Deliberate Excellence

Five stages to school system maturity leading to college-ready graduates by JERRY D. WEAST

Every autumn, 50 million children load their backpacks and head off to public school. Most children embark on the adventure of a new school year with a mix of anxiety and anticipation.

In my 34 years as a superintendent, I have been waiting with colleagues on the other side of that classroom door, energized by the anticipation of a new year but circumspect about our responsibilities. When parents say goodbye on that first day of school, they are trusting me to ensure that what is important is taught, what is taught is learned and what is learned leads to opportunity.

Jerry WeastJerry Weast is superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., which has narrowed the learning gap among student populations.

If success occurs when preparation meets opportunity, we are in trouble. Almost one-third of public high school students drop out, including nearly half of African-American, Hispanic or Native American students. For the students who do graduate, many are unprepared for college or a meaningful career. Nearly nine in 10 students expresses the desire to go to college, but fewer than 30 percent of high school graduates earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting college.

Clearly public education has failed its most important customer, the student, in delivering on dreams for the future. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, if the estimated 1.3 million dropouts from the Class of 2007 alone had graduated, the nation’s economy would have benefited from an additional $329 billion in income over their lifetimes. This reduced income has social costs that affect families and communities over generations. Clearly, with eight of 10 jobs requiring at least some postsecondary education, we can no longer hide behind the assumption that those who are not college ready can just get a job.

A Sequential Process
Many excuses are offered for the failures of public education. Still, on their very first day of school, kindergartners and new teachers alike arrive with the mindset that anything is possible. What happens to those four million kindergartners that so many become dropouts? What happens when 300,000 enthusiastic new teachers join the ranks of their peers, 3.5 million strong? Do we really believe there is an intention from either of these two groups to fail or give up?

We must address the system that connects the teacher and the student to each other. Their futures are intertwined. Their destinies are linked. Our destinies are linked.
One of the greatest challenges of being a leader is exercising the discipline of a process — or staging — of change. Without that sequential process, you will not have a solid foundation on which to build. It’s not enough to have a few good ideas or quick wins. It’s the building of a system capable of connecting students and their dreams to educators who want to help achieve them.

Most systems function in a manner that is reactive to conditions rather than intentional in results. How, then, do we move forward? How does a leader help a district evolve into a thriving organization that can identify the problems to be solved, sequence the solutions and manage change over time?

It’s critical to break down the silos between govern-ance, management, classroom and community and to build a strong, cohesive leadership team. Shared power yields the rewards of both shared ownership and accountability. Change has to be phased and sequenced in a way that doesn’t overrun the capacity of people to implement it. Finding that balance is critical to success.

I have defined five stages of organizational maturity through which a school district must move to be poised for the future. Each developmental stage represents a key area of focus that sequences foundational elements that will move a public school system from reactive to intentional.

You will have to commit to high and meaningful expectations about where you’re going. You’ll need to identify the existing conditions that are impediments to progress, as well as those that will give your effort a boost. You’ll have to align your support systems, people and structures to connect to the district’s goals and to create a culture that builds ownership of the vision.

Finally, it’s essential to create positive monitoring and accountability tools so you can refine your approach and implement and scale programs and innovations. Much like an architect’s rendering, a poorly designed system cannot be saved by even the best of builders, and the best of designs can be undermined by a builder whose skills have not kept pace with changes in demand.

Click here for larger image of "Stages of Change" graphic.

STAGE 1: React: Random Acts
School districts operating in Stage 1 tend to put programs and policies in place as a reaction to the demands of any vocal constituency. Motivated by good intentions, these districts nevertheless lack a long-term goal that structures and aligns change. They are most easily identified by fractured focus or variable activity rather than productivity.

Stages of Change

In the rush to do something, these districts often find themselves distracted by politics, trends, current events or special-interest agendas. They are characterized by a few telltale signs, revealed through these questions.

•  Does your success depend on heroes or heroines? In school districts operating in the reactive phase, performance will be uneven, with scattered pockets of excellence where heroes practice their craft well. Each new superintendent is expected to turn around performance in short order, hailed as a visionary on the way in, branded as a failure on the way out. The hope is that something from the outside will solve the problems — more money, different teachers, new programs and technologies, or the next hero to serve as leader. It’s hard to balance the politics of education with the business of education.

