I have been an educator for twenty years and have spent more than half of that time as both a building and a district administrator. I have worked in urban schools, rural schools, and suburban schools. I have worked in buildings with PTA members knocking down the doors and have worked in buildings where we struggle to even get a working phone number for our parents and guardians. I have worked with schools that are identified as excelling and in schools that are labeled as failing. In spite of all of these differences, for some reason, politicians and rule makers continue to look for silver bullets and magic pills. They tend to believe there is AN answer that will solve the struggles ALL schools face. They believe that schools, all schools, should simply mimic the behaviors of the schools in the affluent zip codes and success will automatically follow.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe fully that all schools have room to grow and improve. I believe schools should always be looking for ways to excel and evolve. I spend a lot of my time actually traveling the country helping schools identify practices and programs that can yield a great return, but I am also a firm believer that as long as we keep looking for THE answer we will never find it.
As I typically do, let me explain this with a metaphor.
I am currently training to run in the Boston Marathon next month to raise money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I am definitely not an elite runner as the vast majority of Boston participants are, but I also don’t want to make a fool of myself. As a result, I am hoping to lose another 7 lbs in the next six weeks, before the race, to help me meet my time goals. I know that losing a few more pounds will help me pick up my pace. On average, I eat about 2500 calories a day. For the next couple of weeks, I plan on decreasing my caloric intake to about 2000 calories a day knowing that this deficit will help my body begin to burn body fat to compensate. The human body is an amazing thing. Our metabolisms are complex and very smart. If I were to continue with a diet of 2000 calories for the next twenty years, I would not continue to lose weight until I wither away into nothingness. Eventually, my body will adjust to this new normal and my weight loss will plateau. If I want to keep losing weight I will have to keep shocking my body by adjusting my caloric intake every few weeks to keep my body guessing.
I think schools are a lot like our metabolism. I have seen far too many schools go all-in on a new approach, a new program, a new philosophy and see quick returns. (Think- The Biggest Loser-quick returns…but can they be sustained over time?) These schools then enter year two, three, or four of their pursuit and begin to realize that their momentum has slowed or even regressed. They continue pushing harder, thinking they just need more discipline, more FIDELITY (I am growing to hate that word), more scripts, more pacing, and more compliance. In the meantime, the students, the teachers, the parents, begin to feel like they are going through the motions, they are on the treadmill of work, seeing no real returns on their investment.
I am a believer that if schools want to see continued success, what they need is not a more focused effort on the status quo, but a determination to keep shocking the system. Teachers don’t need more scripts and mandates. They need more freedom to experiment, to take risks, and to do something they have never done before. If we want our schools to be healthy, to lose the extra weight they have been carrying around for years, we need to afford them the discipline to be innovative, not just compliant.
We have forced compliance for far too long and all we have now are stagnated results, burnt our educators, and a teacher shortage in every state. Maybe we should try something different.
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