The Biden-Ryan debate was about to begin and I was settling in: laptop open, twitter feed on … a tweet flashed on the screen; Chicago Superintendent JC Brizzard was out – Barbara Byrd-Bennett in.
In my experience Brizzard was grossly incompetent and Byrd-Bennett as competent as JC was inept.
How did Brizzard move up the ladder, from physics teacher to high school principal, to regional superintendent to Rochester superintendent to Chicago?
In the early Klein days I was serving as the teacher member on SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) team. The school, in a middle class Caribbean neighborhood was dysfunctional. At the late bell the security agents and NYPD placed barriers across the hallways to prevent kids from marauding in the hallways. Classes were half full, 10% of the kids were long term absentees and the school leadership was obsessed with discipline.
How did the Department allow the school to get this bad?
Reluctantly, Brizzard was directed to meet with the SURR team. The team leader asked,
“How many times have you visited the school (it was early March)?”
Brizzard didn’t think he had visited the school, “My staff has been here a number of times?”
Team leader: “How many times?”
Brizzard was getting aggravated, he demanded of the team leader,
“What would you have done?”
Team leader: “I would have moved my office into the school until the school was straightened out.”
Brizzard, annoyed, shrugged and left in a high dudgeon.
Brizzard, a Klein protégé, moved up the ladder and attended the Broad Superintendent Institute,
“Created to identify and train promising leaders from within and outside the education field, the academy has been remarkably successful at placing graduates in top leadership positions at school districts across the country. Today, Broad Academy alumni occupy superintendencies at twenty-one of the largest seventy-five school districts in the country, including the three largest overall.”
And was totally unsuccessful in Rochester and a disaster in Chicago.
In Albany the State Education Department has rolled out yet another “tool” to identify and improve struggling/failing schools; from SURR to JITS (Joint Improvement Teams) to Curriculum Audits to the new, new “thing,” the Diagnostic Tool.
“The Big Ideas, the six tenets are: district leadership and capacity; school leadership practice and decisions; curriculum development and support; teacher practices and decisions; student social and emotional developmental health; and family and community engagement.”
No great revelations here – every state “tool” identifies the same or similar items.
State Ed staff proudly announces,
During the pilot reviews, schools were engaged in the protocols of the review process and debriefing sessions were held with the staff and district administrators. As a result, there have been numerous requests from districts for professional development and mentoring on the six tenets of the rubric.
A simple question: why are the same schools in the same school districts struggling after each and every top down state intervention? Why were state takeovers in Freeport and Roosevelt so unsuccessful?
Billionaire Eli Broad, State Commissioners, Chancellors ignore the wealth of research in the areas of personal and organization change.
Walter Sykes,* in a brief 1985 paper summarizes key principles.
- You must know what something is before you try can change it.
“Diagnosis is the key to effecting planned change …A thorough understanding of the particular dynamics of a system that is to be changed will allow one to tailor the innovation to the particular situation – and greatly increase the chances for success.” The one-size fits all turnaround approach is bound to fail, it fails to take into account any of the dynamics of each individual school.
- Because all human change takes place in systems or organic unit, you can’t change just one isolated element.
“… 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…. When designing change, assume that those involved will probably be reluctant to go along with the new ways of doing things.” The entire concept that a Progress Report, or a Quality Review, or a Diagnostic Tool will change behavior violates a basic principle of organizational change. Will being ordered to teach to a Common Core standard change the school?
- People resist punishment.
“Change generates discomfit….People tend to consider alterations in a system a form of punishment.” When Tweed or the state or a superintendent enters a school with the announcement “we’re here to help you” teachers are suspicious and fearful. They are polite, they are welcoming, they make the team feel “wanted,” and breathe a huge sigh of relief when the outsiders leave. Little actually changes.
- People are reluctant to undergo temporary discomfort for long term gain. “
“Learning a new skill … causes one to undergo the pain of feeling incompetent for a time … Even people and organizations taking part in programs to facilitate change tend to depend on the skills developed beforehand and avoid moving into untried areas…. people entering a change effort must be provided with support and motivation during the ‘painful’ early stages.” The Diagnostic Tool tells schools that everything that you have been doing is wrong, and we’re here to set things straight. Access to a teacher center, to collegial expertise, to a non-threatening support system allows teachers to change with as little discomfort as possible.
- Change generates stress.
“Changes that we feel we cannot control are the most stressful ….” What systems are in place to assist employees in managing stress? Do managers acknowledge the stressful nature of the process? Does the process include “stress reduction activities” as well as the hard work of change? How does the looming fear of a school closing impact the ability to change?
- Participation reduces resistance.
“…no principle of social psychology has been studied or conformed 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.” School redesign or reform is usually top down with only marginal involvement by staffs – some outside “expert” parachutes in and imposes a plan; usually with fanfare, a glossy website and press releases. New books, new computer software, the endless collection of data, some new evaluation tool, and after a few months, picks up and leaves, a few consultants are left to steer the “new path;” a few years later, another new plan.
- Behavioral change usually comes in small steps.
“Few individual or organizations are willing or able to make dramatic, sweeping changes in a hurry.” The change agent – the commissioner or the superintendent needs rapid change, there is no time and there are political exigencies. The news cycle needs instant results – incremental change is seen as failure.
A superintendent conducted a lengthy professional development asking a staff to create “Principles of Effective Instruction,” at the end of the process the entire staff voted on the principles. The staff continued to work on fining tuning the principles, describing specific practices within lessons, they were wholly engaged in a school-wide effort. It was an example of a school that successfully taught high poverty kids that got even better. It was slow, at times agonizingly slow, with bumps in the roads, an occasional celebration; it was a process of continuing self-reflection.
“Big ideas” make big headlines – slow and steady wins the race. Unless principals and teachers and kids are encouraged to take ownership of the change process – with support – we are doomed to one failed so-called reform after another.