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Cultivating a Garden to Improve Schools

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This post is by Jon David Snyder, the executive director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).

Until each and every one of our children departs the educational system prepared to pursue a future of his or her own choosing, our educational ecosystem must continue to improve. Thus, there will most likely continue to be continuous calls for school improvement.

In this blog I address the approach to educational improvement used by the Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) Project and differentiate the ILC's approach from other approaches. In a future blog I will address the content of the ILC's approach.

The Instructional Leadership Corps (ILC) Project is a partnership between the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, the California Teachers Association, and the National Board Resource Center. We formed the partnership to assist California public school educators in the implementation of the California Standards for English Language Arts/English Language Development and Mathematics as well as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The ILC supports teachers and other educational leaders to design and facilitate learning experiences for other educators in two areas: (a) improve classroom instruction via the enactment of instructional shifts; and, (b) improve the school-based learning conditions for teachers via the enactment of leadership shifts. These two areas work together to enrich and deepen the opportunities for learning that educators provide for the students and families in their care.

There are several approaches to school improvement. One could be called the Lego Approach. In this mechanical approach, somebody (often but not always external to the school/district) writes a set of directions for how the Lego pieces should be put together to create the desired outcome. The metaphor here could also be a watch or a bridge or any other fixed inanimate structure. The change agent's job is to put the pieces together in the right way, smile with the satisfaction of a job well done, and walk away. This approach, despite how much enjoyment I still derive from playing with Lego's, does not work because it ignores a basic reality of education: children and the adults who work with them are human beings, not Lego pieces, or circuits in a digital device, or girders in a bridge. All too often, the designer walks away and then wonders why the people didn't do what the design called for them to do.

Increasingly, designers of school improvement efforts are understanding that education is a living ecosystem populated by living human beings who do the work of teaching and learning. This understanding leads to a second approach to educational improvement, one that realizes that human beings need sustenance in order to grow, that one can't just tell them what to do, leave, and expect growth and development. In this approach, however, the sustenance necessary for school improvement to grow and develop resides with people and resources external to the classrooms and the schools. It is as if each classroom or each school is a gold fish bowl with, if a classroom, a teacher swimming around in it. The approach to change is to have someone smart from outside the goldfish bowl walk from goldfish bowl to goldfish bowl sprinkling food into the water on a regular basis. This approach fails because it ignores a second basic reality of educational improvement:  in order for an ecosystem to survive (let alone thrive), the ecosystem must be able to sustain itself. An ecosystem must, eventually, feed, sustain, grow, and nurture itself. If it relies on resources outside the ecosystem, it will not survive.

The ILC Approach

The ILC project takes a third approach that recognizes that the educational ecosystem is populated, across all levels of the ecosystem, by human beings and that the humans within the ecosystem must be, and ARE, capable of sustaining the ecosystem. An apt metaphor for this approach would be a garden where, with the right combination of fertile soil, the right mix of good seeds, appropriate growing conditions, and continual care, flowers bloom regularly and beautifully.  

The ILC enacts this approach, most basically, by selecting and supporting exemplary educators to provide learning opportunities to their colleagues. Those colleagues then share their learning with other colleagues through formal and informal networks among and between all the levels of the educational ecosystem and the garden continues to grow in size and quality. The project uses five principles to guide its use of this approach:

  • Using Capacity to Grow Capacity (developing the capacity of existing exemplary educators to support the development of the capacity of their colleagues);
  • Cross-role Collaboration (using all the roles and all the levels of the educational ecosystem to enrich the learning opportunities provided and increase the cohesion of the effort);
  • Institutional Partnerships (ALL of the multiple institutional players in the educational ecosystem are critical for growing the conditions necessary for successful implementation of the new California Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards);
  • Developing Knowledge and Skills through a recursive and continuous model of Learn, Do (practice, try out), and Assess (learn more deeply); and
  • Cohering and Aligning with Local Initiatives and funding sources to sustain the capacities developed for the long haul.

Enacting these principles, the 184 members of the first cohort of the ILC served over 10,500 educators in the state of California during the 2014-15 academic year. While it is too soon to attribute improved student learning outcomes to the project, the ILC members and the educators with whom they worked report that the project is meeting its goals and that the garden is growing. The project is now entering its second year with 284 ILC members who will be providing more and enhanced learning opportunities with their colleagues. The expanded cohort is enthusiastically determined to improve student growth and development through enriched classroom instruction and school workplace conditions that support teacher, and more importantly, student learning.



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