A Minimalist Approach to Reform

A smart, sane and strategic route focuses principals and teachers on fewer high priorities by ANNE E. CONZEMIUS

Unprompted, an elementary school principal offers, “I used to go home exhausted at the end of the day. Juggling all the balls was taking its toll on me. Now, I can’t even keep track of how many balls there are, they’re dropping all around me and I just can’t keep up.”

A school board meeting room is packed with hundreds of beleaguered teachers begging, “No more! We’ve had enough! We can’t take it any longer!”

Anne ConzemiusAnne Conzemius is co-founder of QLD in Fitchburg, Wis.

A coaching session with a middle school principal begins with, “Sorry I’m late. I had a teacher in my office in tears. He’s so overwhelmed; he doesn’t think he’ll make it through the year.” Her sigh is heavy, her eyes tired. It’s only October.

Trickle-Down Effects
These three scenarios occurred hundreds of miles apart, in different states, within a span of three days. Each of these districts is in good academic standing, and all are relatively affluent communities with a relatively small percentage of their student populations living in poverty. If this is what stable, adequately resourced school districts are experiencing, what is the reality for our impoverished, highly mobile and low-performing districts?

Regardless of whether a school or district is on a No Child Left Behind list for failing to make adequate yearly progress, the sense of urgency caused by the federal law’s looming 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency and the increasingly challenging targets are generating considerable activity, without commensurate payoff in terms of results. There’s an interesting trickle-down effect occurring everywhere I go. Here’s how it typically plays out.

With all good intentions, the state descends with its mandates, programs and helpers.

The district inundates their school sites with one initiative after the next, heaping resources like layers of blankets onto the schools in need until they suffocate or just can’t move under the weight of it all.

The school principal, whose multiple plates are already too full, wakes up to hear the morning talk show host maligning the school and its teachers, demanding that something be done!

In the name of empowerment, delegation and capacity building, the principal downloads her to-do list to a few loyal but unsuspecting teacher leaders who come in early, stay late and can barely find time in their day to visit the restroom.

Pushed by Fear
Overload, confusion, chaos and incoherence typify the plight of educators and society in general these days. The unfortunate truth is that our response as a nation and as a profession has been to do more of the same, not less with what’s best. It is what those in the quality movement refer to as tactics that reach a mile wide but go only an inch deep, as opposed to strategic actions that go a mile deep and an inch wide. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can continue this frantic pace and that performance will improve.

We are at an important crossroad in education. With the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly referred to as NCLB, we need to examine with fierce honesty the impact it has had on our schools, not just on the test scores, but the toll it has taken on the people: principals, teachers and students.

Let’s start with what’s right about NCLB. Certainly, it is a powerful piece of legislation that has gotten the attention of just about everyone in the country. It has changed the nature of the conversation among educators. Without NCLB, we might still be under the illusion our performance as a nation is just fine, suggesting we ought to just keep doing what we’ve always done. We might never have discovered just how many children we really have been leaving behind.

For whatever good NCLB has done, we must still ask the Dr. Phil question, “So how’s that working for you?” Education Week published an article in April 2007 by Lynn Olson titled “Skills Gap on State, Federal Tests Grows, Study Finds.” The newspaper compared test results from 12 states with results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The comparison called into question not only the rate of progress in closing the achievement gap, but whether states were lowering the bar for passing state tests.

More recently, Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, found the following: “In long-term trends, the achievement gap between white and minority students has hardly budged over the past decade. Although average scores are up for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in reading and mathematics between 2004 and 2008, the rate of improvement is actually smaller than it was in the previous period measured, from 1999-2004” (Education Week, June 10, 2009).

In theory, NCLB is a good thing. But theory and legislation don’t cause deep systemic change. Legislation may ignite changes in behavior in the short term, but like any externally generated mandate that uses fear as its motivational technique, substantive, sustainable change is unlikely. What is more likely is that the system will find a way to adjust itself to alleviate the tension rather than change itself to comply with the mandate. Furthermore, if there isn’t a process to engage people in owning the change at a deep, systemic level, any short-term results that may be attributed to the mandate are quickly wiped away when the source of the fear is removed.

