I’m constantly amazed at the number of items that appear in my inbox and social media feeds on a daily/weekly basis that attempt to address the topics of change and innovation in schools. Well meaning and certainly qualified authors post and share articles with titles like “10 Characteristics for Innovation…”, “5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About…”, as if changing the status quo can happen by checking off boxes on a checklist.
It isn’t that easy.
Based on my experiences, it starts with a personal commitment to fundamental change. Second Order change, if I may use that term. Not First Order change, which is usually what I read about. Simplistic definition for those of you not familiar with the terms: First Order change (strategies) – things like smaller classes, site-based councils, 90 minute teaching blocks, small learning communities, and teaching teams with common planning. Things that exist within the status quo. Second Order change (philosophies) – things like changing relationships and teaching philosophies, collaborative ownership,extended teaching and learning opportunities, new interactions/relationships, and coordinated focused curriculum and instruction. Things that exist outside the status quo.
A somewhat poor analogy in these changing times, the difference between doing things right and doing the right things.
What follows is a paper I wrote in 1993 for a class I was taking to earn my Superintendent of Schools endorsement from Colorado State University. My attitudes have not changed since this was written.
At the time, I was Superintendent of a rather small, rural school district in Southern Colorado. Our demographics were rather unique, 95% of our students qualified for free/reduced meals, 85% were Hispanic surname, we were definitely a minority-majority district. As part of a settlement of a lawsuit in Federal court in the mid-1980’s, every student new to the district was required to take a language assessment screener to determine home language, upon which we had to base further instruction. Based on that screener, approximately 10% of our entering students in a given year did not speak any language proficiently enough to consider it a home language.
Our parents had the same hopes, dreams and aspirations for their children as did parents in the most affluent districts. In order to achieve them, we had to change the rules of the game. The playing field was not leveled to benefit our kids.
The following was my crossing of the Rubicon:
“Professionally, we spend a great deal of time trying to “identify ourselves,” and use that knowledge as a foundation for further professional growth. As was probably obvious (during a classroom discussion), I have become somewhat frustrated because where I have “found myself” professionally is very much at odds with the general system of public education in which I work. As core beliefs, I believe”
1. We teach children, not a subject area or grade level;
2. Every child comes to school with the desire to achieve and be successful;
3. As a teacher, I control the classroom conditions which determine student success or failure; and
4. Since I control the conditions, I am responsible for the success and failures of my students in my classroom.
However, there are inherent constraints within the system which make if difficult to effect significant, positive change. We need to start asking the fundamental questions about what we do and more importantly, why we are doing it. Activities which run counter to organizational objectives are often seen as “perpetuating the bureaucracy” rather than the system impediments they are. It would be nice if Collective Bargaining Agreements and Accountability Reports shared a common Table of Contents. We have paid so much lip service to “restructuring” and “change”, yet we do so little beyond the rhetoric. At what point will we start doing what we have been talking about? As long as we stop just with the rhetoric, we will continue to “do things right.” When we start questioning the fundamentals and aligning our systems’ activities and objectives, only then will we start “doing the right things.”
As I mentioned in class, I believe it is time to tear at least part of the system down, and I am at a point where my core beliefs are being challenged and the question being raised at the personal level is whether or not I am willing to make the sacrifices necessary to “do the right things.” I guess the gut check is whether I will, in essence, sell out professionally to protect what has become a very comfortable lifestyle for my wife and family. Put another way, am I hungry enough to challenge the system or too fat and comfortable to want to change. I am reminded of the film “Teachers” and the conflict between the assistant principal who has been prostituted into the system and the teacher who challenges it. I sincerely believe that the harder you work at something, the harder it is to see it fail. But I am wondering if it is worth staying in the system if restructuring stays at the rhetorical level. Effective change cannot happen from outside the system, but will the system allow it to happen from within? In a nutshell, I passionately want the system to work and want to be part of it. But am I willing to place my family on a sacrificial alter in order to achieve a set of professional goals?”
As for the rest of the story, I took the plunge, went all in, and risk my life and career to to the right things, not necessarily doing them right. I had reached my limit of attending meetings and conferences where we talked a lot about things that should happen, but never did. And we have all attended too many of them. In the fall of 1993, we initiated the Student Centered School Project in that district, which included an immersion into technology enhanced curriculum and instruction, with the requisite staff development. An uncommon event in 1993. Two years later, we were a Founding District of the Virtual High School Global Consortium, and helped invent the model of virtual school currently in use in nearly every state in the US. We changed the rules of how the game is played. And at the same time, using the Colorado Board of Education Accreditation Guidelines in place at the time, we went from being one of the lowest performing districts in Colorado to becoming one of the highest, particularly among minority-majority districts.
The hopes, dreams and aspirations of our parents for their children were becoming reality.
My point is simple, fundamental, lasting change cannot be accomplished with the help of a checklist. It requires a deep, personal commitment to make a difference, the willingness to fail greatly with your career on the line. To light your professional path by the light of the bridges you burn along the way. First Order change cannot be confused with innovation, however comfortable it makes us feel. Second Order change, what our profession and our students are crying out for, cannot happen in the course of a school year, and cannot be described in 240 characters.
More of the same, only louder, is no more acceptable today than it was in 1993. How many of us are willing to step up and give us the future, rather than just talk about it?
And so it goes…