Wait for Superman or Build Transformation Teams?by Mark Willis 4 Comments October 27, 2010
A solution to transform public education
Last week I had the privilege of being one of three speakers in the TEDx session at the NSBA Technology and Learning Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The first speaker, Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow addressed the importance of listening to students about how they want to learn in the 21st Century. The second speaker, visionary Dr. David Thornburg, explored new possibilities for project-based learning through technology and challenged the thinking for school facilities. It was then left up to me to address how school boards and superintendents address those priorities in light of today’s challenging economy.
If you are not familiar with TED Talks, I would highly recommend you check it out at www.ted.com. It actually stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Their mission is “spreading ideas”. Guest speakers are challenged to give the “talk of their life” in 18 minutes. A link to the video of the session is at the end of the article but here is a summary of my comments.
In my 15+ years of working with school boards, superintendents and administrators, the overarching thing I have observed is that the vast majority of people in education have chosen do so for one primary reason…To Make a Difference. It has both humbled and inspired me to be around such amazing people. While everyone wants to make a difference, the problem is that not everyone can agree on what is the “right” way to do it.
Random vs. Systemic Excellence
We see and hear about examples of excellence occurring in our public schools all the time. My guess is that you could look at every school district in the country and identify “random” acts of excellence. You know what I am talking about…the teacher that defies the odds in his/her classroom or the school that does extraordinary things despite money, socio-economic or other obstacles. What is harder to find though is systemic excellence that is pervasive throughout the entire district.
Thus, the realization that we CAN do better and we MUST do better if we are to achieve the vision of transforming public education to provide every child an equitable and excellent education that prepares them for college, career and life.
There are a lot of challenges that can hinder our ability to achieve this vision of transforming public education. This is not an exhaustive list but I think it does hit on some of the major issues that significantly impact our ability to provide an equitable and excellent education for every child.
While money is not THE solution, we cannot deny that money does matter. With a down economy, public schools have been cut to the bone. Furloughing teachers and reducing the number of days of instruction are not going to help us achieve our vision.
- Federal Mandates
For better or worse, the Federal Government is more involved in public education than ever before. Federal mandates restrict local boards of education from having flexibility to do what they may know is best for the children in their district.
- State Mandates
States all across the country exert a great deal of control over how public schools are to be run. State mandates can also further restrict a local district’s flexibility to do what they may know is right for kids.
- Local Issues
Unfortunately, we know that sometimes the greatest challenges occur locally. These problems can range from…
- Dysfunctional Boards of Education
- Bureaucratic Administrations
- Teachers who are not passionate about kids and/or are resistant to change
- Disengaged and/or unsupportive parents
- Special interest groups
While all of the challenges listed above are real, they are not the biggest challenge. Actually, what I believe is the greatest challenge to achieving that systemic excellence is also the greatest opportunity to achieve it. So what is it?
If we know that we are not completely happy with where we are now in public education, then the only way to make it better is to CHANGE. Change is not easy. It often results in both winners and losers.
Today, you cannot get into a discussion about the future of public education without hearing the word REFORM or TRANSFORM. Let’s look at the definition of these two words.
Reform – to change to a better state, form, etc.; improve by alteration, substitution, abolition, etc.
Transform – to change in form, appearance, or structure; metamorphose.
Note the first two words in both are…”to change”.
So what’s the solution? How do we turn these challenges into opportunities so that we CAN transform public education?
Well some would say that our only hope is to…“wait for Superman”. Well, I have another idea. We don’t need Superman, but we do need Transformers. More than just Transformers, we need Transformation Teams. The good news is that they actually already exist in every school district in the country. Granted not all of these teams are currently operating as Transformation Teams, but I do believe that these teams are in the MOST strategic position to transform public education. So who are they and why are they the ones to do it?
Transformation Teams = Local Boards of Education and School Superintendents
I can hear some of you now…Have you seen our board? Do you know our superintendent? There is no way these people could transform our public education system.
Well, I believe they can and here is why…
- School Boards ARE the democratic representation of the community and ARE charged with a legal responsibility to ensure all children in their community have the opportunity to achieve an equitable and excellent education.
- Superintendent’s serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the district.
- They set the policies and procedures that govern the district.
- They approve the allocation and expenditure of district resources.
- They serve as the chief advocates for children at the local, state and national level.
Culture of Excellence
So how do these Transformation Teams turn these challenges into opportunities and turn this vision into reality? By building a Culture of EXCELLENCE. Culture can be defined in its simplest form as….
The way things are done around here. (Gruenert, 2008)
Since every organization already has a culture, it cannot be just any culture. No, it must be a Culture of Excellence.
You know the saying…”leadership starts at the top”. Well, Transformation Teams are the only ones who can create a culture of excellence that is pervasive throughout the ENTIRE district.
So if local boards of education and superintendents are the right ones to do it and we believe that it can happen through creating a culture of excellence, the next question is how do they do it? Well, I would like to offer 5 simple, but difficult, steps for Transformation Teams to build this Culture of Excellence. You may want to note that all of these can be done with little to no money, but they do take a significant investment of time.
- Engage Stakeholders – This is not an event. It is a continuous process and don’t do it if you are not prepared to listen and act on what you hear.
- Plan Strategically – Again, this is not an event. It is a continuous process and ties back to the first step.
- Align Resources - If you engage, listen and plan, then you must align everything you do to your plan. Yes, your policies and procedures, your evaluations (board, superintendent, administrators and teachers), your meetings, your budget, etc.
- Advocate for Children – Be passionate spokespeople for kids not only at the local, but also at the state and national level. Education is not just local, it’s global!
- Model Excellence – actually if you do steps 1 – 4 successfully then you have already done step 5. Transformation Teams must model excellence in everything that they do. It will raise the bar of expectations for all stakeholders.
What is it going to take?
That’s simple, it going to take Leadership, Leadership AND Leadership! I will point out though two important leadership qualities that must exist for Transformation Teams to truly transform public education. Those are…
Your team must have the WILL to do it. You know the saying, “where there’s a WILL, there’s a way”.
Your team must also have COURAGE. As I said, change is not easy and not everyone will like it or be for it. The question is…will you stand firm for change if you know it’s in the best interest of children.
In the end, it’s all about Priorities. How often does your Transformation Team talk about yours?
I love the line from the movie “Field of Dreams”…”if you build it they will come”.
Let’s build the best public education system in the world. If we build it, they will come!
To watch a video of the complete TEDx session at NSBA T+L, click HERE. Mark’s part is about the 51 minutes “mark!”
Also, check out the work that is already underway in Georgia by a team of Transformers (local school boards and superintendents) to transform public education. http://www.visionforpubliced.org.
Categories: Accountability, Evaluations, Leadership, Planning, Strategic Plan, TransparencyTags: accountability, administration, assessment, board, education, evaluation, governance, improvement, improvement plan, leadership, model, paperless, strategic plan, superintendent, technology