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It's Time to Create School Systems that Learn

In the early 1900s, state legislatures, school boards, and educational leaders set up the structure of schools to model factories, with ringing bells, isolated teachers, and students sorted by "age of manufacture" and taught in batches of forty to fifty students per class.

These schools were never designed to educate all students at high levels, and thankfully, as the way we educate students evolves, we see less and less adherence to this model. Today, every school district strives to serve all its students well. But the capacity of a school district to provide all students with a gold-standard education is directly proportional to the system's ability to function as a learning unit — one that overcomes the limitations of the past and unleashes the collective power of educators to innovate and more effectively reach all students.

To move away from the factory concept entirely means we must shift from a model of teacher isolation to one of teacher teams. In these teams, educators collaborate to develop lessons, write formative assessments, differentiate instruction, and create intervention strategies. Even more can be accomplished to improve student learning if school systems shift from small, isolated teams to a K-12 learning school system that functions as one larger and more flexible team that encourages teachers and administrators to collaborate in all directions in a climate of trust, capacity building, and leadership at all levels.

School systems that learn focus their resources strategically on programs that have a greater impact on teacher performance and student achievement, such as differentiating professional development, coaching new and veteran teachers, providing peer mentoring, and supporting ongoing educator collaboration. School systems that learn have cultures where effective collaboration shows up in every domain and aspect of the system. Teachers see their roles not as conveyors of information but as architects of learning experiences for their students. Principals see themselves not as building managers but as leaders who shape and influence learning cultures for teachers. Central office leaders see their most significant work as supporting and inspiring the learning and efforts of principals.

One of the most vital components of a learning school system is the ability of its leaders to develop learning climates that foster continual experimentation with new strategies and ideas to improve student learning. While there are many factors that contribute to effective schools, creating a school system that learns is the most effective way to improve student learning.

Paul B. Ash
Superintendent, Lexington (Mass.) Public Schools

Paul B. Ash is the superintendent of Lexington (Mass.) Public Schools and the co-author of School Systems that Learn. He will be sharing strategies for creating systemwide cultures of innovation and collaboration during a free two-part webinar series beginning April 25. Learn more and register here.

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