By Alan Blankstein January 10, 2013 10:04 am
At the end of a day-long meeting last year at the NEA Headquarters with 8 CEOs and Presidents from various U.S. educational organizations and the DOE, the underlying concerns about Common Core surfaced. After thousands of hours, and millions of dollars spent in successful development of a new and improved set of standards, there was one thing missing: an implementation plan. This small, inconvenient truth will surely be front and center for practitioners over the next decade.
Passing legislation in today’s political climate is rough; but getting major initiatives implemented consistently across even a district—much less a region or an entire nation – is close to miraculous. Some of the brightest policy-makers and philanthropists are coming to terms with this reality:
‘Knowing what works plays a very important role in school improvement, but alone it is not enough. There are questions about building capacity to implement what works, (and to) measure, check, and adapt to changes.”
—John Q. Easton, quoted in the October 17,2012 edition of Ed Week
As leader of the Institute for Educational Sciences, Easton rejoins his Colleague Anthony Bryk, now leading the Carnegie Foundation, in putting money and focus behind the concept of learning how to continuously improve. W. Edwards Deming, who mentored me and helped us launch the PLC movement, would have been overjoyed!
Yet our experience in this arena proves this challenge to be both winnable, and totally contrary to how most policy-led initiatives are rolled out. For example, what we have learned this past decade working in scores of districts, regions, and in a province in S. Africa, is that the first prerequisite to success is “readiness.” We define “readiness” as a condition in which those implementing the change are both aware of the change method to be used, and excited and motivated to undertake it. Those implementing the change need to recognize that they not only have the problem but are also a part of it….as well as the solution. The answer is in the room, so to speak.
When the challenge is seen as someone else’s, those involved with implementation of the solution have little at stake and are de-motivated. If the solution is seen as coming from the outside, those charged with implementation become un-empowered to do more than bow to the external guru(s)/enforcers of the change/solution.
When we apply this first principle of successful change – readiness – to the Common Core implementation, it is easy to see how getting both wide-scale understanding and motivation for implementation becomes a major challenge. Common Core is externally driven and the “solutions” to implementing it are generally imported.
What the HOPE Foundation has done in this and other such contexts, nonetheless, is use that external driver as a backdrop for then creating internal readiness. For example instead of asking questions like: “How are we going to implement Common Core?,” we can ask more fundamental questions like: “Based on the research we have all just read and discussed, what skills and qualities do our students need to have to be successful when they graduate?” For a chronically low-performing school the questions have to be modified initially to just get people talking again: “What do you see happening in this school?” “What do you want to have happen?” Eventually as capacity is built, there can be more involved dialogue, but beginning with: “How are we going to implement Common Core” would be a non- starter.
The other steps to scaling implementation and building capacity for continuous improvement are many. They include dedicating time and a committed team to the task; using a common research-based system and framework for action; developing a common understanding of what excellence looks like and a collaboratively created rubric for finding and scaling it within the school or district; and embedding the processes for all the above in the culture of the learning community. Future posts will address these areas, and how to build relational trust in schools in more depth. Hopefully this can help us use successful processes scale the excellence that already abounds in our schools.
Alan Blankstein is the founder of the HOPE Foundation and author of the upcoming Failure Is NOT an Option® 6 Principles That Advance Student Achievement in Highly Effective Schools Third Edition.