"Can you fix education?"

Hank Green has an interesting post this week entitled: You Can't Fix Education.  He is making the case that education is so fundamentally complex and dynamically local that it is not reasonable to believe that one grand, overarching scheme will improve teaching and learning across the nation.  He writes: The problem is, education in America is sub-optimal because it is an impossible thing to optimize. It necessarily has to be local because different schools face different problems. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. You can’t innovate your way into the kind of traditional cost-savings the internet brings because, ultimately, you need TONS of high skilled employees…teachers. And teachers are expensive despite actually being cheaper than they should be.  He also writes: Classrooms are not sexy, but they work.

 Is he right? If we affirm that education is complex, does that imply that we lose urgency about improvement?  In Change Leadership: Innovation in State Education Agencies, Sam Redding cites the Heath brother to affirm that change leadership requires both high aspiration and command of the complexity: It is worth noting that innovation primarily means people doing things differently and thinking about their work in a new way. So innovation is change in behavior. Heath and Heath (2010) describe both the psychological and practical groundwork that must be laid by leaders for constructive change. Many leaders pride themselves on setting high level direction: I’ll set the vision and stay out of the details. It’s true that a compelling vision is critical. But it’s not enough. Big-picture, hands-off leadership isn’t likely to work in a change situation, because the hardest part of change—the paralyzing part—is precisely in the details.

A few years ago, we published a brief paper: Indistar, the Once and Future Innovation.  In it, we addressed the importance of incremental innovation- at the local level- to help our schools be places where the fundamental complexity of educating scores of kids is made artful by teams of educators, aspiring to a provide a great learning environment for students and adults by putting the necessary components into place.  We wrote:

 What was innovative about Indistar in the first place?

  • The Internet was the tool, the vehicle, but not the innovation.
  • Believing that the people closest to the students are best positioned to direct the improvement of their schools was not a new idea.
  • Neither was collaborative planning by a Leadership Team.
  • Nor a focus on professional practices as the chief drivers of improved learning. A continuous improvement process rather than a static annual plan made too much common sense to be truly innovative
  • Coaching the Leadership Team in the improvement process was, well, old hat.
  • Convenient access to research and practice briefs and video demonstrations of effective practice are, by now, standard fare.

What was innovative about Indistar was that it efficiently packaged all these good ideas into one system, and connected the state, district, and school for real-time interaction. Inertia, entropy, and other words that describe a system’s tendency toward stagnation, plague Indistar as much as any other system. Success with Indistar depends upon how it is used. If the principal is accustomed to “going it alone,” he may skip the part about a collaborative Leadership Team and just enter stuff he thinks the state will like to see. If data-based decision making means looking at student outcomes a dozen more times without looking at the professional practices that produce the outcomes, then evidence of the full implementation of effective practices becomes an annoying distraction. If coaches rely on their personal charm and informal interactions with a few folks at the school, while avoiding focused attention to the Leadership Team’s evolving and documented work, then so much for innovation in coaching. If the state accepts submission of a required report as “good enough,” without feedback on the quality of the work, then “good enough” becomes the standard. If straight-forward, plain language indicators of effective practice become overshadowed by jargon-riddled, compliance ridden, bureaucratic checklists, then we have missed the point. Get the picture? The initial innovation of Indistar was a packaging of several ingredients for district and school improvement. Like a gourmet recipe on the Food Channel, leave out an ingredient and the cake will flop. Getting better at standard practice is incremental improvement. With Indistar, we all have plenty of room for incremental improvement with the basic ingredients of the package. Just the right amount of flour, and not too much sugar. That is not really innovation. But it is something we all must do; it is the code of the professional.

We were on to something.  What do you think?

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