Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Culture of Change

What does it mean to create a culture of change in a school? A district, a state? Is it even something worth talking about? Does it mean the same thing everywhere? Can you take change in one district or building, pick up the lessons and apply them directly to another building?

Is there a school of thought on how and where to place change so that it has the most chance of spreading to where it's needed?

How am I defining the culture of change? There are institutions that do things the same way, over and over again, and keep getting bad results, add more and more of what isn't working, watch things still not change, that can be called intransigent, entrenched. Stuck. I'm a school board member, a parent of schoolchildren; I haven't worked in a school building or central office, so I don't know the subtleties. I do know what groups of people do and I have read Lord of the Flies. Introducing a culture of change in an institution can be difficult, even impossible.

I've written before that the main reason I oppose a charter here in RSU 3 has to do with the culture of change. My fear is that because of the difficulties of entrenchment, the institution won't ever change, and that those who want change will take the opportunity to start something new on the outside. It's easier to make change there, start fresh, no bad history, just good energy and new ideas. Charters promise this. "We'll show you how good it works, so you'll want to do it too!" But the charter started fresh: no entrenchment, no history. There's a reason why very few public schools have adopted models that were tested and worked well in a stand-alone school. The problem is the entrenchment; the problem is the lack of a culture of change.

So why bother with the change that is so hard? Because after you create the new, clean, energetic and exciting school, the old institution will be left just the same. For all the kids who are not being homeschooled, privately schooled or enrolled in charter schools, the unchanged institution remains. I don't think that possibility should be tolerable to those of us agitating for school change. I can't put my energy behind a movement for change that has, in its design, left some kids out.

When you make a change in an institution, you start small. Maybe teachers start something in their classrooms, maybe they talk about it, kids get together at lunch and talk about a new way of doing things, talk about how they are pursuing their passion in a new class. Parents find out about it, they want it for their kids, things get around. As Arlo Guthrie says, pretty soon, they might think it's a movement.

So here is my question: what is the culture of change to you, and how important is it? How many different ways are there to introduce change to an entrenched system? Am I right to be against the opening of a charter in my district, because I don't want to "quarantine" change to a building where the effects of it have no chance of leaking out into the rest of the system? At the same time, it saps money and energy from the mother ship, weakening its ability to make change of its own. I can't get behind it. I dont' want to make change for some, with the vague idea of making change for the rest "in the fullness of time."

I'm asking for input, Stephanie! I'm asking those of us working on this issue to come forward with their experience with how change happens. Please re-post and re-tweet; send folks here. I will listen and change my ideas about this little charter school, if the message is that I'm wrong about change.
March 28, 2012

Today I'll ask a slightly different question: Can adults change the culture of an institution in such a way that makes school more relevant, makes learning more real, to students, without including the voice of students?

What mistakes, what wrongheaded approaches to change will come from this ageist and dismissive attitude toward young people?

Yes, it's a leading question. But WHY can we NEVER feel safe just asking kids, many kids, every day, WHAT DO YOU THINK?



  1. It seems to me that charter schools pop up more and more when the main institution (or district) is, for lack of a better term, troubled.

    Charter schools can open up new paths. Most often, the desire to start a charter school comes when the 'mother ship' is in trouble. It could be from bureaucracy, lack of funding, broken State and Federal regulations… teaching to the test, failed and stagnate curriculum issues… any number of things. Most often though it's layers of these troubles combined and there's a bunch of innovative folks who want to do something different that the main institution simply won't allow.

    I think it all comes down to will.

    Institutions as you've mention are wary of change, often almost obstinate. Broken or dysfunctional practices go on, and on, and on. It leads to burnout, low morale… you name it.

    In larger institutions, small committees are usually established to discuss something hypothetically and then the issue is tabled. Pretty soon, the folks you want around the table leave, shut the door, and just teach. Or… sweeping decisions often don't involve key players and are always 'added' to the equation. Professional development as a typical example. Ask most anyone working in a school and they'll tell you early morning hours or after school professional development time is primarily ineffective. Or… the one hour per month model is in practice. Schools that have made the most progress on these fronts build such things into the day, they replace current initiatives.

    I guess what Im saying is… small changes can get things moving.

    If it's a high school, there's a significant amount of evidence out there that says we should start high school later, that teenagers are wired differently biologically at this stage in development. Most don't for reasons like' we've always done it this way,' or 'that's our bus schedule.' Schools reporting later start times have a raft of evidence that the change is positive. Many start small and then extend the start time further out to 830 and even 9am.

    PII coming up...

  2. Schedule more time in between classes and at lunch. Reduces stress and gives people more time to collaborate. Disciplinarians will herald that students need to be driven to the minute. School culture dictates this, often times not the students.

    Build in professional development time during the day. Internships for students during this time, even to the extent of a half day (2.5 - 3 hours) once per week. It breaks a mold… and injects new life and energy into the conventional grind.

    Have a homework policy that's actively discussed and practiced.

    In a nutshell… it's how we practice 'time' in education that is a leading cause, a cog of dysfunction.

    Charter schools, at least everyone I've found, break this conventional struggle with time.

    Urban Academy and Calhoun School in NYC, and the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philly. They all broke this 'time' barrier… and Calhoun sports the most civilized, effective, and healthy school lunch program I've encountered in an educational system. Calhoun's practices on this front are often dismissed because 'they are a wealthy private school,' but the fact remains… they found a way and made it happen.

    Urban Academy and SLA, after visiting both, they state openly that their internship / PD time built into the schedule is critical to their success. Both are visible on tier web sites.

