At 7:49a this morning a cheering and very large group of scientists and engineers and children of the man who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, gathered up the road from my house at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics lab to count down the exact moment that the New Horizons spacecraft would comes closest to the dwarf planet Pluto and its moons, taking pictures and collecting data as it whizzes past to give us a glimpse and knowledge into worlds that are foreign to me in just about every single way. This event and what it entailed, what it will provide, has been the topic of conversation at our house for years. My husband works at the Applied Physics Laboratory and each night for as long as I can remember he has updated our four children on the countdown and the miles to go until July 14, 2015. Two years ago, last year, even six months ago, the updates seemed tedious, too far out to be interesting. 

Today, though, was spectacular. 

I appreciate the vastness of space, the people who study and pursue it. I can spot a constellation on a clear night, make a wish on a twinkling star and wonder, oh do I wonder "what you are." But I certainly don't have the qualifications or much knowledge to discuss space on even a general level. If I'm honest, I feel uncomfortable, intimidated, and way out of my league to be writing about it here, now.  Except that this morning, while I watched all the people cheering and counting down around the world in the spectacular-ness of it all, it occurred to me that there were probably many days, most days, that were not spectacular for these people at all. I bet there were a lot of tedious moments, boring meetings, maybe even some doubt and second-guessing about strategy and approach. But still the team--and they very much refer to themselves as a team--persisted, pursued. They did that boring, hard, tedious work to get to the moment we all celebrated this morning. They met, they reviewed, the assessed, they monitored, they adjusted, repositioned. They improved and persevered in small, tedious, patient steps. I do know something about that. All of us in education know something about that. We know about going slow to go fast. We get the constant assessment of resources, the reallocation of them, the collection of data and analysis of it, the shifting of people and practices because of it, to ensure that districts and schools and the people in them are operating efficiently and especially operating effectively. We work to see that they get better with every tick of the clock. We may not launch spacecrafts into space and there aren't many countdowns in school improvement work, but we have an idea about what it takes...and the clock is always ticking. And those who do build and launch spacecrafts? Well, we aren't so far removed from them. After all, they were students in a school once.

New Horizons launched 9.5 years ago, that is 3,463 days ago on a cold day in January 2006. We were about a year into the launch of a school improvement initiative at the district I worked in. Prior to this initiative, all the schools in the district (about 70 total) received the same staffing ratio's, the same type of central office support. All principals met monthly to talk about the same administrative items, receive the same kind of professional development updates. Whether high achieving or low achieving, the only difference in support, services, and structures provided was determined by their level--elementary, middle, or high. We knew we needed to differentiate by more than the grade levels they served so we started to personalize support and structures for schools the same way we expected them to personalize learning for students. 

The successful launch of this initiative required a lot of hard thinking, simulation of options, lots of data, and review of research. We didn't have Indistar then (it would have helped) but we met to work out the hard stuff and how it would be communicated a lot. And when I say "we", I mean a cross-functional group of educators at the central office with decision-making authority--administrative directors (supervised principals in the schools); curriculum directors (supervised the development of curriculum and delivery of instructional work in the district); director of human resources, special education and family and community outreach; director of student services and of assessment and program evaluation.  

There were so many great elements to this initiative (which didn't get warm reception at first by the way--the participating low-achieving schools felt picked on until they quickly realized that they were getting the best of research and practice and impressive results to go along with it, which then caused the high-achieving schools to feel left out). 

But the elements that relate to this post on space travel and teams and tedious, hard work is the VISION, the STRUCTURES, and the FOLLOW-UP that were the spokes to the wheels of this movement.

  1. We believed that every school could and wanted to get better. We realized that we hadn't provided them with the personalized support that getting better required. We changed how we operated so that we could support schools change how they operated. We didn't just talk and require, we changed and solicited too, continuously.
  2. That went a long way in building trust and collegiality, especially once they saw consistent and supportive action and timely follow-through on what we said that we would do and in response to what they said they needed. Communication was two-way, up and down, and across. We listened, we led, we prioritized, we actionalized, we assessed, continuously, and together.
  3. We established clear specifications for entering and exiting the initiative. The use of multiple data points and student performance indicators left no guess work for who was in or what it took to get out. It clued us in on what needed to change that day, that week, that meeting, overall. We used data of all kinds (but well thought out) to make our decisions, to reassess, to change course. 
  4. We altered reporting structures and held meetings sacred--principals of participating schools met bi-weekly with their administrative director AND the deputy superintendent; they met weekly with their central office support team (at their school). In all meetings, the focus was on the implementation of specific, defined practices in the following areas: instructional, organizational, professional development, leadership, and parent and community involvement. At first, these meetings seemed tedious, one more thing to do. But in a very short time, because they were action-focused and improvement-driven, the meetings themselves became a very real professional learning experience. We always walked away with more information and insight about what worked under what conditions, where we might focus more on this and less on that, the unplanned detour that ended up being the game-changer. 

We didn't realize it right away, but over time, we became a high-functioning team. We all did our different parts to move each of the eleven schools that were in improvement out of improvement--but beneath that, we built the capacity of principals and teachers to drive their own improvement--to look at data and ask questions and make changes that were never too late. And beneath that were the students whose learning was improving, whose understanding was growing, whose interest in space or medicine or agriculture or entrepreneurialism or auto mechanics was connecting and sparking. The days were tedious and long with no countdown to a spectacular moment to guide us. Only the knowledge that we could get better. The belief that we had to get better. The perseverance to keep getting better even when it felt like we weren't.

When I think back on that time and on many times since in working with districts and schools to improve, I can't think of one spectacular moment. I can think of many. 

Additional Information

I was mid-way through this post when Sam Redding's email flashed on my screen announcing Indistar's work in districts and schools. How appropriate! Check out the documents they've created to help guide district and school improvement with Indistar.

District Indicators

School Indicators

Learn more about New Horizons here (with lessons and interactive experiences) and here (which describes the mission and what went into it). 

Call to Action

What have been your experiences with successful school improvement? What tedious moments have you found most important to the process? What spectacular ones can you share?

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