Exactly Where To Start With School Improvement

Exactly Where To Start With School Improvement

Where To Start With School Improvement

by Terry Heick

Education is a series of learning experiences informed by policy, and actuated by teachers.

Policy, by its very nature, is sweeping and ambitious. It is designed to work on various scales, is well-intentioned, and often difficult to fault on paper. The teachers aren’t really much different. They are ambitious, designed to work on various scales, and are commissioned (quite literally) to enact the policies that govern the institutions (schools) they work in.

The wrinkles arise however as teachers strive to realize a vision for education that is, as things are, entirely impossible: For every student to master every academic standard.

No matter the starting literacy level, emotional intelligence, goals in life, family history, socioeconomic background, learning and thinking habits, or academic ambition, the same result is expected of all students–and increasingly troublesome word stuffed full of connotation and implication.


And perhaps worst of all, this inclusive scale of proficiency is regarded not as a necessary evil, but the noblest of goals–equality manifest as democracy itself.

Equality In Learning

Equality in learning can mean anything. Same spending. Same resources–or rather, same fulfillment of relative needs. Same expectations.

Fair doesn’t always mean equal, as many will correctly reason, but as we seek to democratize the learning process, we end up with scripted responses to unscripted circumstances, and as a result the homogenization of something that has no business being homogenized.

But equality in learning is a dangerous chase to give, full of dead-ends, rhetoric, and, at times, waste.

Learning is messy and personal–messy because it’s personal, in fact. And it’s wasteful for many of the same reasons. Not because people learn differently, but because education often tries to impose ‘sameness’ on it all. And when that approach doesn’t work, gobs (and gobs) of resources are spent troubleshooting, ‘remediating,’ and erstwhile tail-chasing.

Learning can be frustrating for the same reasons it’s compelling–because it’s instinctive and primal. It starts out as play, and then quickly turns more formal as self-directed experimentation turns into sterile academia. Schools–well-intentioned–care so much for the learning that they pull out every stop: sirens, meters, and relief valves to let us know what’s going on at all times.

This, however, is a (small) part of the problem, like checking a rubric and data during your first date to see how things are going. That doesn’t mean there is no place for data and rubrics, but it just might be that, in pursuit of proficiency we’ve found dull edges.

And in pursuit of excellence we’ve found mediocrity.

Not An Argument For Learning Models

At this point, this is usually where the conversation turns to learning models–entrepreneurial learning, self-directed learning, mobile learning, play-based learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, blended learning.

And so on.

And this is all pertinent and felicitous–all screaming for thinking, integration, and revision. But instead, a more immediate focus of our scope might be the way teachers and teacher systems push back on one another in the vast majority of public schools today.

The Systems

So what are these ‘systems’?

District walkthroughs and their ‘non-negotiables.’

Professional growth plans.

Professional learning communities.

Data teams.

District and school-sponsored professional development.

News media publishing of test scores.

Actually, let’s stop and look at that one for a moment.

Public Reporting Of Test Scores

The publishing of test scores isn’t the problem–it’s the void of context most people have for internalizing those data. The public sees in more binary terms–failing school and performing school. Maybe improving school. That’s it.

Never failing test, performing attention to literacy, or on the rise community support. Schools are not seen as completely interdependent with society, but rather widget factories, and are thus judged by their widgets. And perhaps worst of all, these widgets are children.

Why this is a problem has to do with connotation and loaded language–old-guard advertising tricks to get people to care. A widget is cold, but a child is a living, breathing, blinking thing that deserves the best possible future–and the best from us today to help make that happen.

And of course that’s true.

Vague & Emotionally Loaded Language

So when we talk, our language can be empty and generalized. We talk about the future, the learning, of our collective and unyielding intent to ‘do right by these kids.’ We make decisions that ‘are best for the kids,’ rather than the adults, because what adult would propose the opposite?

But it’s exactly through this selfless ambition and pathos-based grandstanding that we get ourselves in trouble. We simply cannot consistently fulfill what we promise, and, puzzled, turn to professional development to solve our woes.

If school is an analogue of post-modern industrialism–and it shouldn’t be but it currently operates as exactly that–then teachers and administrators are the ones that operate the levers and the presses. We create the molds, fill the conveyors with widgets, fill the pallets, operate the forklifts, and take very serious notes on our clipboards as we watch with equally serious eyes.

But it’s the teachers and administrators, tirelessly planning and revising while the entire operation teeters, that are wheezing and chuffing. We promise and swear in both creed and policy to help every single child meet their potential as human beings. The pressure–and hubris–of that promise!

We add empowering signatures on our email, ‘Failure is not an option,’ or ‘Preparing children for the future,’ and then ‘recharge our batteries’ during weekends and holidays so that on Monday afternoons we can sit erect in two hour staff meetings that rob us of any bit of innovative spirit we had managed to restore.

We invite the parents into school every quarter with the promise of bake sales or a school play and other extracurricular events, pretending not to notice how awkward it all is—how we both are raising different parts of their children but barely know one another.

How we stubbornly continue to teach children as an industry produces goods.

How we fail to connect organizations with families and schools and universities and cultural programs and community centers in any compelling way because, as schools, we insist on going alone, only opening the doors on our schedule and our terms to help us do what we want to do because we wrote the book on what needs to be done.

We use language and processes of education that are completely alien to most families. And in the process, we create a completely unsustainable–and morbidly private–system of learning that reduces the capacity of families and communities while we toil away in proud martyrdom, never realizing that our ambition is costing us everything.

If schools serve students, and students are deeply embedded in the fabric of communities, how can we serve those students without knowing those communities? Let’s open our school and classroom doors for meaningful interaction with families and communities on equal terms not at an extracurricular level, but a curricular level.

School improvement conversations could do worse than start there.

Image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks; Exactly Where To Start With School Improvement