Strategic Plans and Mission Statements Provide Focus

It is not often that I disagree with @davidgeurin as he is an educator whom I follow on Twitter, regularly, and have learned to respect. He said:

“. . . culture isn’t made by mission statements, strategic plans . . . . School culture is built on behaviors, one action or interaction at a time. “

David is correct, of course, that cultures are built on the behavior of its people. He then said:

“It’s what people consistently do that shapes cultures.”

It has been my experience that what people do is, indeed, what “shapes cultures.” The problem is doing it  “consistently;” it is sustaining one’s focus and assuring that the message is shared throughout an organization.

While working with leaders and their organizations, across many venues, it was always disappointing to see when the underlying values that drive behavior do not penetrate deeply throughout the entity. A common pattern I would observe was how often values are shoved aside under the pressure of the daily challenges of demanding jobs, and in times of crisis.

Many leaders have been observed making verbal commitments to do this or that, or in our case, to behave and interact with people in a positive way. One after another, I’ve seen those same people drift. It is not a question of their lack of sincerity or commitment. It is simply a function of being distracted by the frenetic challenges of work and leadership. It happens to the best of us.

Building culture is also a shared responsibility and school cultures are no different. It is not just the man or woman in charge that matters, it is every member of the leadership team, however many layers of leadership there might be.

Even the most powerful message of a leader can be diluted, easily, by members of the leadership team who stray from course. It doesn’t matter what the CEO says and does if supervisors on the floor behave contrarily and tell a different story. The latter creates an alternate reality for the people of an organization and diminishes the credibility leadership. Few things are as disillusioning and demoralizing to the people of an organization as losing trust in one’s leaders.

If we are truly committed to a positive culture, we need every man and woman in the organization treating each other in a manner consistent with leadership’s message all the way out to the people on the line, in the pits, or in the classrooms. That message and associated behavior must resonate and reverberate throughout the organization and its supply chain.

This is where mission statements, strategic plans, and value statements come in. Putting one’s commitment is writing is a powerful thing and it makes reminding one another of that commitment so much easier. Mission statements, strategic plans, and value statements—no matter how eloquent—have minimal impact if they are stashed away in the principal’s bookcase or file cabinet, however. People must be able to see how those values motivate people and organizations in all things, both large and small.

Many organizations have mission and value statements etched on their walls and have copies of the strategic plans in break and conference rooms, as well as lobbies, for all the world to see.

Falling off the cultural/behavioral path is just as easy as a dieter or drinker “falling off the wagon.” We need to remind ourselves, and each other, to stay the course, relentlessly. The people of an organization, also, must be able to articulate mission and purpose as effectively as the man or woman in charge.

During a strategic planning meeting with a client, a member of the leadership team commented that all the things I was talking about were nothing more than “time-worn platitudes.” My response to him was that I prefer to think of them as the principles positive leaders utilize, daily, and remind themselves of, relentlessly.

My thanks to David Geurin for sharing his positive messages with us on Twitter, and for his indulgence of this piece.

“Social welfare programs? – A Conundrum”

In a recent gathering, someone remarked that the last things we need are more social welfare programs.

He was correct in implying that such programs do not fix dysfunctional systems. Social welfare programs almost always treat the symptoms of such dysfunctions, not the underlying problems; they are damage control. Unfortunately, until we address the underlying causes of our nation’s problems, we will continue to need damage control.

Social programs help support people who are damaged, in some way, by society’s dysfunctional processes, the most significant of which is the education process within which teachers and students must work.

What we need is a systems’ thinking approach that drills down to the proverbial root causes of our society’s challenges so we can begin to develop strategies to address them. Systems’ thinking not only helps us understand why systems are dysfunctional; it also helps us recognize the forces that influence human processes and organizations. Just as importantly, systems’ thinking helps us understand how we contribute to the problems that concern us; problems that plague our planet and our society.

