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The Next Good Idea or Systemic Reform?

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Why do people think they can solve the issues facing education with a single good idea? Have you noticed how vulnerable we are to random and well-meaning suggestions? Sometimes we even expect it to make the difference. Yet, when they fail, the people with the good idea aren't held accountable for lost effort, energy and money, no one remembers where the idea may have originated, and we, in districts, and classrooms, are left to optimistically move on.

In North Carolina, the Give Five - Read Five program asked folks to donate 5 new or used books to be given to elementary school children to read over the summer. The State Superintendent of Public Education, in her announcement of this program, referenced Dr. James Kim of Harvard whose research suggests that even reading four or five books over the summer helps to prevent the summer slump.

After everyone rallied around this seemingly good idea and generously donated books and went home thinking they had improved the lives of these children, what happened? Children in homes in which parents are voracious readers, and who are surrounded by books or are taken to libraries, may have spent their summer reading. Children in homes in which parents are not readers, who are at risk as readers, may have never picked up one of those five books, because they are not independent readers. So the prevailing wisdom was children don't read over the summer because they don't have books - when we know, all too well, there are other factors that contribute to reading behaviors.

All children are not voracious or talented readers. Are all teachers? Are all administrators? Are all parents? Of course, the answer is no. So we start from a place of confusion, since we are expecting all children to be voracious or at least steady appreciators of books and reading. How do we begin with children who had books read to them every night, given as gifts, used as a soothing experience, or an exciting experience, have book store visits regularly and have their own library cards? How do we begin for those who don't have those early experiences? What about the students who will not pick up those books because they are not 'readers'?

What is curious to us is there is never a systemic paradigm shift, none to our knowledge. 21st century skills tried. Common Core Standards comes the closest. Instead, we most frequently work on the pieces. Parts of our work are changed as a new reading program is adopted, a new math program, a practice of "drop-everything-and-read" or some way of encouraging our students to learn more and better. New electives are offered, or a project based learning classroom is established. Some ideas come from within and some, like Give Five-Read Five come from without. We often adopt these new ideas with excitement and hope. However, it never makes good sense to keep piling on one good idea after another without stepping away and being thoughtful about adoption.

This is not intended to question the intentions of folks who come up with these generous and well- meaning ideas. But it is a reminder that no matter the idea, it will always affect children. When children are affected, it falls on the shoulders of the teachers and school leaders to handle the educational, and the emotional, ramifications.

What may be wrong with current massive educational mandates is they are, on a larger scale, no different from the next good idea, a massive organizational morph into what we have come to think of as 'Next-Gen Schools.' We read about, and hear from colleagues that they spend their days helping their principals and teachers through this demeaning and threatening time of new evaluation in which students' achievement becomes a direct connection to their evaluation, which is now public. From a business and a public perspective, those who may be reading this may say, "Of course the teachers' performance should be measured, in part, by their students' performance." And we don't disagree. But we are dealing with a curriculum change that is unfamiliar, some tests that are new and different, students who are tested more now than ever, and who are tired and lose steam when so many tests are required. Some simply give up. Now is that fair to measure a teacher and his principal when the implementation demands are so powerfully negative? Is this good idea piled onto a system that is old and crumbling? If this is systemic surgery, don't we want it to be fast and effective...and conducted by a highly skilled surgeon?

Let this be a call, out to the field, to say that this is the time we must start leading the change. Let this be a call to all of us to figure out how we can come together and leverage all that we know, all that makes sense, and create the 'Next-Gen Schools' our students so badly need. We need leaders who know themselves, are compassionate, courageous, and thoughtful, who can listen and can galvanize large groups of people to come together no matter their differences. Schools must change, not with the next good idea, but with a major shift that lets go of what hasn't worked, no matter how committed we are to preserving it, and creates a system that keeps the best of what we have and blends it into the schools we must create.

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