepare students, and seems to be the impetous for so many of the changes that schools have gone through in the last couple decades.
Since then, there has certainly been a variety of reasons named as to why we need schools to change. These include improving achievement, better preparing students for a future (or present!) that is significantly different from our past, increasing engagement and decreasing the number of dropouts, and being able to better compete in a global economy. And there have been quite a few approaches targeted at addressing these needs, such as increased accountability (testing and state and national standards), NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teachers, the introduction of computers and other new learning tools, and various pedagogies, such as curriculum integration, project-based learning, online learning, and massively customized learning.
Despite there being seemingly limited agreement on the why or how of school change (although there seem to be plenty of pundits for each – and that probably includes yours truly), there does at least seem to be consensus that schools need to change.
Over the years, I have come to believe several truths about educational change (and especially large scale school change).
Clearly, we only talk school change because we want something to be better than it has been. School Change Truth 1 is that successfully attaining those improvements hinges on making the right change, implemented consistently and with fidelity.
School Change Truth 2 is that human nature seems to abhor change. I don’t believe this one is about “bad teachers” trying to get out of something. I think we’re preprogramed to like a certain amount of routine and that making change goes against the grain. I’ve known really great people, including great teachers, who put twice as much energy into avoiding the change than it would have taken to simply make the change (ok, maybe not so simply…).
My third School Change Truth is that when people do accept change, it seems to be human nature that, if you arent careful, people will try to implement it in the way that is most like the ways they have always done things. For example, have you ever wondered why, with all the exciting capabilities and educational possibilities of technology, that interactive smart boards seem to be a favorite in schools? I can’t help but be reminded of the slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of “insanity”: doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.
School Change Truth #4 is that, large scale school change is significantly different than the kinds of changes that schools are used to. Schools are used to changing staff or administrators. Schools are used to changing which textbook series or curricular materials they use. And schools are used to changing the grade configuration of a building, or the configuration of the building itself and how teachers themselves are grouped and distributed throughout.
But these are really only just tweaks to a system that essentially allow the system to continue to work as it always has. Large scale school change requires really doing things differently. Because schools aren’t really that different than they were 150 years ago, “really doing things differently” means that most of the school’s educators haven’t experienced for themselves anything similar to the innovation. That means at the root of large scale school change is paradigm shifting, something that requires techniques quite different from the usual “how to” and informational trainings teachers are used to.
School Change Truth 5: For school change, leadership is everything. This was an initial lesson in the early days of MLTI (the Maine Learning Technology Initiative – the first statewide learning with laptops initiative). While working for a group that designed and implemented engaging school programs to motivate students, I learned the hard way that when the leadership was not in place (or was no longer in place), even the best programs couldn’t continue or move forward.
And my last School Change Truth is that leadership is what you do, not what job or position you have. So, as a corollary to School Change Truth #1, not only does the school have to implement the the right change with consistency and fidelity, but the school leader(s) needs to put the right components into place, thoughtfully and skillfully.
For quite some time, I’ve been thinging about a model for effective large scale school change, something that would help define what those key components were. It started back in the early days of MLTI, with a model I called “Doing 1to1 Right.” Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate 1to1 learning with laptop initiatives, and to collaborate in creating a career academy, a magnet school program, a non-traditional middle and high school, and a statewide virtual project-based program for at risk kids, and have realized that the model generalizes nicely (with some updates, modifications, and additions) to other kinds of large scale school change.
So, if you might be a school leader, and you really want to see the kinds of improvements that can only come about, not by tweaking the system, but through large scale school change, then you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog. In addition to writing about the projects I’m currently involved in, I want to think more and write more about leadership for school change. And I can’t wait to learn more about your views, and to have the kinds of conversations around leadership that can happen with social media.
In Part 2 of this post, I’ll outline the model.