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September 2, 2009

Who controls what happens?

by Chris Lindholm

I can't pass up the opportunity to address Scott McLeod's post today that refers to Jim Collins' new book How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In.  Scott presents a quote from the book, "Whether you prevail or fail, endure or die, depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you" and then asks whether or not educators believe this.  Scott, this educator believes that most of us in education believe in the statement, but we don't know how to live out this belief in instructional practice.  The result over time, which includes negative media attention, distracting situations, and people turnover, is an institution that has made a normal practice of blaming external variables for our performance. 

I stated to our faculty just this morning,

"Rather than get caught up in trying to explain away our student achievement with demographic statistics, this principal is focusing on a simple piece of data that doesn't sit right with me.  For 5 years we have equipped teachers with incredible amounts of data on each student in their classes on the first day of school – and nothing has changed in the area of instructional practice.  We still give all 30 students in all 5 sections of your classes the same assignment, using the same textbook, with the same background information, with the same expectations.  This practice is akin to asking all 30 students to put on the same pair of pants…  We know this is not good practice yet we keep doing it.  Frankly, we don't accept this kind of performance from our auto mechanics, from our doctors, from local vendors – yet those of us who work with our most precious gift, children, accept this as normal and point fingers at everything else."    

"Confronting the brutal facts" (to use a Collins phrase from Good to Great) is difficult, scary, and close to insanity when your job is as public and "on stage" as being a teacher is.  The faculty at Shakopee Junior High, however, is doing just that.  Using the framework that Collins gives us in Good to Great, our staff is embracing the principles of "disciplined people practicing disciplined thought and disciplined action."  Over a two year journey they have committed to making decisions based upon research, doing what is right, and doing so with integrity and transparency.  The momentum is palatable… 

I stood in front of the teachers today and also said,

"I understand why you haven't changed anything.  I have been exactly where you are and I am learning this stuff right with you.  You are wondering what you will do with the other 22 students while you work with the 8 who need specific instruction – and what to do with the 8 while you're working with the other 22!  I get it.  I've been there.  You're worried about how to manage behaviors and how to deal with a class in 4 different places in the curriculum.  We're in this together.  Here's the bottom line – It's ok to take risks and make mistakes while, in good faith, working on improvement if your efforts are supported by research and doing what is right.  It is NOT ok to know what you are doing is wrong and to make no effort to change your practice.  That is unethical.  That is a sin."

I am proud to tell you that the faculty at Shakopee Junior High has embraced confronting the brutal facts, engaging in rigorous debate, and seeking out help to improve our practice.  They have committed to owning what we can control and to focus on getting better.  This commitment includes worrying less about using external statistics to explain our lack of performance and instead, using real, meaningful data to drive how and what we teach.  This commitment has happened because we have avoided beating them up and instead focused on helping them figure out what to do about the brutal facts.  I have never met a teacher who wants to be a bad teacher!  They simply don't know what they don't know…  nor do I.  It's the job of leadership to help teachers find answers to their questions.  Our staff leadership is delivering on that expectation. 

Indeed, the institution of public education has far to go in the arena of controlling what we can indeed control.  We need to stop sticking our heads in the sand and confront the brutal facts about what is happening in classrooms everyday.  You don't have to be brilliant to understand that a student who reads at the 3rd grade level can't read the 9th grade physical science text…  Confronting these facts in a meaningful way happens only when a safe environment has been created by school leaders and local communities.  The focus of leaders must shift from beating up on teachers and making excuses to confronting the brutal facts honestly, cultivating rigorous debate, and doing what is right.  Shakopee Junior High is well underway.  Will you join us?

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