As we noted above, our single greatest “systems’ failure” is public education. This is despite the heroic effort of America’s several million teachers. It is this observer’s assertion that every other social problem that exists is a product of that dysfunction, to one degree or another.

Because it is structured like a race to see who can learn the most, the fastest, the education process creates populations of winners and losers, along with a huge group of people in the middle. That latter population of people in the middle may not be losers but rarely do they experience satisfactory success. They are left wanting.

Because this population of men and women has not acquired a quality education, they have not learned the science of critical thinking or the art/science of creative problem-solving. This gives them little or no control over most of the outcomes in their lives. Although they cling to hope, they often feel powerless to elevate themselves to point from which they can achieve the level of affluence to which they aspire. Instead, these Americans hover in a netherworld of resentment and disappointment, never quite understanding the forces that play havoc with their lives or how their own behavior and beliefs contribute to their plight.

Such people are likely to resent the affluent, whose lives seem out-of-reach to them; and, even more, they resent when the tax dollars they so begrudgingly pay are expended to support the dependency of the less fortunate. That this population of the less fortunate includes a disproportionate percentage of people of color and those for whom English is a second language, creates another layer of complexity.  It validates, in the minds of many, the prejudices acquired from their families and subcultures. Such prejudices are socially destructive.

What our society requires of its education system, is that all children learn as much as they are able from their unique starting point, at their own best pace. Such an environment transforms the experience of young children, beginning at ages five and six. Because they are progressing along a learning continuum, they experience success not failure; in fact, one success after another.

What happens to any of us, while we are learning a skill, is that one gets better with practice. The better one gets the more confident one becomes. The more confident one becomes, they more often he or she succeeds in what becomes a perpetual growth process; a growth mindset, if you will. It is not long until students begin to expect success. As the success continues, the rate of learning begins to accelerate and the limits that have constrained these youngsters for generation begin evaporate.

Consider how different a teacher’s challenge would be if, rather than a classroom of students who are pushed ahead before they are ready and are experiencing disappointing outcomes, routinely; that teacher found him or herself in the midst of a classroom of students who expect to be successful and are enthusiastic about learning.

Which students are most likely to perform well on dreaded high-stakes, state competency examinations

If such outcomes became the norm in public schools, how quickly would the need for programs that provide public support to the poor, begin to diminish? How long before high-risk testing would be rendered irrelevant? How quickly could our teachers be able to shift the focus of students from learning answers to questions on state competency examinations to critical thinking and creativity?

This is the world we could envision if superintendents of districts with struggling elementary schools chose to utilize The Hawkins Model©.

We would have an education process designed to produce the outcomes the American people and society need if they are to flourish and also compete in the global marketplace?

Making Transformational Change

We all know how hard it is to change things that we’ve been doing  for what seems like forever. If you have ever tried to quit smoking, lose weight, start exercising, or one of a thousand other things, you know inertia can seem almost insurmountable.

Sometimes, however, we cannot get the need for change out of our head. It eats away at us and we might even lose sleep because we can’t stop thinking about it! Deep down we know something is wrong and we also know someone must do something about it. Why not let that someone be you?

Usually, we are only one among many who suffer the consequences of someone else’s inaction.  In the case of public education, everyone suffers because we seem to be stuck in time.

It is even harder when people are bashing us, always telling us we need to do something about this habit or that. No one likes to feel nagged into doing something and we don’t want to be blamed for it.

There is a part of us, however, that just wants to dig in and resist. Often, it is simply a matter of not wanting to admit that the other person might be right, especially when they are right for the wrong reasons; or to suffer what we feel is a blow to our self-esteem; or, just feel the need to defend ourselves from being unfairly blamed.

So, what do we do when there is a crisis and the need for a dramatic transformation is compelling? How do we overcome the monumental power of inertia and, often, self-defense?

Many teachers and administrators are experiencing all these things. They know public education is in crisis and they are sick and tired of taking the blame. They know many of their students are struggling and nothing we do seems to change that fact. Of course, even in struggling schools and classrooms, we do help some of our students but, often, there are just too many of them.

