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Can A Change Strategy Alienate Every Stakeholder, Reduce the Chance for Quick Wins in Student Performance, But Still Succeed?

An administration as ready to import business “best practice” to public education as District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty’s must be aware of Harvard Business School professor John Kotter’s seminal work on corporate turn-arounds. After examining hundreds of failed attempts – and the handful of successes, Kotter described the results of his research to a lay audience in “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” in the March-April 1995 issue of Harvard Business Review, and the next year in a book with the same title.

I remember three observations of relevance to the Mayor and DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee:

• Organizational improvement requires a “picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stockholders, and employees” – but especially to the workforce.

• The road to change begins by building a guiding coalition of people with independent influence inside the system and the capacity to make something tangible happen.

• Leaders must actively plan for short-term wins designed to expand their coalition of supporters inside the organization.

These are not lessons guiding DC school reform today. Mayor Fenty has allowed Chancellor Rhee to go with a message promising nothing but blood, sweat and tears, employing fear as the great motivator. The Chancellor has apparently rejected the idea of building a coalition of stakeholders inside the system. And with the restructuring announcement of November 28, I can’t see any possibility of delivering a meaningful short-term win in the one area that truly matters – student and school performance.

The Mayor, with Rhee and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso, plan to close 25 schools, reassign the students and staff to another 30-plus sites, and redraw attendance boundaries.

The proposal may or may not be necessary, but it couldn’t be better aimed at upsetting the one constituency that has supported the Chancellor so far. It places every parent’s child at risk: those without a neighborhood school who don’t know where they will end up; those in a school likely to take on additional students from troubled schools; and everyone who now resides on the border of a school assignment boundary. Asking for public input through meetings after announcing a plan is asking for trouble, for the obvious reason that it appears post hoc and gratuitous, rather than before the fact and sincere.

The announcement also leaves school staffs in a kind of limbo that won’t help school improvement efforts. If your job site was about to be closed down, your mind might be on where you will land rather than what you are doing. If you are a principal in one of the receiving schools, you might decide it would be better to defer significant operational changes in teaching until you knew what kind of staff and student body you were likely to have next year - to say nothing of the fact that the plan includes the likelihood of new educational programs and new guiding educational philosophies at some schools in the next two years.

Between the movement of children, the uncertainty of staff and the potential for new programs, whatever the chances were of significant short-term wins in student or school performance in the affected schools, they have just dropped.

People involved in school reform often talk about the problem of building a plane in flight or painting a moving train. I’m no fan of the ad hoc policies such explanations often hide, but it seems like this administration plans on getting all the pieces in place – from firing the staff it doesn’t want and hiring the one it does, to rearranging kids and schools to get the “right-sized” school district - before it makes material improvements in student performance.

One thing I don’t recall from Kotter's research is any sense that the “King’s X”* option is a best business practice.

* "Kings X" is a safety zone in the game of "Tag" in Texas - a player could "Call Kings X" to avoid being tagged. The effect is avoiding accountability by setting the game back to start. See here.

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