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How Districts Can Empower Teachers to Lead Change

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This post is by John Watkins, co-director of The Deeper Learning Dozen, and principal at Inquiry & Learning for Change. John is a coach, consultant, researcher, and evaluator with several decades' experience in systemic reform in educational organizations.

In a recent blog, Jal Mehta concluded: "Twentieth-century management paradigms are not sufficient to tackle 21stcentury challenges. What appears as a paradox when viewed at one point in time--how can people who haven't experienced deep learning own a system full of deep learning--looks more tractable when considered as a question of adult learning that unfolds, iteratively and laterally in networks of learners, over time. We can build 21stcentury districts; it will just require a lot of learning on all of our parts."

I want to interrogate that apparent paradox, and even its more tractable reframing. What if this apparent paradox is only a problem of how we understand leadership, district organization, and change? What if seeing innovation through the metaphor of "top-down vs. bottom-up" is getting in the way of seeing what actually happens when innovative practice emerges and scales in school districts? Is there a deeper set of mostly unexamined frames for viewing our organizational lives--frames that would better help us see what is actually happening as adults learn and improve their practice together in our schools and districts?

We have inherited a 19th-century model of a machine bureaucracy that derives from Newtonian mechanistic metaphors of human behavior. We have lived with it for so long it seems completely "natural" to us: top-down, command-and-control, linear, deterministic and instrumental, knowledge on the top, compliance on the bottom, with quality-control measurement systems to sort well-made from defective products at the end. It is a system based on the modernist idea that we can measure, predict, and control all processes and outcomes. For years, it has driven everything from budgeting and staffing, to compensation, to management structure, to the "banking model" of teaching, to grading and testing, to the Draconian high stakes testing and accountability systems that states and federal governments have put in place. And almost none of that has had a perceptible impact on effective teaching and learning, or on equitable access to powerful learning for all students. In fact, the data seem to suggest the opposite: Our systems do not support what we know about good teaching and learning, and in fact are getting more inequitable and resegregated. What if this way of thinking is keeping us from seeing alternatives, and therefore, from achieving the equitable learning goals we desire, even when some of these alternatives are already in motion?

A new study by the Learning Policy Institute of the development of the Graduate Capstone Performance Assessment System in Oakland, Calif., might be instructive in this regard. The LPI study describes a process by which a group of teachers in Oakland, supported by a district director, developed innovative practice related to the district's senior project requirement. Iterating and improving that work over several years, they created, calibrated, and laterally spread a graduate capstone performance assessment system that eventually became the district standard. Describing how actual practice emerges and scales, using a different lens, can sometimes help us see beyond assumptions that might otherwise cloud our vision of the possible.

This story shows how practice can develop and spread in a way that transcends old dichotomies about "top down" and "bottom up." I will describe the story in more detail below, but essentially: 1) There were several district level initiatives that provided some context for the work; 2) A group of teachers came together with an interest in innovation related to the senior project, over time renamed the innovation they were working on from "senior project" to "graduate capstone," iterated the development of their innovative practice, and took advantage of some external resources to help with developing their knowledge; 3) They reached out laterally to connect with other teachers to spread the innovation, and connected it to existing needs those other teachers had; and, 4) District leadership refrained at any point from mandating what these teachers had done, but they noticed, supported, and elevated the emerging good practice.

1)      District level framing contexts: The story begins with a school board policy that all students would complete a senior project in order to graduate; however, this policy came with no guiding frameworks or criteria either for what a quality senior project would consist of, or how teachers and schools would organize to support its completion. This created serious equity challenges as well as work imbalances for teachers attempting to support students to complete the project. At the same time, the district became one of the initial nine districts piloting Linked Learning College and Career Pathways, an approach to high school redesign that combines academic courses and career- technical education in smaller cohorts of students and cross-disciplinary teacher teams within an industry-themed focus. Finally, district staff and teachers worked to develop a Graduate Profile of what the ideal OUSD graduate would look like and what skills and knowledge a graduate would have. All these district level frameworks and structural changes, while not deliberately connected or aligned at the policy or practice levels, helped set the stage for an emergent process of developing, innovating, improving, and spreading the coherent practice of a performance assessment system over a number of years.

