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Want to Change Things in Education? Better Get a Plan

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Not long ago the debate over school start times came right to our doorstep when the superintendents of our six local school districts came together to ask the public if a change was warranted. They had good intentions. They wanted to apply some of the emerging research on adolescent brain development to a perennial problem in educational circles, and wanted public input to ensure that the decision they made, whatever it turned out to be, was a good one.

They went about it entirely the wrong way.

How so? Well, for starters, the issue was framed in very simple terms: research shows that adolescents need more sleep than younger kids do, we were told. (This is, of course, true; it goes without saying that you can find educational research to support just about any idea you want to pursue these days, but there is a great deal of agreement among legitimate researchers that starting middle and high schools later would allow students, whose brains are developing in strange and often inscrutable ways, to actually do something productive at school.) But parents have schedules they need to follow, too. Younger kids shouldn't be made to wait at the bus stop in the morning in the dark (which made some of us wonder: should older kids?). Older kids may need to be home to meet younger kids when they get off the bus in the afternoon. The goal was to find a way to address all of these problems with a single solution. The problem itself was framed partly in educational terms, but not mostly. 

Ultimately in our district—things played out a little differently elsewhere—the community was given a choice in a second survey: should we leave things the way they are, or slightly alter start times for elementary and secondary students? I don't know what the community said, but I do know that the district responded by tabling the issue. Which, of course, means it's off the table, not on it. Funny thing, language.

In the end it probably didn't matter because the district seemed to have no idea what it actually wanted to do to begin with. Everything unfolded predictably. A problem was identified and some possible solutions were suggested, all of them conventional. Ultimately the least most disruptive potential solution was offered—alongside a second option to just leave things like they already are. Some people think that's good management. It's steady. It doesn't rock the boat. It keeps school leaders (and I use the term loosely in situations like these) from alienating anyone who might be offended by an unwarranted change. But it rarely results in even incremental change. 

And the thing is, change is a natural part of life. Educators, of all people, ought to know that. We should be able to see the need for change before others do. The whole reason we exist is to create change: if our students don't change in meaningful ways, how can we possibly say we educated them?

So part of the issue here is that educational leaders need to be able to identify educational changes that will benefit the communities they serve, and then educate the public to ensure that changes are implemented effectively. It's the job of educational leaders to consume and evaluate educational research and explain its value to the public. Instead, too often they turn to the public hoping the public (or at least its most vocal members) will answer all the important questions for them. Or, even worse, they skip the educate-the-public part. It just doesn't work like that. 

The point is that there was a better way to approach this problem. But maybe I'm not all that persuasive. Let's see if there are any school leaders out there trying to actually do this stuff.

As it happens, there are. As this story published over at KQED shows, real change is happening right now, even as you read this, at Luella High School, a comprehensive high school located just outside of Atlanta in Henry County, Ga. Down at Luella, the principal, a guy named Jerry Smith, knew he wanted to do something to really change the way his school operated. Smith wanted to put relationships between students and their teachers at the center of the school experience and focus on mastery of content—and, again, do both of these things within the context of a large, comprehensive high school. Guided by his philosophical commitment, Smith decided to make "personalized learning" the centerpiece of the school experience at Luella and went to work figuring out how he would do it.

Smith realized quickly that the most substantial impediment to enacting such a plan for change was the school's schedule. He understood that he could not put relationships at the center of the school experience unless the day was structured very differently so he changed the way the day was structured. In the process he wound up with a plan that is consistent with existing research and supports something even the most curmudgeonly parent or faculty member would be hard-pressed to argue against: cultivating relationships between teachers and students by building flexibility into the school day. Like any good teacher, he started at the end and worked his way back to the beginning. He set a goal and then figured out exactly what he would need to do to meet it. 

I have no idea what the long-term prospects are for Smith's overhaul, but you should read the entire story at the link to get a sense of how things are going. I do know that I appreciate the frank, and very helpful, way he talks about the challenges he and his staff have faced. "It's sloppy," he says of his effort, "but, hell, life is sloppy." Have truer words ever been spoken? I also appreciate the comments of Diana Laufenberg, executive director of a group called "Inquiry Schools," which is working with Smith on the changes. "The systems of schools are so habitual [that] shifting practice has to be as concerted as quitting smoking," she says. "You need to have a plan for your bad day." Those are some pretty thoughtful words, too. We are, in a sense, addicted to the existing structures of schooling, and changing habits is never easy. How do you respond when the inevitable resistance begins? What are you going to do when the bad days happen? It's easy to give up when things go wrong, and there is never a shortage of people waiting to do just that. But it's easier to avoid giving up when you are guided by principles that really matter, and when you've educated others about your goals so well that your goals become their goals too. That's the stuff that gets you through the bad days.

The moral of the story is that establishing a deliberate plan for where we want our schools to go, and what we want them to be, should obviously be debated by the public—but the discussion should be framed by educators who know the business they're in. If we don't know what we want, who does? And we can't rely on charter schools or other "schools of choice" to innovate for us. It's still true that well over 90% of all American kids attend traditional public schools. If we pour all our energy and attention into creating a shadow system we'll never have the resources we need to fix the schools we have. Let's put our time and effort into exploring changes that make sense given what we know about the social, cultural, and educational contexts our schools exist in. Let's get a plan together, people.

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