Teachers also know that all the attention they are asked to pay to high-stakes testing  only makes it worse, not better. The seemingly incessant focus on preparation for high-stakes testing just makes it harder to find the time to do the things we know are more important. We also have learned to resent the data from testing and how the numbers have been weaponized to attack teachers and the public schools to which we are so fiercely dedicated.

The truth is, teachers don’t need test scores to understand the problems in public education, because they see them every day in their schools and classrooms. The education system, however, is like a runaway train and all educators feel a sense of powerlessness to slow it down, let alone bring it to a halt.

Even teachers in high-performing schools and classrooms know, deep down, how fortunate they are to be teaching in district, school, or classroom where students want to learn. But for the grace of God—or good fortune–they could be laboring in a classroom where students who want to learn are few.

I challenge all public-school educators to take a step back and acknowledge that something is wrong and that the education process within which we are asked to teach offers no solutions.

I also challenge teachers and administrators to understand that legislators and policy makers cannot fix what is broken because they are too far removed from it to comprehend the full breadth and scope of the challenges facing our public schools.

It is imperative, also, that public school educators understand that education reformers; with their focus on charter schools, teacher- and union-bashing, and voucher programs; cannot fix public education because not only do they not understand how to fix it, they even fail to comprehend how much damage they do with their criticisms and misguided reforms.

The truth is that the only people who can fix what is wrong in so many of our schools and that harms so many of our nation’s precious sons and daughters, are the teachers and administrators who are up to their gills in challenges. What these teachers and educators must be willing to consider is that the answers cannot be found in the trenches.

It is the trenches, however, where professionals learn what is not working and they must feel compelled to utilize what they witness, daily, and what they have learned from those experiences as powerful motivations to embrace transformational change.

We must take back to the laboratories and drawing boards that which we learn in the pits, and then utilize the principles of systems’ thinking, of organizational development, and of positive leadership to create and entirely new way to structure, organize, task, and resource our schools. Only then are we ready to take these new solutions back to our community schools and classrooms.

Have no illusions. The only place we can fix public education in America is in our communities where men, women, and children live, learn, work, and play; and, the only people who can fix it are the teachers, administrators, and the parents of our students.

The key to transformational change is not in complaints, protests, demonstrations, and labor actions—as necessary as they might, sometimes, be.

The key to transformational change will come when professional educators and the communities they serve unite as positive advocates for a new and innovative idea. It must be understood that the sweeping changes that will be required will not be found in incremental changes, new approaches, methodologies, and new technologies, although each of these things will find a home in a new and well-conceived, 21st Century education process.

I respectfully offer an education model  I have developed as a point of embarkation. I call it The Hawkins Model© only to claim the right of authorships. If implemented, someday, my model will be available for free to any public, parochial, or private not-for-profit school that wants to utilize it. The Hawkins Model© was developed from all that I have learned after forty-five years of working with kids, leading organizations, solving problems, working as an independent organizational development and leadership consult, and of walking in the shoes of public school teachers as a substitute teacher in the elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms of a diverse, urban public school corporation.

Please take time to investigate my model. It may prove to be the solution we need. The very worst that can happen is that it will spark a better idea in the minds and imaginations of a few of you who are reading this post. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share it, widely, and open a dialogue.

Time is a Variable in the Education Equation, not a Constant

In our current education process within which teachers and students must do their important work, time is a constant component in what we might think of as the education equation.  Think of the education equation as you would any other algebraic equation used to illustrate the relationships of the components that work to produce desired outcomes. In the case of public education, we identify our desired outcome as student learning.

Time plays a significant role in the existing education process. We structure our classrooms according to age, which is a function of time. Students progress from Kindergarten or first grade through grade twelve on a year-to-year basis. Time, also, is integral to academic standards. Not only do those standards delineate the things children are expected to learn, we have also set time frames that are coordinated with student grade levels. These suggest where students should be in various skill development and subject areas at pre-determined points in time.

