Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Creating A Sense Of Urgency

In the book The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence, Richard Sagor & Deborah Rickey detail the work of Dealous Cox, superintendent of the West Linn-Wilsonville School District near Portland, Oregon. It is the story of the role of leadership in school improvement; more specifically, it tracks 30 years of impressive results using strategies of personal reflection and community. I highly recommend the book, a fairly quick read at less than 200 pages.

It is hard to pick out just one passage that is striking, but I'll give it a try:
Where there is general satisfaction with the current level of performance, no one feels a compelling reason to alter professional practice. When there is satisfaction with the status quo, people should be expected to continue to operate in essentially the same manner, which should be expected to produce essentially the same outcomes.
Of course, things are quite different when the status quo is considered unacceptable. In circumstances where an organization has articulated a goal of relentlessly pursuing excellence, then maintaining a culture supportive of change along with rich opportunities for meaningful and continuous professional learning becomes essential.
My sense is that it is easier to have a sense of urgency and take risks if you are in a system where a majority (or all) believe it is failing kids, and even more so if there has been some sort of rating assigned or action taken by the state. But where is the sense of urgency to improve and innovate within a good system? How do we motivate ourselves (and our community) to reject a status quo that is "good," or even "above average"? 

To answer my questions, I turned to some extraordinarily bright educational leaders...

Stephanie Hirsh, Kay Psencik, and Frederick Brown suggest that an internal assessment of current reality is the way in which to begin to "release" ourselves from the powerful forces that maintain the status quo. Along the continuum of strongly agree, agree, no opinion, disagree, and strongly disagree, the authors encourage us to assess these statements:

Our school district has embraced a vision and mission for professional learning.
Our school district has adopted a formal definition of professional learning.
Our school district leaders align their advocacy and practice to the district vision, mission, and definition of professional learning.
Every educator in our district engages in effective professional learning every day so that every student achieves.
Professional learning in our schools occurs primarily within learning communities committed to continuous improvement.
 Michael Fullan asserts that it is about focusing on the right "drivers":
1. Capacity building, not negative accountability;
2. Teamwork, not individualistic strategies;
3. Pedagogy, not technology; and
4. Systems, not ad hoc policies.
Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Ian Pumpian use a different approach, one that focuses on reflection and culture. They seek to be the best school in the universe, and recognize that comparison must go beyond their own school or district: 
best school in the universe requires that we expand that window and compare our performance to our dream organization. We have to ask ourselves, "What is the best school I can ever imagine, the school I would want my children to attend, and did we live up to that today?"
There are many other educational leaders who also have a variety of answers to the questions I posed; these are but a few.

Join the conversation...
What are your thoughts on moving a good, above average, or even impressive school even higher? How do we encourage educators to "swim upstream" and innovate when current results are accepted?

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Another great education-specific read on this subject is Good to Great to Innovate.

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