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Throwback Thursday: Raising Standards Requires Transition Leadership

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During the last few years, the American public has feasted on criticism of allegedly poor schools, ineffective teachers, and unmotivated and undisciplined students. Many Americans are becoming convinced that their educational dollars are not buying a high-quality product. Regular investigations by high-level committees and commissions continue to document lower student achievement and generally inadequate educational preparation. Somebody, agree the critics, should do something (Earl Hoffman).

By now you may know that on #tbt we reach back to see what has or has not changed over the years, so you may be suspect of the quote. It is from an article printed in EdWeek in January, 1985.  The article's focus was on a problem - court cases had begun to arise when districts tried to raise standards. Parents challenged the standard raising by taking legal action.  In the cases noted, schools attempted to enforce higher standards for coursework required for graduation and found themselves being taken to court for various reasons.  However, in the cases noted in the article, the courts generally upheld the decisions of the boards of education and for good reasons.  Setting standards for the education of the children we serve should be the responsibility of the districts within the framework of the states in which they reside. That was then....a time when education policy was reserved for states and localities.

For the most part, these cases were about time, preparation, and fairness.  Notification of parents and opportunities for all students to be adequately and fairly prepared for the changes were key issues.  Concerns regarding whether the policies affected students with disabilities and students of color differently, were raised in the cases as well.  In 1985, school districts were raising standards and defending themselves in lawsuits. In the 29 intervening years, what has changed? 

Recently, education standards were raised, but from beyond our districts, actually from the federal level. States and localities were charged with the implementation. When schools designed the change, objections came to them, some in the form of lawsuits. Now that we are receiving the directives for change, it appears we are among the objectors. Ironic. The 1985 article continued:

If standards are to be raised, school authorities must be able to proceed without constant intimidation by the media and threats of frivolous legal action. Litigation is a daunting prospect, even if you suspect you are going to win. But the state and federal courts are regularly upholding the responsible decisions of educators and therefore educators should be confident in setting and maintaining their own reasonable standards.

A Similarity Between the 1985 Objections and the Present Ones May Actually Exist
Those who design the changes, whether federal or state education departments, governors, or school districts, have an intention to improve the quality of education for all students, or at least we hope that is so.  In both cases, then and now, the objections come from those within the community who are the recipients of the changes. It is probably unlikely that any change can take place without objection of some sort. But, perhaps those fo us who lead education and change at all levels need to learn more about the change process.

Transition Leadership
If leaders reach out to those who are impacted, they can explain rationales, allow preparation time and help people through the necessary transitions. It seems that change must be led not just announced. Often, in our democracy, decisions are made by "the few" and need to be implemented by the rest of us.  Perhaps, it is not the decision that is the problem per se; perhaps, it is the strategy for implementation. If we implement change by proclaiming it, we ignore the work of the transition. 

William Bridges begins his book Managing Transitions with this observation: "It isn't the changes that do you in, it's the transitions" (p.3).  He defines transition as a three-phase psychological process that includes what he calls "Ending, Losing, Letting Go," "The Neutral Zone," and "The New Beginning" (p.5). Leaders who consider this process can generate followership, rather than compliance. Locally, that difference is reflected in energy or the lack of it, creativity or the lack of it, and support rather than opposition.

But, it does take more time than a simple mandate. It takes dedication, thoughtful reflection, and a focus on the psychological aspects of a transition.  "We are going to adopt the Common Core" meets the standard for making a change. It has happened in most states across the nation and in most school districts. Yet, we find many are less than enthusiastic and, still, some are trying to hold to what was.

The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the ending that you'll have to make to leave the old situation behind.  Situational change hinges on the new thing, but psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place (Bridges. p. 7).

We Can Improve the Transition for Those Living the Change
It seems that in 1985, as now, leading the change process by involving practitioners in the conversation, creating understanding, and allowing for skill development and thoughtful action locally may very well have been missing both times. Although we are mid-way through the present standards shift, we still have time to address the change with an understanding of what it takes to make change. Few like change.  Many cling to habits and practices that are familiar.  The 1985 reach for higher standards, as today's, is an effort to improve the educational experiences of all children.  Let's take this moment to consider how we can improve the transition experience for our faculties and parents, so, finally, we can be successful in raising the standard of education our students receive and be able to demonstrate it powerfully.

Bridges, William (2009). Managing Transitions:  Making the Most of Change 3rd Edition. Philadelphia:  Perseus Books Group

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