In Amplifying Talent – Part I we shared some of Dr. Carrie Leana’s recent research which challenges the current ideology on school reform. I hope that the phrase school reform is not an offensive one to you. Rather, I hope that you embrace this phrase and consider a slight modification. School re-form, the act of continuously finding innovative (simply defined as different and better) ways to meet the needs of our students. Dr. Leana identified three implicit beliefs that have obstructed our ability to re-form or have caused an inability to amplify the talent that currently exists in our schools. The first belief was that we focus too much on the human capital in our schools – a teacher’s experience, their subject expertise, and their pedagogical skills – and too little on developing social capital, the patterns of interaction among teachers. Simply stated, we put our trust in the power of the individual versus the power of the collective. This belief would be antithetical to the foundational aspect of CACE – we believe that while we (individual schools/leaders) can probably go faster alone, we can go much farther together as a network of Christian schools.
Dr. Leana identifies a second implicit belief that gets in the way of transformative school change – putting our confidence in the wisdom of the outsider versus recognizing and utilizing the talent that we have within. She readily notes that bringing in an outside expert can certainly bring fresh ideas and new practices to a tired system. She quotes Dr. Sandra Harwell, VP of Professional Development at Cord, “reform is not an event, it is a process.” According to Dr. Harwell, school reform is a process that has both context and content.
School reform will be successful in settings, or contexts, that support it. That starts at the top of the organizational chart. The chances of a new initiative causing real change will depend, to a large extent, on whether the administrators of the school consider it important. The level of importance is often perceived as whether a school leader attends the trainings, and, if the impact of the new initiative is measured. A second distinguishing marker is a shared sense of need for change. For example, if teachers believe that the students’ overall poor behavior is a significant detractor in their achievement, they will be more likely to adopt a school-wide practice such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. A third factor for success will be whether teachers consider the learning a communal activity. Learning together is a powerful persuader – being immersed in that community of critical friends allows us to get unstuck from the ideologies that creep into our thinking when we only work alone.
Finally, the content of the professional development (PD) matters if school reform is the intended outcome. PD should be based on teaching and learning strategies that will have a high probability of positively affecting students’ learning and their ability to learn. PD should hone our content expertise, sharpen our skill set, and deepen our understanding of the image-bearers that create the learning community in our classrooms. Lasting PD is relational, allowing us to experience, apply, and collaborate. Can this type of PD be done with an “outsider?” Probably, but if we want the initiative to have lasting impact on students’ learning and their ability to learn, I think we need to tap that third grade teacher or secondary English instructor on the shoulder to lead us in the process.
If you are leading the amplification efforts, consider whether your best move is to bring in the outsider or re-form from within. Crafting the context and content in collaboration with those in our schools has a much higher probability to produce the positive effects we are seeking – our students’ learning, our students’ ability to learn, and the creation of working conditions where teachers are recognized for the truly amazing things they do.
For additional information about Dr. Leana’s research on social capital, check out her article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review here
Historically, many of these have been unsustainable efforts. When a new school practice does not have a champion that is on campus, doing the hard work of implementation, these efforts tend to go by the wayside. But, as those who have gone through accreditation visits can certainly attest, the greatest value to this process is the self-study, not the group of experts who come in for three days.
Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.