2)      A group of innovating teachers: Within those contexts, a district director assembled a team of teachers who had already expressed concern about the current senior project, and over the first few years, worked closely with them and with some external partners to develop the first iterations of a graduate capstone process and assessment rubrics. Note that there was not a district level mandate to develop such a system; teachers had come together and created a community of practice because they were seeing such inequities and organizational complexities in trying to implement the senior project, and they wanted to figure out a better way. Over several years, they met for a week in the summers and three times during the school year to develop the capstone and the assessment rubrics for it, to try it out in practice, to bring student work to the team, to calibrate the assessments, and to iterate the process.

3)      Lateral outreach to connect with other teachers:  As the work progressed, the district director went with several of the teachers out to various Oakland high schools to meet with teachers in developing Pathways to explain what the innovative teachers were doing and see if the teachers in the Pathways felt a need for the graduate capstone work. The need was apparent, and more teachers joined in the effort, the less experienced working alongside those who had been part of the undertaking for a while, thus creating more opportunities for practicing, improving, iterating, and spreading the work. Pathways need to find a way to assess seniors, and eventually a way to "backward map" those assessments down through the grades to scaffold students' work (and curriculum) toward the rigor of the capstone, added to the relevance of the work that the teachers were doing.

4)      District leaders noticed, named, and supported: Finally, district leadership noticed and supported the spread of the innovative practice and its iterative improvement, but never mandated it. This is an example of leadership accelerating emergence that is neither top-down nor bottom-up. Nor is it an attempt by district leadership to meet across traditional "silos," such as the Teaching and Learning department and the Linked Learning department, in order to build strategic alignment; it is about leadership supporting coherence in shared and iterated practice on the ground and over time.

The organizational implications of this process are radical. Much of the layering of the bureaucracy, what Richard Elmore refers to as "the accumulated geological residue of generations of other people's ideas about what schools need to do," that is often "serial, incoherent, and persistent," is unneeded for this process to occur. Yes, there are district level policies and guidelines, and yes, there is leadership and resource allocation needed to support it. But this work is powerfully about a reframing of how districts see teachers, who are viewed as offering a profound level of collective knowledge and capacity for learning. It is also about encouraging their agency rather than targeting their deficits and is parallel to changing how we see students, regarding their agency as learners.

When you combine engagement with agency, and with a focus on supporting collaborative practice and capacity development, you get iterative innovation and improvement in practice. That is a whole different kind of animal from the old top-down vs. bottom-up heuristic. In addition, we need to explore the role of inquiry cycles and iterations of practice: While that kind of reflective practice is an integral, and learnable, process for teachers who deeply care about their teaching and their students, we've made it unnatural in mechanistic and linear models of district work (e.g., improvement science, and even some versions of the current fad of design thinking). And while we are about getting rid of the unnecessary layers of the bureaucracy, and our ideas about who we believe has knowledge and leadership within it, and old, tired metaphors for organization, we could also rid ourselves of the tired metaphors of "buy in" and "ownership," that derive from a consumerist heuristic about manipulating people into wanting things.

Thus, when teacher agency is added to broad frameworks, with intelligent and skillful, but minimal, district-level support, not much else of the current district apparatus would need to remain. Professional communities of practice, and flat, lateral networks for sharing across those, and systems to support that sharing, are about it. Sure, there is a need for, as Bill Traynor says, "systems to support doing routine things in routine ways," but that covers a very small part of what school districts actually should focus resources and structures on. The rest is a process of seeing leadership very differently, as Margaret Wheatley describes:

  • Notice: There will be innovation going on in your district; there always is. Often it goes unnoticed, or is just the isolated, individual effort of a lonely pioneer. Your job first is to notice that is happening.
  • Guide the process: Guide and then...
  • Notice what is emerging (that may be the seeds of a positive improvement), name that emergent thing;
  • Connect the pioneers in communities of practice and networks;
  • Nurture what emerges as the pioneers iterate their innovative practice;
  • Protect and provide resources for the networks ("resources" will include time and might include identified outside expertise or knowledge);
  • Illuminate their work to other interested potential "early adopters," or what David Albury refers to as "communities of engagement;" and champion the work.
  • Create opportunities for sharing more broadly, and keep other "communities of interest" informed of what is happening.
  • And don't forget to celebrate success along the way.

 So are we ready for this radical a change in how we view leadership, organization, and change? Otherwise, we will remain stuck with what should by now seem like an irrelevant assumed paradox, derived from old ways of seeing and organizing, in how we lead the process of school reform. And that will not serve our 21st century learning needs.

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