Pareto Principle in Education

When my colleagues and I work with schools, we ask the educators to focus their SMART goals on just a few important student learning needs.

read more

For a moment, assume NCLB was a fully funded mandate, had attainable objectives for those of our students with verifiable learning deficits, incorporated the use of authentic, formative assessments and was accompanied by a multitude of resources to help teachers improve or enhance their instruction. Would that close the achievement gap? Probably not. We’d still be operating inside incoherent systems, within largely unchanged relationships, scrambling to meet an external mandate with too many helping hands working separately on too many initiatives with little or no alignment of efforts. This is the reality experienced by our principals, teachers and students.

So the question facing policymakers is, “Do modest improvements justify the emotional toll NCLB is having on the people in the system?” However, the question for education leaders is, “What needs to happen so teachers and principals can concentrate on creating authentic, high-quality learning experiences for their students?” That is the systemic transformational question.

Real Change
For professional educators, NCLB served as an important wake-up call. The emperor has seen the naked truth. The alarms all have been activated. NCLB has done its job.

Educators need to take it from here. What we need now is to reignite the passion and commitment that brought educators to the profession in the first place. We need to move away from a compliance model toward one that builds efficacy and leadership among teachers, engages teachers and principals in reflective and collaborative dialogue around valid, reliable data, and creates focus and coherence throughout our school systems.

We’ve known what should be done for a long time. Kurt Lewin, an organizational psychologist and researcher, studied the psychology and sociology of work in the early 1900s. He took Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theories (the factory model after which our current school structures are fashioned) and built a rationale and methodology for transforming the work system by involving the people doing the work in collaborative problem solving that included setting goals and planning actions based on data.

What is both amusing and frustrating is the fact these ideas have been around for over 100 years and we’re still talking about them as if they’re new. Now we need to take what we know and start to act on it.

Sustaining Reform
The SMART acronym (specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented and time-bound), as it applies to goal setting, has been used in business for decades. SMART goals now are showing up in the education world, as well. District strategic plans, school improvement plans, and even grade-, department-, and team-level plans include SMART goals.

Creating these goals is an important step in helping teachers and principals stay focused on student learning. Goals give direction to individuals and teams so they can be specific and intentional in their work. However, while having such goals is beneficial, if writing them is simply an exercise to meet the SMART criteria, they will have limited power or leverage for change.

Imagine what might happen if an entire system could not only have SMART goals but could apply this approach to every activity? What if we added a second “S” to make our goals both specific and strategic?

When it comes to being strategic, five goal-setting qualities determine the power or leverage of the goal:

•  Goals developed collaboratively are more strategic than those set by individuals with no input.

•  Goals reaching out beyond a year or two are more strategic than those focusing on short-term change.

•  Goals addressing a few high-priority problems are more strategic than lists of goals attempting to tackle all problems at once. 

•  Goals speaking to the organization as a whole are more strategic than those focusing on only one aspect. 

•  Goals vertically and horizontally aligned are more strategic than those unconnected or potentially at cross purposes with other organizational goals.

Collaborative Processes
Developing SMART goals collaboratively, based on a critical analysis of multiple sources of data within a process that engages a team in examining and improving their practice (curriculum, instruction and assessment) is a higher-order activity than simply writing the goal. That’s because good process techniques are brought to the goal-setting endeavor. These techniques engage people in conversations that build both commitment and ownership of the goal and the strategies the staff members select to achieve their goals.

While visiting elementary schools in Colorado, I asked teams of teachers and their principals what was different about their conversations today compared with conversations they were having five years ago. They were quick to respond with fairly clear distinctions:

•  “There’s much more use of data with an emphasis on learning, less on grading. Our conversations have more purpose, more focus, and we’re questioning our current practice. Staff development is more relevant.” 

•  “Working together on one goal creates consistency in meaning and challenges us to have higher standards.”

This kind of goal-setting practice changes the conversation among educators in qualitatively different ways than NCLB has been able to do. Both the content and the process differ because the relationships differ. These conversations occur within a community where teachers and principals learn together in their pursuit of establishing and achieving a common goal. They also include self-driven monitoring and accountability mechanisms for achieving the goal within agreed-upon time frames.

