Learning Organizations: Schools are not businesses, non-profit organizations, or governments.

This piece was written in November of 2011.

Having a background in corporate America and coming from two entrepreneurial parents has given me a unique perspective working inside a government organization.  I have clear grasp of the “business perspective” and what is involved being successful in that arena.  I have clear understandings of things like “overhead,” “financials,” “cash flow,” “reserves,” “profit,” “the client’ or “the customer,” “customer service,” “customer satisfaction,” “customer support,” “the customer is always right,” “operations,” “inventory,” and “product” or “service quality.”  Having worked in various roles in churches, I also have a firm grasp of what is involved in motivating “volunteer” workers.  There are many variables involved in all three settings (corporate, private business, & religious organizations.)  While many of these ideas may be adjusted and applied to the school setting, clearly, schools are none of these things.  They are even different from a typical government agency.  What they do have in common with government is bureaucratic structure.  While I am in favor of applying some ideas to the school setting, we must be very careful in doing so and ensure that the ideas are appropriately adapted.

Schlechty (2009) poised the idea that schools are often operated like factories, warehouses, and/or prisons.  In many ways he has appropriately applied these analogies, and underscores the point that they are NOT functioning in the best way possible both practically or philosophically.  Many good teachers are handicapped by the current bureaucracy.  Many principals have other priorities such as meeting AYP instead of leading true reform or transformation initiatives that are needed to make schools true learning organizations.  There are a significant number of teachers who lack the initiative or desire to improve themselves or their instructional skills and mindsets to become more effective teachers.  The many school-improvement fads many have impaired their ability to realize the need for continued professional growth & development.  Regardless, most teachers need continual development despite the frustrations they have developed from so many short-lived initiatives.  That being stated, many teachers would not be receptive to the transformation motif presented by Schlechty because it is revolutionary in nature and would demand acceptance of an entirely new paradigm in education.  Many teachers would likely be resistant to that level of change.  Having admitted that doesn’t diminish the necessity of bringing about needed transformation.

The concept of transforming schools from bureaucratic agencies into learning organizations seems to be an odd task.  One would assume that a school is already a learning organization.  Philosophically, yes, but not in practice.  As Schlechty pointed out, schools lack the flexibility and autonomy to adjust their focus/framework from producing frequently tested, “standardized” students to developing creative/critical thinkers and problem solvers who are prepared to engage their tasks and communities.  The benefits of restructuring schools & classrooms to create engaging, student-centered, learning communities would have dynamic and meaningful results in several regards.

However, despite the potential & probable benefits of Schlecty’s transformation framework, there are important challenges to consider.  Indeed school transformation is needed, but until those given the task to lead change and those involved in the actual change itself reach synergy, they will have difficulty becoming learning organizations.  The first challenge is related to the public and political mindset.  “Out with the old and In with the new” becomes difficult when tradition has established the bureaucratic principles currently in place.  These control mechanisms will not relinquish themselves without a fight.  Secondly, this requires a new paradigm for curricular design and most teachers are not proficient in creating the necessary design elements.  Much training will be necessary.  A third challenge will be in transforming students from the current model of educating to a new model in which they take much more personal responsibility for their engagement, their participation, their products, and their outcomes.  They are used to the traditional methods and will need to adapt to the new model.  A fourth idea involves accountability.  I don’t think most teachers are against being held accountable for their work.  They are at issue with the lack of accountability of students and parents.  All three participants must be engaged to assure students success, not just the teacher.

Schlechty provided a great deal of information in part one of his book.  I found myself agreeing with him quite often.  I like that he underscored that students have changed.  Students have evolved.  Adults and parents are no longer the primary sources of information for kids.  Technology has proliferated our society in dynamic ways.  Additionally, visual media has become a primary means to gain student attention.  A seminal neuroscientist and scholar, Richard Restak M.D., substantiates much of what Schlechty poses as the basis for schools needing to reorient themselves.  Restak (2003) has done considerable research on the brain and how it continues to evolve.  He found that the advent of technology (computers, internet, personal data devices, cell phones, etc.) and extreme increases in visually stimulated communication (internet, television, video games, etc.) has accelerated the brain’s ability to adapt and process multiple, sensory rich stimuli.  Essentially, he states that the human brain is evolving at a quicker rate than was previously necessary.  He proposes two important educational challenges for school.  First, he suggests that children will require a greater sensory rich/technology enhanced environment in the classroom.  Secondly, the intense competition for attention has caused a decrease in children’s ability to sustain attention for long periods of time.  This translates to higher diagnosis of ADHD in children and implies the need to modify educational instruction in ways that avoid the problems that often arise from students who are unable to maintain sustained attention (2003).  Restak’s research substantiates Schlechty’s propositions in terms of recognizing that students have evolved, that students are much more technology dependent than ever before, and that schools must evolve to meet the individual and collective needs of their clientele.

