How Do Schools Get Better? (Part 6)

jarmoluk / Pixabay
jarmoluk / Pixabay

Doing the right thing…knowing the right thing to do. This is a question that we ask ourselves everyday as school leaders. Richard Elmore, professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University, published a paper with this title through the NGA Center for Best Practices (can be found here). He offers suggestions and practical advice on how schools can get better. After reading Elmore’s article graduate students in the Dordt College School Leadership program blogged similar advice, written specifically for Christian school leaders. Our fifth guest blogger is Jander Talen, Music teacher at Cochrane High School in Calgary, Alberta.

After reading Richard Elmore’s collection of essays: School Reform from the Inside Out, my head is spinning with school improvement practices. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Close the Gap – Elmore explains early in his book that one of the major issues in schools is the large gap between what we know to be true/best practices and what we’re actually doing as educators.  Schools need to provide their teachers with the resources, education, and assistance to implement what we know to be true/effective in the classroom.
  2. Clue into True Teaching – What we think to be good teaching and what actually is good teaching is skewed.  When we walk by a classroom and see all students smiling with eyes on the teacher and an animated educator in the front, we immediately think, “That must be a good teacher!”  Why do we think this? Students are engaged, teacher seems excited and enthused, and classroom management is a non-issue.  But what are the students learning? What are the students doing? Elmore explains that often in these cases the teacher does all the work and ends up leaving the students with little or nothing to do themselves. Elmore writes about a neat evaluation question that I believe we should be using in our classrooms. He writes, “If you walk into a classroom and sit down next to a student, ask them what they’re doing and why, and if you don’t get a clear answer, it is highly unlikely that any powerful learning is taking place” (240). Our schools would be better if our students could answer these questions.
  3. Collaborate – Wisdom from Within (SC vs. HC – Social vs. Human Capital) – While HC is important (abilities, knowledge, skills), Carrie Leana explains that SC (collaborative working environment/relationships), if implemented correctly, produces higher student output than HC. If you have 25 individuals with high levels of HC, the student output will generally be lower than if 25 individuals with low HC invested in SC. Student output then would be highest when individuals with high HC invest in SC. We need SC in our schools to improve schools – read Leana’s article here. 
  4. Climbing Mountains Requires Some Respite – Don’t undermine the improvement process by expecting all problems tackled to be solved quickly (Masterpieces take time – the Mona Lisa took around 10 years!). Look at it like climbing a high altitude mountain (Elmore’s analogy p.248). Climbers will climb, then wait, and repeat multiple times before they make their final assault on the summit.  These times of waiting are for acclimatizing, resting, reviewing progress, taking inventory of supplies, planning for the next increase in altitude, etc. We need to do the same when we’re improving, when we hit a flat line, don’t give up and think our progress has been in vain. Take time to reflect, re-adjust, and remember the route and why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  5. Clarify the Path – Sick people don’t need to be told, “get better.” They need to be told what to do to get better; the same goes for schools. Schools focusing on improvement need to focus on the path between their current state and where they want to end up.  The Heath brothers explain the process of change really well in their book Switch. After determining where to go (“Get Better”), the people involved will need to be motivated – fortunately, most educators would like their schools to be better. The last step is to shape the path. Give clear directions, steps, and education to clearly mark the route that will be taken to “Get Better.”

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