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May 22, 2011


Refusing to work the wrong drivers

by Chris Lindholm

“Leadership is getting others to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”  Dwight Eisenhower’s simple quote defining leadership sets a high bar but one that rings true in the challenges of leading in public education.  Michael Fullan’s April 2011 article “Seminar Series 204; Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform” offers a 30,000 foot view of how some nations are implementing effective nation wide reforms to increase student achievement and close persistent achievement gaps.  Unlike nations struggling to lead successful reform (America and Australia), nations showing significant success (Finland and Canada) cultivate intrinsic motivation and maintain a laser-like focus on effective instructional practices.  The leaders of these nations target resources and energy on the right drivers of systemic change – capacity building (vs accountability), group quality (vs individual quality), instruction (vs technology), and systemic change (vs fragmented) – while other nations stumble due to focusing on the wrong drivers.  Fullan is careful to point out that the wrong drivers are not bad and are indeed often necessary for effective change to take place.  The difference is that successful whole system reform requires a clear focus of priority on the right drivers. 

So what does Fullan’s 30,000 foot analysis mean to education leaders on the ground in our schools and districts grinding out change classroom by classroom?  The research behind this article serves as the road map – or that nice voice inside the GPS – guiding our decisions at each fork in the road.  It is clear in Fullan’s writing that he understands our work is full of nuance, and how we do our work is a demonstration of our priorities and values.  The leadership recipe we create through development of policy, goal setting, creating improvement and professional development plans, and school or district budgets must clearly reflect giving high priority to the right drivers.  To do otherwise would be an intentional effort to ignore what research tells us about improving education across the whole system.  This education leader refuses to follow that path. 

What values and priorities do the decisions in ISD191 reflect?  How are capacity building, group quality, focusing on instruction, and systems alignment reflected in our strategic plans, school plans, and routine behaviors?  While we can’t necessarily control the focus of our state and national legislators, we can make sure that our own work and decisions place priority on the right drivers to improve student achievement.  Recent decisions or efforts that reflect a focus on these drivers include:

  • Creating a Curriculum Management System that will drive our work on the written, taught, and assessed curriculum
  • Furthering our work on the scope and sequence and beginning the process of writing curriculum guides
  • Aligning the district integration and Q-comp plans – and the supporting staff structure – to drive professional development (capacity building & systemic change)
  • Administrative instructional rounds that focus on instruction and increase the capacity of administrators to lead alignment work (build capacity and focus on instruction)
  • Implementation of building leadership teams, aligned to a district leadership team, that are responsible for improvement and professional development plans (systemic change & building capacity)
  • Changing the Q-comp goal setting structure to insist upon team, course, or grade level student achievement goals (group quality)
  • Some schools are doing instructional rounds with staff (focus on instruction & building capacity)
  • Discussions about partnering with a few other districts to create a process/structure for inter-district instructional rounds (focus on instruction & building capacity)
  • Realignment of special education services, district technology, the human resources department, teaching & learning staff, and transportation/operations to improve services and reduce costs
  • Professional development for principals on Professional Learning Communities and clarifying expectations regarding their leadership role (group quality, building capacity & systemic change)
  • Beginning plans to implement an ELL program review in 2011-12 and develop a comprehensive program plan (systemic change & focus on instruction)
  • Further developing a PD Academy for all staff that will target job specific skills and concepts (build capacity)
  • Requiring research based interventions for struggling learners at all grade levels including a system to measure and report results (systemic change & focus on instruction)
  • Embracing the need for more meaningful teacher leadership (systemic change & capacity building)

If indeed the research Fullan has captured is a proven route that delivers on the goal we are all striving to reach, how can we defend not paying attention to it?  The critical work of educating all children at high levels cannot be left to doing what has always been done, what is easiest, what is most efficient, or what a few individuals think is the right answer based upon some experience.  My experience is rich, varied and important in my own mind, but I certainly don’t weigh it heavier than a thorough base of research that covers instructional and leadership practices across the globe.  I encourage all education leaders to take some time to read Fullan’s April article as it sheds a great deal of light on our work – both local and national.  So where are you on this map and where are you headed?

3 Comments Post a comment
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