Telegraph message from the Cunard Lines to the Titanic: “Too many icebergs, change your route.”
Imagine if the captain had listened to sage advice?
For three years Arne Duncan, like the Titanic captain, has ignored sage advice and barreled toward the icebergs.
The Education Secretary has ignored decades of research on the principles of personal and organizational change. A quarter of a century ago Walter Sykes, a social psychologist laid out some basics (Sunrise Seminars, Volume 2, NTL Institute, Arlington, Virginia, 1985),
1. You must know what something is before you try and change it.
A change agent must have a sound, internalized understanding not only of the “facts,” but also the feelings important to the change process.
2. Because all human change takes place in systems or organic units, you cannot change just one isolated element.
Everything in a system is ultimately connected, … one must understand the total impact of the proposed change on all parts of the system so as to reduce the chances of unwanted and unpredicted side effects.
3. People resist punishment.
Change generally generates discomfort … People tend to consider alterations in a system a form of punishment.
4. People are reluctant to undergo temporary discomfort for long-term gain.
Learning a new skill, whether it is technical or behavioral, at the least causes one to undergo the pain of feeling incompetent for a time … we prefer to polish, refine and rely on familiar behaviors and already mastered skills than to develop new, possibly better skills.
5. Change generates stress.
Change induces stress and the change we feel we cannot control is the most stressful.
6. Participation reduces resistance.
Probably no principle of social psychology has been studied or confirmed more fully than the concept that one may increase people’s acceptance of an innovation by getting them involved in setting goals and devising strategies for achieving these goals.
7. Behavioral change usually comes in small steps.
Few individuals or organizations are willing or able to make dramatic, sweeping changes in a hurry …. Realistically, we must realize that abrupt changes in behaviors are rare – and probably even unhealthy – and that we must allow adequate time for change to take place.
From the halls of Washington to the corridors of state education departments to school districts to schools these principles have been flouted.
The specifics of the changes may or may not be worthy, the heavy-handed imposition of the changes have alienated the three million workers, the classroom teachers, who are expected to be the point of the spear.
When the leading expert on leadership and change in education takes aim at the Duncan administration, perhaps, just perhaps, the captain of the ship should listen.
Michael Fullan is the education change guru, every leadership class assigns Fullan’s works (see list of latest works here).
In April, 2011, in an obscure Australian journal Fullan took on the Duncan administration in an article, “Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform.”
Fullan is blunt. “‘Whole system reform’ is the name of the game and ‘drivers’ are those policies and strategy levers that have the least and the best chance of driving successful reform” As “advance organisers” he sees four criteria that should act in concert.
1. foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students;
2. engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning;
3. inspire collective or team work; and
4. affect all teachers and students – 100 per cent?
For Fullan “intrinsic motivation, instructional improvement, teamwork and ‘allness'” are the key elements for whole system reform.
He discusses “wrong drivers,” that are compelling on the surface and have “face-value appeal” for people with urgent problems and will be hard to dislodge.
The culprits, Fullan’s term, are,
1. accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and schools vs capacity building;
2, individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual versus group solutions;
3. technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry the day vs instruction;
4. fragmented strategies vs integrated or systemic strategies.
Slowly, carefully, Fullan shreds the reform strategies in both the USA and Australia.
He sees multiple benefits from “focused collaborative practice, mobilise and customise knowledge in the system, enabling teachers to know what other teachers do and to learn from them;” he calls these “social capital-based strategies.”
For Fullam peer power is a key driver. “…it is the collaborative group that accelerates performance, including squeezing out poor performers as teaching becomes less private and more collaborative.”
Too many reformers only learn and apply pieces of the puzzle, upgrading the quality of entering teachers and school leaders will not change outcomes in a “punitive, highly charged accountability system,” an essential element is “teacher ownership.”
“The new lesson is ‘teacher engagement in education reform’ which essentially concludes that you cannot get there without widespread teacher ownership.”
Fullan warns policy-makers that “…because you involve some teachers in key deliberations that you have involved the profession.”
The core of whole system success is “continuous instructional improvement closely linked to student engagement and success, again for all students.”
Fullan, after shredding current efforts, points to what he calls the “heart of the matter,” four systemically related “big drivers” that work.
1. The learning-instruction-assessment nexus.
The relentless development of capacity-building – to make learning more exciting, more engaging, and more linked to assessment feedback loops around the achievement of higher order thinking skills.
2. Social capital to build the profession.
Building collaborative structures across and within schools – if the development of individuals is not surrounded by a culture of developing social capital it will fail.
3. Pedagogy matches technology.
We must power new pedagogical innovations with technology … in a word, technology makes education easier and more absorbing. Learning and life become more seamless.
4. Systemic synergy.
Drivers must be conceived as a coherent whole.The right pieces do not a system make.
Replace the juggernaut of wrong drivers with lead drivers that are known to work …. Jettison blatant merit pay, reduce excessive testing, don’t depend on teacher appraisal as a driver, and don’t treat world class standards as a panacea. Instead, make the instruction-assessment nexus the core driver, and back this up with a system that mobilises the masses to make the moral imperative a reality. Change the very culture of the teaching profession.
I fear that in Washington, Albany and Tweed “damn the icebergs, full steam ahead” continues to be the driver. If your audience doesn’t agree with you – speak louder and slower – maybe they will! And, in Albany, the Commissioner remains the marionette, jumping as Washington pulls the strings.
In New York City I believe the leadership is conflicted. The geppetto at Gracie Mansion pulls Chancellor Walcott’s strings, not to improve education, but to gain some sort of political advantage or position himself for his next job, or, just plain ordinary orneriness.
On the education side of Tweed the leadership appears to be inching in the right direction. CEO Suransky proffers,
From our collaborative inquiry work over the past several years we have learned how much teachers learn from each other, and it is critical that you find the time—for yourself and other school leaders to spend more time in classrooms, and for teachers to meet in teams to examine student work and one another’s practice. Many of you build this time into your schedules already.
Unfortunately the system is still committed to a key “wrong” driver, the incessant drive to punitive accountability. Teachers and principals are pitted against each other. The recent extension of probation for 38% of applicants, the Sword of Damocles hanging over schools – the Progress Report and Quality Reviews, all mitigate against the “right” drivers that Fullan espouses.
The refusal of Bloomberg/Walcott to accept third party review to resolve the current teacher evaluation dispute is evidence of the wrong-headed, punitive attitude. Destroying tenure and due process, eliminating seniority and ultimately weakening the union is the key driver of policy.
For too many self anointed education leaders, the Duncans and Kings and Walcotts, the lesson is never learned: the icebergs always win.