•  Do stories trump data? In a school district in the reactive phase, decisions about programs often are based on anecdotal information that trumps data and research. Without clear goals, benchmarks and predictive perform-ance data, reactive systems rely on what sounds good. Real success is measured by the sum of genuinely successful graduates.

•  Are investments in programs, not capabilities? With nearly 80 percent of a school system’s budget dedicated to employees’ wages and benefits, our single greatest asset remains our people. But in reactive systems, discretionary dollars often are devoted to anything but investing in people’s professional capabilities.

STAGE 2: Establish Meaningful Expectations: A North Star
The first phase of change, establishing expectations, translates the aspirations of staff and students into a vision, a North Star, that is clear, compelling, meaningful and measurable. Lofty and inspirational mission statements paint a grand vision of what we hope for our students. But the reality check on what has been delivered to students is the answer to the question — after the commencement celebration on Friday, what is that graduate prepared to do on Monday, the first day in the wider world?

The only way to move an entire school system forward is to set the same high bar for every child. Opening access to advanced courses will keep achievement on an upward trajectory for individual students and for the district. It’s all about our expectations.

I find clear expectations are a key motivator for our people, too. Teaching is a career path for optimists. Their job done well comes from aligning to a sense of purpose. Change will come from igniting the intrinsic motivation that drew us all to this profession. When the goal is clear and compelling, motivation follows. No Child Left Behind has institutionalized the expectation that student progress will be measured (it’s clear), but the bar against which progress is measured usually is low (not compelling).

The greatest difficulty during this process is acknowledging the unspoken interests of stakeholders — officials who must deal with constituent demands, employees who must do more work, parents who want a competitive advantage for their child and foundations focused on promoting their name or signature solution.

Politically, raising the bar is a hard sell. If we really use college expectations, there may be a time when more students will fail before they progress, a time when graduation rates may drop as the value of the diploma increases. To move forward into Stage 3, school districts must emerge from Stage 2 with the courage for just such a call — a call that staff, students and community feel compelled to achieve. 

STAGE 3: Identify Existing Conditions: Barriers and Blind Spots
This is an evaluative stage where the data tell the real story of what we are organized to do as opposed to what we set out to do.

Honest data illuminate the institutional barriers built over time and their unintended consequences. Evaluate curriculum, technology, special services, human resources, professional development and relations with employee associations. Consider how they are aligned or at odds.

Understanding how each affects the other will guide the sequencing of change. You’ll begin to put in place baseline elements that will help with the evaluation process. Facing the facts of our situation forces us to acknowledge our blind spots and snaps us out of our complacency. In this evaluative process, check to see whether teachers, curricula and systems are working toward the same goal (internal alignment) and whether the educational goals match the realities of the wider world (external alignment).

Breakdowns in internal alignment commonly occur by handing teachers a curriculum they aren’t trained to deliver when lessons aren’t part of the preK-12 framework or where assessments aren’t predictors of later success. Gatekeeping practices that track students away from college-ready outcomes reveal blind spots about expectations for some instead of offering every student a path to a fulfilling future.

The most powerful data we acquired at this stage of our change process was obtained inexpensively — at the cost of about $400 for each high school — from the National Student Clearinghouse. This organization provided college enrollment and persistence data on about 80 percent of our high school graduates over a nine-year period, about 68,000 students. The data told us how many of those students had earned a bachelor’s degree within six years and, aligned with our own data on their course-taking history, shed light on the pathway that each student took through our school system.

The route to college-ready outcomes was now both clear and compelling.

STAGE 4: Align People, structures and Systems: It’s the Culture!
Most school districts with a strong leader can arrive at this point, but it’s also where many systems still are experiencing too much variable performance. The toughest job of any leader in any industry is to move from strategy to execution, because it’s the people who do the work, not the plan.

In the early stages, visionary leadership will drive change, but to sustain it, you must shift your leadership strategy to incorporate the work of teams. Teams, in turn, work within a culture. The real work of this stage is redesigning systems and structures around key cultural changes.

Culture is the filter through which employees learn about their jobs, perceive their environment, rank their rewards and evaluate their choices. Entrenched habits, practices and structures can poison the culture, but for every poison there is an antidote.

