SYSTEMIC SCHOOL REFORM IS A MARATHON by Larry Aronstein


SYSTEMIC SCHOOL REFORM IS A MARATHON

by Larry Aronstein


When one comes into a new leadership position, the deficiencies of the organization become pretty apparent after a few months. I have had occasion to participate on visiting committees for purposes of school accreditation and identifying meritorious schools for grants and awards. Visitations usually last a few days during which time I would meet with a whole range of groups and individuals within the school. After two or three days, I would usually have a fairly clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the school.  It doesn’t take long. There’s no place to hide 800-pound gorillas. Coming into a new job as a school leader is very much the same thing. Within a few months, you could usually scope out about 90% of what’s right and wrong within the organization.

However, I have learned over the years that the hidden 10% is really the most difficult to figure out and even more difficult to fix. Painting a room is a fitting metaphor. Ninety percent of the job is the space on the walls. Ten percent is the area around the floor, ceiling, windows, and outlets. Painting that 10% usually takes as much time and requires even more effort than the 90% of wall space. We judge the quality of the paint job by looking at the hard to paint parts. The same goes for schools.

I had a friend who was an engineer. He told me that there was an engineering principle that said that it took the same amount of energy input to do the first 90% of a job than it took to do the next 10% of the job.  In other words, to get from 51 to 52 takes a 1% effort of input, but to get from 90 to 91 or 97 to 98, it took ten times the input to gain the additional one percent. 

What does all of this have to do with implementing systemic school reform as a school leader? If my theory works, to improve upon 90% of the deficiencies that you find takes a couple of years on the job. It is called “picking the low hanging fruit.” Working on the next 10% requires at least the next four years. Creating and institutionalizing systemic changes involve elevating the organization to new standards. System theory calls this process “growing the conditions of the organization”.  Systems thinkers tell us that for every “growing action” there is an opposite “slowing action”—those actions that resist changes. Most people who work within the organization are usually quite content with the predictability and equilibrium of the existing conditions of the organization. This doesn’t make them bad people or necessarily bad professionals. In fact, they are usually good people. Most of us like the security of working within an organizational structure that is comfortable and predictable. However, comfort and predictability do not lead to excellence. So, when leaders develop strategies which are intended to lead to growing actions, many people in the organization respond with strategies and tactics that frustrate those actions. The greater the intended reforms, one should expect the greater the resistance. In my experience, the greatest challenge for school leaders is how to overcome resistance and oppositional behavior which exist throughout the organization and in the school-community.

Let me give you just a few typical examples.  What happened when a leader attempted to change the textbook in a school, at a grade level, or teachers’ favorite text?  What happened when you tried to transition from methodologies where the teacher was the center of instruction to one where the student became the center? What happened when we put computers into classrooms? What is happening when we want to emphasize student thinking into the instructional program? In every case, there are slowing actions– some call it “push back”.

So how do we cope with slowing actions? Short answer, we attempt to neutralize each tactic with a counter tactic. When a new technology platform is put in place, you send around a trainer who spends time with every individual in the organization who uses the system demonstrating to use the new system. Not only do you provide training, but you give the people who are using the new system several months notice as to when the new system will take effect. You leave both systems up and available, and then you wean folks off of the old one and eventually remove it at the pre-designated date. Change requires providing additional energy inputs into the system. In effect, you might still be using the old system which operates at the existing cost, while you are simultaneously designing and implementing a new system at significantly extra costs.

What are the mega changes taking place now? I would place the effective use of remote learning, and dealing with issues of equity and racism at the top of the list. These are sweeping structural changes and cannot be confused with school improvements because of the scope and complexities of such structural change. Sweeping structural changes demand seismic efforts and require more than a four-year cycle.

Sustained, systemic structural change often requires about six to eight years. To finish a marathon demands effective, sustained and committed leadership. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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