Vail Daily column: Doing the right things
Last week, Eagle County Schools’ work toward being a global high performer was highlighted in an important new book called “Deliverology in Practice: How Education Leaders are Improving Student Outcomes.”
The book was written by Sir Michael Barber, who notably worked in former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administrations in the areas of education policy and delivery, the science of bringing aspirations into reality. The book was co-authored by Nick Rodriguez and Ellyn Artis, from the Education Delivery Institute, a D.C. nonprofit that has helped Eagle County in the design and implementation of our strategic plan.
The Eagle County Schools story was featured along with examples from state systems like Massachusetts and Kentucky as places that are deeply engaged in the work of turning big dreams into action and outcomes.
“Deliverology in Practice” goes into detail on the steps involved with translating an aspiration into a plan and, ultimately, demonstrable outcomes. One component of the book focuses on the development of a “theory of change,” which (at a rudimentary level) creates a sort of “if-then” statement for the organization that presumes a causal relationship between what we do and the outcomes we expect to get.
For example, a simplified theory of change Colorado has been operating under (which is pretty similar to other education reform efforts across the United States) might be stated as the following:
“If we add more student testing and rank/punish schools with the results, let practically anyone become a teacher and use evaluation to remove the ineffective performers, and create more school choice options through charter schools (and some attempts at voucher schemes), then Colorado will become a high performing education system.”
From this theory of change we have developed and passed legislation, changed entire education models within communities and spent billions of dollars and countless hours trying to make it work.
Yet the evidence on these three main drivers (testing, evaluation and school choice) for delivering system-wide improvement is anemic (at best) and no high performing education system on earth has ever relied on them to deliver systemic quality.
Note that there is nothing particularly wrong with any of these three approaches. Identifying under-performing schools and requiring some kind of intervention is a good thing; we should be removing ineffective teachers from the profession; and school choice can create some educational options that are a better fit for some kids and families.
However, in spite of these benefits, they just don’t seem to be capable of creating large-scale and sustained system quality — in spite of decades of trying to make them work.
This is why Eagle County Schools (and every other high performing education system on earth) has chosen not to build a theory of change on them.
Instead, our theory of change in Eagle County might be stated as follows:
“If we customized education to the student and genuinely engaged the learner, built up and empowered the teaching profession, made sure every instructional experience was elevated to high (internationally benchmarked) expectations, and aggressively worked to mitigate the effects of poverty in our community — then we would be a high performing education system.”
Until the advent of scientifically based medicine, bloodletting was a common procedure thought to cure the body of any number of ailments. One could, conceivably, develop a complicated strategic plan around bloodletting including the development of a different tactics, action steps, communication, reporting and performance metrics.
Even though we might be going about bloodletting in the right way, fundamentally it’s the wrong thing and sets us on a fool’s errand if the goal is improved public health.
The time, energy and resources of our schools and the people working within them are precious. That’s why it’s not only important that we develop a plan to execute a strategy in the right way but also that we are doing the right things.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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