Without writing a book here, let me make one more case for the sheer size of change that is required for learning organizations to evolve from their prior bureaucratic forms.  To substantiate Schechty’s transformational framework, I searched for other evidence in peer-reviewed educational journals.  Alma Harris (2010), presented a study on the progress of leading a “tri-level” reform movement in Wales, England.  The emphasis in the reform, “The School Effectiveness Framework,” was to change schools from a government-focused enterprise to a learning-oriented enterprise.  The reform postulated that change must occur at all levels –the local level, system level, and state level—and that the intense use of professional learning communities (PLCs) would cause a mindset/mental shift in educators toward a more student-focused learning environment.  Like Schlechty, she found that PLCs were vital in effecting and sustaining transformation inside schools.  Her final analysis suggested difficulties in maintaining consistency in the reform at all levels.  Educator participation began to wane, and system level and state level reforms were met with challenges that slowed the progress of reform.  What Schlechty is proposing is a major paradigm shift for schools.  I agree with the need for transformation.  However, we must evaluate the feasibility of engaging in the transformation and the means to attaining it.  There are inherent challenges that will hinder or prevent success unless resolute adoption of the framework occurs at all levels of participation (educators, administration, systems, states, and other public and national political levels.)

References

Harris, A., (2010).  Leading system transformation.  School Leadership and Management, 30 (3).  197-207.

Restak, R., (2003).  The new brain:  How the modern age is rewriting your mind.  Emmaus, PA:  Rodale.

Schlechty, P., (2009).  Leading for learning:  How to transform schools into learning organizations.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossy-Bass.

 

Thoughts on Common Core 12/4/2011

This piece was originally written in December of 2011.

The adoption of Common Core Standards has been a topic of issue with the introduction of Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RttT) educational funding initiative.  Of course, there are many other issues involved, but this issue has some educators scratching their collective heads.  While I believe the standards movement needs to be reinvented in ways that I’m not sure I fully understand, the current efforts are clearly an attempt to reform the American education system.

The essential idea behind the creation of Common Core Standards is to make standards uniform across the country.  Given that we have 50 states in our nation, historically, each state was required to develop content standards for each content area taught in public school systems within each state.  While it is important that educators (and students) identify the specific content knowledge and skills necessary for proficiency/mastery of each content area, the leading driver of this “standards movement” was and has always been driven by federal mandates tied to federal funds.  As an extension of that movement, the collective wisdom of current educational policy-makers is that a “common” set of content standards would bring equality and consistency to each state.  And, RttT requires universal adoption of these common standards for the opportunity to apply for additional federal funding.

There is certainly nothing wrong with having common standards in a common country.  Some may argue that standards could or even should be unique as they reflect the varying cultural diversity of our country.  And while that may have some merit in specific content areas (art, music, history, etc.) that is unlikely to be the case for the four primary academic areas (LA. MA, SS, SC.)  The first Common Core Standards to be implemented are Math and English-Language Arts.  One would be hard pressed to argue against having a uniform standard in these content areas.  One might argue that these standards could be too difficult for some groups, or too easy for other groups.  However, this is likely unrelated to geographic location or cultural group as much as it is traditional/historical precedent of what states or parochial districts determined to be appropriate content standards for their populations.  In the 21st century, this thinking must be changed.

Common Core Standards must focus on objective academic content.  Policy-makers should be careful to develop and implement core standards in consideration of local populations.  Perry (2009) reminded us of five key concepts to consider when developing common standards.  They are:  Diversity, Participation, Cohesion, Choice, and Equality.  Common standards should reflect achievable academic criterion for all students.  Standards should be accessible by all students regardless of cultural background; they should be developed by a diverse group that is reflective of the population; they should connect logically; they should allow for choice in how proficiency is demonstrated; and they should support educational equality for all students (Perry, 2009).

The purpose of Common Core Standards is to produce students with the necessary academic abilities to be successful in college.  Easley, II (2011) presented compelling information that standards themselves are much less a factor of student success/achievement than are other factors.  He states:

Data from this study seem to support the notion that the highly politicized achievement gap is exacerbated by a parallel gap in access to the vital social and economic resources needed to advance a large-scale and sustainable jump in academic attainment among racial minority and low income student populations (Easley II, p. 232.)

He suggested that content standards have much less of an impact on student success than do quality curricular resources and both the presence and consistency of student instruction by experienced teachers.  Thus, we should acknowledge that although common core standards may level the field in terms of criterion consistency across state lines, they do not guarantee the elimination of achievement gaps nor do they promise that schools will automatically improve after their adoption.

The present educational policy-makers brought forth a common core curriculum to help ensure that every student has the skills needed to be successful as they begin a career or enter college.  They believe that by reforming the standards movement to include the addition of uniform content standards, that schools, educators, and parents will “know what they need to do to help them” achieve those standards and attain future success (NEA, Common Core Standards).  This goal, as in other reform initiatives, supports the aim to improve schools and instructional practices in ways that help produce students who are academically prepared for higher education or immediate employment.  While a reform of this measure may provide some clarity to content standards in a geo-political sense, it is not a radical change or transformation of what schools teach or how they teach it.

 

References

Easley II, J. (2011).  What do students know anyway? High school graduates’ examination of standards and the responses of expert educators for educational equity.  Improving Schools 14.  223-238.  DOI: 10.1177/1365480211422285

National Education Association (2011).  Common core state standards.  Retrieved from:  http://www.nea.org/home/46653.htm

Perry, L. (2009).  Conceptualizing education policy in democratic societies.  Educational Policy 23.  423-450.  DOI: 10.1177/0895904807310032