These time components are constants in that neither teachers, administrators, nor public school districts have been given the latitude to alter those time frames. They are part of the framework within which all are expected to work and are utilized to establish the basis on which outcomes are measured; specifically, student achievement . This suggests an underlying assumption that has far-reaching, adverse consequences for our nation’s children. It suggests all children learn and develop according to the same time schedules.

This plays out in the classrooms where students of a certain age are assigned to the same grade level and move from one grade to the next at the end of a calendar school year. Grades designed to measure and report student achievement are recorded by school year, semester, and grade period.

Within classrooms, students are expected to move from lesson to lesson and chapter to chapter as a group. Teachers develop lesson plans with time frames to which classes march in cadence, moving students from lesson to lesson. After allowing time for practice assignments, lesson plans have some time allocated for helping students learn from both their successes and mistakes. Within that framework, teachers do the best they can, responding to students with disparate needs and outcomes, but many  teachers would say it is never enough to meet the needs of every student, particularly those who struggle.

The reality is teachers are given little or no latitude to stop the march of time and make certain every child understands. When it is time, students are given chapter or unit tests and then must move on to next lessons and topics, ready or not.

When standardized tests are given, results are reported in relation to grade levels, as established by academic standards. When individual students are unable to pass these assessments in key subject areas, they are considered below grade level. In other words, they are not doing well when their performance is compared to students of the same grade and age.

This practice reveals significant flaws in our thinking about how students learn. We fail to consider that students start from the different points on an academic preparedness continuum. It also assumes that the appropriate way to gage a student’s progress is by comparing their progress to classmates.

Consider two students who arrive for school at the same time and age. One starts at point “zero” on a theoretical  “academic preparedness continuum,” while the other may have begun ten points ahead on that same preparedness scale.  Let’s assume, one year later, the first student has progressed from point zero to point six, while the second student has progressed from point ten to point fifteen. If the expectation is that students, at that age and grade, should have progressed to point fifteen, the second student is at grade level and the first is not.

Had we taken a closer look at the data, we would see that the first student actually made more progress than their classmate. With this data in hand, which student would we say accomplished the most? Is keeping up with a classmate truly more important than making significant individual progress? Most of us would say it is not, yet this is the way we assess performance.

This is an over-simplification, to be sure, but it is representative of what happens in classrooms across the nation for millions of children. The consequences of such things can be staggering in the life of a child. Consider that the first student, working hard to catch up and making progress, is viewed by the system as behind, based on test scores. In these situations, do any of these students begin to acquire the label of being below average or slow? We say this does not happen, but we all know it does.

We also say that the expectations for such students are never lowered but do we believe that? What happens to the child for whom expectations are lowered? How do they ever get back on track? They same is true at the conclusion of each lesson. How do students fare who are pushed ahead before they fully grasp the subject matter?   

The key to resolving these types of inequalities is to make time an independent variable, rather than a constant; giving teachers and administrators the latitude, first, to see that kids who are behind, for whatever reason, are given more time and attention so they might catch up; and, second, to measure each child’s performance against their own progress rather than on the basis of an arbitrary schedule of expectations or the performance of others.

Time can be an extraordinarily powerful tool  to enable teachers to help kids sustain their progress and be recognized as a “striving learner” rather than as one of the slow kids in the class. Presently, time is an extraordinarily negative force, constraining teachers and impeding student progress. This is just one example of how the education process is structured to function contrary to the best interests of both students and teachers.

The education model I have created was designed to mold the education process, including time, around the needs of teachers and students. The Hawkins Model© is engineered to empower teachers to utilize time as a resource to help students experience, celebrate, and be recognized for their progress; for their success. Consider how an environment is transformed when both students and teachers enjoy success. Confidence grows with each successful step taken. Once a child’s confidence and self-esteem begin to soar, who knows how much they may accomplish, someday. If you are a teacher, imagine what such an atmosphere would mean to you.