Vail Daily column: Deepening the work
Almost from their inception, public schools have been asked to solve more and more of society’s problems. Over the decades, schools have taken on a number of challenges such as preparation for civic responsibility, literacy, workforce training, military preparedness, racial integration, artistic appreciation, physical and mental health and character education.
While good arguments on each of these (and a variety of other areas) can certainly be made, one can easily see how dizzying it might be to try and focus on all of these at the same time. Indeed, education policy is a textbook example of what can happen when one reform-du-jour is piled on top of another, creating a messy mix of well-intended, but often distracting and unfunded mandates. The outcome is a near-constant churn of priorities and efforts local schools are forced into trying to manage.
How do our schools not only survive, but thrive and achieve greatness in such an environment? Learning from successful business organizations can provide some insight.
In their 2011 work, “Great by Choice,” noted business researcher and writer Jim Collins, along with co-author Morten Hansen, identified companies that grew and became great in a variety of uncertain and chaotic industries. During these disruptive times, these companies actually outperformed their competition ten-fold.
So, what were their secrets? Well, without attempting a synopsis of the whole book, one area was what Collins and Hansen called “fanatic discipline,” which refers to a consistency of action toward a quality outcome, in spite of difficult conditions, and having the self-restraint to not over-reach when conditions are more favorable.
For our schools, this fanatic discipline manifests itself through our ongoing commitment to what we call the “big three,” a set of experience-based and sound actions that have delivered high performance in every great educational organization we have studied.
For Eagle County Schools, these big three are: one, teaching all kids to high standards; two, customizing instruction to the learner; and, three, empowering our professional educators.
To provide a bit more context, teaching all kids to high standards means that every student in our system works toward an internationally-benchmarked set of expectations. We include what we call “global-ready skills” in these expectations, things such as collaboration, critical thinking, adaptability and entrepreneurship.
Customizing instruction to the learner means that our educators work to match instruction to what students want and need, academically. We have intentional systems to evaluate how our students are doing in response to instruction, and we adapt to help students reach their goals. We also work to teach students to self-assess and engage in their own learning, where they know where they are headed and what they need to do to get there.
Empowering our professional educators means we give those working closest to students the authority and flexibility to make decisions and take action. We encourage empirically-based risk-taking and create an environment where our professionals work and learn together.
These big three ideas form the foundation of our instructional efforts at Eagle County Schools. We’re intentionally resistant to the latest educational fads, which too often turn out to be damaging distractions.
Our fanatic discipline when it comes to the big three does not mean we are resistant to change, progress and innovation. However, it does mean that we consider these the core of the work and real change happens when we make breakthroughs in a way that genuinely impacts teaching and learning at the student level. If an innovation fundamentally changes the student’s learning experience in a meaningful and positive way, then it is progress. If it does not, it’s a distraction.
Harvard education researchers Richard Elmore and Liz City noted that most of the struggling schools they visited did not need a new program or initiative — instead, they desperately needed to focus on instruction and deepen the work in that regard.
This week, our teacher leaders and principals are back in buildings and preparing for the upcoming school year. Their efforts will not be focused on some new and untested program or approach — it will instead be on deepening the work and keeping our focus on things that really matter.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.