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It Takes a Village to Improve Education

2010/09/27

Improving education is one of the hardest undertakings imaginable.  Why?  Because it is such a complex system – a whole village of stakeholders, with differing authority, needs, capabilities, resources and preferences.  Further, these actors usually hold an unrecognized and unquestioned set of assumptions about “education” based in their own past experience. Add to this the incomplete and sometimes confounding measures of educational system performance with accompanying rewards and you have a very difficult system to change.

Earlier blog postings in this series have given us snapshots of formal and informal educational experiences. Some of these stories were ones of success – but outside of the “support” the educational system was intended to provide as in Clarissa’s posting on STEM Education, Teens, and Team Action Learning.  David in It Happened One Day – A Diverse High School Succeeds looked carefully at his own successful experiences, picking up on Clarissa’s theme of the importance of learning as a social act, but suggesting the limits of an educational system that may emphasize the rules and prescriptions of typical curricula and educational systems. Finally, Tom shared his views as a student and particularly a school administrator, of the challenges of school reform in The Problem of Education: can a 19th century model succeed in a 21st century world? Again Tom raises the  importance of creating a different orientation to teaching and learning than society currently endorses.

In this month’s the lead-off article, I dun ben edgakaytid , Joseph sketched out many of the unintended impacts of our complex, unclear educational system – from its impact on children, to teachers, to administrators, to society at large.  In one of his stories, Joseph told of his experience as a math teacher who found a new way to engage the students (one stakeholder), but lost the support of a parent and then the administrator of his school (two other stakeholders).  Had his experiment continued, he likely would have been challenged by the math education establishment to stay within the curricula, and make sure the student’s were able to pass the mandated standardized tests.

One recent, well-documented (and entertaining) example of the difficulty of school change was presented in the television series with top chef Jamie Oliver: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  He went to a small city in West Virginia with the intent of helping them create a school lunch program that would serve more healthy food.    Over a series of months he had to engage every different stakeholder from the kitchen staff, to the students, parents, and eventually even the federal authorities responsible for food subsidies and nutrition standards (standards which defined ketchup as a serving of vegetables!)  Along the way, he built support by working with parents and local media, some of whom were quite hostile to his planned changes.  It was hard and uncertain work even for a television celebrity with lots of resources to apply to the effort.

Most communities, and most would be leaders of educational improvement have less time, talent and resources than did Jamie.  And most efforts at educational reform fail, simply because they are unable to involve and address the needs of all the stakeholders.  This does not mean, however, that improvement is impossible.

Improving Educational Improvement

One of the fundamental weaknesses of most efforts at educational reform are that they focus on only one thing and are led by an advocate of that one change.  A more successful approach encourages and involves representatives of various stakeholder groups with a more multi-varied view of changes from the very beginning.  It takes a whole village to improve education!

To see what I mean, consider the case of a small Midwestern university.  Its enrollment was shifting causing pressures to do away with some departments and invest in others.  There were long standing disputes between faculty and administration based on previous mandated changes.  Students and alumni were concerned about the school’s direction.  The university needed to develop a new vision and strategy for its future that everyone would help to make succeed.  To do this, they held a two-day meeting with representatives of eight different stakeholder groups (including faculty, board members, students, alumni, donors and others).  Using a special form of dialogue and decision-making process known as future search,  (see Future Search)  they were able to build a common, broadly-supported agenda for their future. Together they then began to make the necessary improvements.

What was important in this last story was not the meeting itself, but the willingness to have an open, transparent and respectful process of engaging everyone in defining plans for necessary improvements.  Here are six specific things to do and not do when working with your system, or village on educational improvement.

  • Begin by thinking broadly about who will be affected and get them all involved early on.  Be willing to conduct a transparent, inclusive process (even if it means that not everything will turn out as you wished).
  • Expect resistance and be open to it. No matter how small the change may seem, someone will have a vested interest in things remaining as they are.  Pushing any specific change only leads to more resistance, no matter how good a leader/change agent you are.
  • Look for “both/and” solutions to issues, not either/or.  Try many little experiments to create improvement and build confidence.
  • Be prepared to start where there is alignment and energy.  Put the more difficult and contentious changes to one side while you build a track record of success.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  Use face-face sessions and all forms of social media to keep the dialogue and information flowing.  (And you need both face-face and internet media in today’s environment no matter how small or large the system).
  • Avoid voting on issues whenever possible.  Voting creates winners and losers.  Instead rely on specific consent to move ahead on some decision.  Note “consent” here means acceptance, or willingness to go ahead, even if there is not full support.
  • Consider involving some neutral or third party to steer the effort.  Such a person can hold “open” the space for change when anyone in the system may be suspect of working his/her own agenda.

By many measures, the educational system in this country is failing its students and its communities.  We can do better and must do better if we wish to create a functional 21st century learning system.

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