Short-Term Limits
Short-term goals are like fire starters. They bring quick energy and a flash of activity to what might otherwise be a complacent environment. But if all we have are small, short-term and relatively easily attained goals, significant change is unlikely. Our education enterprise needs more than a few small fires. In fact, our tendency to set many small fires is, in part, why we are experiencing a sense of chaos today.

A goal worthy of pursuit is one that will fundamentally change important outcomes. For significant breakthroughs to occur, we need a long-term strategy with sustainable, goal-driven action. This is where a leader’s focus and perseverance can be so important.

I asked a middle school principal what his secret was in keeping all of the separate departments in his school on the same page with their long-range schoolwide goal. “It all has to do with where I put my eyes,” he answered. “If they see that my attention is focused on the goal, that’s where they tend to focus. It’s my job to make sure our goal never leaves our field of vision.”

SMART goals are based on the organization’s greatest areas of need, or GAN. This approach works because of the Pareto principle, a statistical concept from the quality movement that eliminates the need to solve every problem one-by-one. (See related story above.) Instead, if we attend to the vital few things that will have the greatest impact, a whole system of problems can be addressed simultaneously, allowing the efficiency of our time and resources to be maximized.

Focusing on the greatest areas of need leads to the development of high-priority goals and strategies that affect and improve the entire system at every level. Incorporating the principle of GAN into goals at the classroom level allows teachers to be strategic in their instructional decisions. That can even save time, as one teacher discovered when she focused on a few key objectives that helped her students understand deeper concepts more quickly. That meant she didn’t have to dwell on those concepts for days and days, but could move on to higher-order concepts and standards.

High-priority planning and goal setting, using formative assessment techniques to monitor results, will lead to more efficient and deeper levels of learning for teachers and students. One elementary teacher put it this way: “Having a clear focus sends a strong message about priorities. That helps me and the kids make better decisions.”

Goal Alignment
A systemwide goal-development and goal-management process brings coherence and power to the organization’s improvement efforts. How can a district, school or a team of teachers design high-leverage interventions to meet the needs of all students if

•  each doesn’t view itself as an important part of an integrated whole? 

•  each doesn’t have a common goal that galvanizes the efforts of people within the system?

•  each doesn’t have the full support and commitment of the organization’s leaders, including those responsible for carrying out the plan?

Without a systemic process, what we end up with is individual parts of the system (schools, grade levels, departments or course-specific teams) doing their own thing in random, unconnected ways. That’s not much different than the status quo.

Aligning the system of goals vertically and horizontally throughout the district is what propels systemic breakthrough improvement. Alignment differs from top-down goal setting where the central office establishes its mandate and then schools follow suit with goals that comply.

Here’s how the alignment of goals works as a systemic network of relationships. The schoolwide SMART goal is the linking mechanism for vertical articulation, connecting the district’s vision and goals to what ultimately happens in the classroom. The schoolwide goal is also the mechanism for creating coherence throughout the school from one grade level to the next or from one department or content area to the next.

Ultimately, SMART goals will be yet another failed attempt at reform if they are not driven and owned by classroom teachers and their students. Teachers are the pivot point for alignment. Goals set by teacher teams are based on the needs and goals of the young learners in their classrooms. They reflect the overall schoolwide goal and align with the standards, goals and assessments set forth in the curriculum.

Focus on Few
As the old saying goes, “If you have dozens of priorities, you have no priorities.” When schools have dozens of initiatives, what they end up with is a lot of startups, a lot of activity and ultimately a lot of exhausted people, with little or no long-term benefit for students.

Getting focused and staying focused are our greatest challenges and our greatest hope in education. It is counterintuitive in our existing school cultures and difficult in our current time structures. And it is nearly impossible within a larger system that itself cannot get focused. If we have any chance of closing the achievement gap, we have no choice but to get smart about what we focus on and what we act upon.

Principals need help from the central office to know which things are OK to let go. Central-office administrators can model strategic thinking while working on system issues that need to change. This will enable teachers and principals to invest their time and energies on doing the right work focused on their few highest priorities.

Anne Conzemius is an education consultant with QLD Learning in Fitchburg, Wis., which she co-founded. E-mail: aconzemius@qldlearning.com