•  Cultures that validate sorting require curricula with less choice about what is taught and the training to ensure teachers have the skills and knowledge to deliver it.

•  Cultures that tolerate low expectations need a hiring system that screens out those who don’t believe all students can learn and a data system that will provide the feedback to ensure beliefs translate to practice.

•  Cultures resistant to change need accessible communications channels for staff to understand what’s necessary and union relationships that help craft how change is sequenced and supported.

•  Cultures that tolerate accusing, blaming and criticizing benefit from professional learning communities and professional growth systems that value continued learning from all employees, fostering a climate of respect and collaboration.

Cultural change gains strength when what is desired is supported and what is supported is rewarded. A school district emerges from this stage with a set of shared fundamental beliefs. Staff are transformed from worker to partner, from compliance to commitment. The power to move forward rests in staff engagement, in each person’s belief that his or her role in the district is critical to achieving the goal, and in each person’s high expectation for student success.

Staff were galvanized by the data on college success we had from the National Student Clearinghouse. The predictive academic pathway that data illustrated was the key to breaking down cultural barriers on two fronts.

Turning that information into an eye-catching graphic, “The Seven Keys to College Readiness,” offered an easy-to-understand roadmap for staff and parents of what students should aim to attain at each grade level. By making that pathway clear and compelling, meaningful and measurable, each staff member gained an equally clear and compelling understanding of his or her own role in the process. Each could say, “I know what to do and why.” That was a game changer.

Seven Keys

When the culture demands more — more knowledge, more skills, more challenges — staff are ready to improve and to innovate without the need for a top-down mandate. The journey of change is poised to enter its most universally rewarding stage.

STAGE 5: Innovate and Monitor: From “Gotcha” to Intentional Results
To the employees of districts in stages 1 to 3, the word monitoring sounds like “gotcha,” and the word innovate sounds like “one more thing.” Improperly used, monitoring looks to data to demonstrate the validity of what we think we know, invariably yields negative results and exacerbates cultural problems instead of alleviating them.

Used well, monitoring tools are not just for outside agencies or leaders, but for students, teachers, principals and parents, too. These tools let us know when the students are on the right path and at the right pace. The right data systems illuminate what to fix. They let us know when we need to intervene with training or support or where we need to craft a new solution to innovate.

A Stage 5 organization relies on its team to interpret these next steps. In Montgomery County, our professional learning communities have suggested some of the following solutions to common concerns:

•  When there is too little time to teach all topics as discrete subject areas, we can create an integrated curriculum aligned with our goals but sensitive to our time.

•  When students understand our high expectations but don’t value the work to get there, we can provide engagement strategies such as real-world applications or interest-based courses, programs and projects.

•  When teachers need more content training but our face-to-face model is costly and time-consuming, we cannot only use technology, but implement job-embedded professional development.

•  When staff is overwhelmed by too many monitoring tools, we can develop a gateway that integrates access to information through a single portal.

Innovations that work solve problems that matter to students and teachers. They advance a school district toward its North Star. And, to come full circle, innovations that don’t work are revealed and can be eliminated.

Additional Resources

Author Jerry Weast recommends these resources relating to his article:

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Wrapping Up
A favorite book of mine, Good to Great, by Jim Collins, recalls a conversation the author had with James Stockdale, a long-imprisoned Vietnam-era POW. Stockdale described his coping strategy during confinement in a POW camp: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied: “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale then added: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”

As we work to improve public education, Stockdale’s caution is apt. Having a good heart and good intentions, even when accompanied by money or authority, isn’t enough. Neither optimism nor hope is a strategy. Perseverance and a capacity to absorb setbacks must underpin the innate optimism of most who enter the field of public education if better outcomes for all students are to be achieved and the structures that support that improvement are to be sustained.

The imperative for change in public education is all around us. We can count its failure on every street corner where unemployed young men congregate or in the despair of mothers and fathers unable to find employment because their skills no longer are in demand. The costs for our communities and our nation are great. Let us focus our attention on the millions of children and their families who look to public schools to provide the key to meaningful futures and begin the rebuilding that will help us to answer that charge.

Jerry Weast is superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md. E-mail: Jerry_Weast@mcpsmd.org