    Ann Cook at Urban even stated once when I met her that 'we schedule time around our courses, not courses around time.' Last I heard, the folks at Urban rebuild their master schedule every semester. Never heard of a 'traditional school' that sports that kind of motion. Schedules are often 'run' for years in a state of dysfunction, trying to meet diverse needs with an institutionalized approach. We've heard it before… every class allocated the same amount of time, 45 minutes or an hour regardless of the time needed. Right?

    What you see in charters… is flexibility. It's not a one size fits all model and most of the good ones will tell you just that. It's about attention to 'what we need to make this work well', and a resolve to change things and adapt… a function most larger institutions have completely lost.

    Trim down instructional time and it gets more effective. Preach responsibility and offer support and systems to build that trust… not just hire more people to instill discipline. Shift the connect of time and and responsibilities by age. Treating Freshman the same as Seniors in the same time schedule never made sense to me whatsoever.

    Start small and make progress. Or… start a charter and make some of these positive, momentum building initiatives happen.

    Two cents I guess, before the first cup of coffee ; )

  3. Before anyone gets too invested in change for legitimate pedagogical purposes, please remember there are only 24 hours in a day. People involved in scheduling know that after-school sports consume a terrific amount of those hours.

    Yes, I know, sports and other extra-curricular activities shouldn't be a major factor in determining what's good for school schedules. But it is. Getting student athletes from one school to another for a game in time for them to get home and get some sleep is a real challenge. And, for many kids, sports are a reason to be in, and stay in, school.

  4. It's worth putting everything that an entrenched institution carries on the table when considering change. If kids are pursuing their passion during the regular school day, what does that do to their athletic interests, which formerly were the only thing making a strong connection between them and school?

  5. Adam, if you could create something new that would eliminate a lot of the entrenched practices of public education, would you do it in a stand-alone building, or create it within a school, where the changes would become visible, part of the larger community?

    I like what you say about time being a factor in creating a change culture, loosening up on the stress points. It's worth thinking about.

  6. Unfortunately, the changes that are needed are too wide-spread. Please consider the fact that most parents don't pull their kids out of a public school without first trying to make things work. Many of us have fought "the good fight" but if it's your child who is suffering, it's simply not worth it.
    The model that needs to be adopted needs to foster independent learning, creativity, critical thinking, and higher-level thinking skills. It needs to consider that your most gifted, talented, and creative kids are not necessarily the teacher-pleasers or the high-achievers. They are being mislabeled and recommended for medications they don't need, simply because they need to learn differently.
    Parents need to be considered part of the team, not the enemy. They are their children's first teachers and they generally know a thing or 2 about their kids. Use that information.
    Finally, ask the kids what they think they need and what they'd like school to be like. You may be amazed at what they say.

  7. Lisa, great article. However, you are still assuming that a charter would have change as its true purpose when taking over a public school. It is not. The mandate of a charter is profit. It answers to its investors and shareholders. The proprietors of the charter school business are extremely good at putting on an altruistic face to their endeavors. So many people are easily convinced that charters are somehow different from other profit organizations and will put the interests and concerns of students and families ahead of profit.

    Now, having said that, people are also easily convinced that charters will be different from "troubled" public schools. I can see how that can happen especially when the chartered school has brand new shiny desks and the public school doesn't. Seriously, that is all it takes for people to WANT to send their kids (and their tax money) to a charter! Besides, that there is no real and intrinsic change to "schooling" that a charter offers. In some cases they become even more entrenched in old standardizing methods by the sheer fact that it is so darn profitable to be that way.

    You want to pop the charter school bubble? Hit them where their bottom line will hurt the most - standardized testing. Opting out is the smallest, yet most significant change individual students and their families can do to improve education - yet, it is a practical impossibility for many (mostly because of the powerful resistance you will get from the institutions).

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of charters and how they leave many children behind. But the changes that charter schools promise to bring or "appear" to bring are just shiny objects distracting you from their real purpose - profit. Public schools, with all their foibles, are still institutions with the sole mandate of serving the community. That fact alone should give you pause, and something you should probably point out to the other school board members.

  8. Dori, I agree with just about everything you say, above; the point about the fight not being worth it for parents of kids who are suffering -- that's the crux of it, for me.

    We need to take care of the kids in school right now, but we also need to take care of the kids left out of changes, still in schools that teach in the traditional, "batch" fashion. How can we do both???

    Innovative schools, Charter or otherwise, develop a different culture than regular pub. ed. schools. What I'm hearing is that in order to introduce a culture of change to the regular schools is to include parents in the dialogue. I totally agree!

  9. Chris, I totally agree with what you say about the overall goal of the charter movement. I look at these things through a national lens, but I also I narrow in to my tiny district of 1400 students, where two very good-hearted and skilled teachers (one alt-ed and one special-ed teacher, both with years of experience and a desire to shrug off the pub-ed yoke and do their best on their own turf) want to open a charter school here based on many of the education principles I believe in. As an innovative school, it's a decent model. As a charter, it is, to me, unwelcome, for three reasons: Money, energy and culture.

    The third is what I most begrudge: taking our money and our energy is one thing, but using those key things to make a culture where my system can't benefit from it is something I can't support.

    I think those 2 people are taking entirely the wrong strategy by hitching themselves to the charter wagon, but nobody asked me!

    Instead, I am agitating for the adoption of something called the Independent Project (http://mindsofkids.blogspot.com/2011/12/for-past-three-weeks-or-so-i-have-been.html) which will be inside our walls (metaphorically) and part of our developing culture of change.

    So on one hand, we are part of a vision team that is including community in a dialogue about what kind of education we want. I've been through a few of these in my 8 years on the board, but I have the most faith and hope I have ever had in this process's success. While some teachers are trying out new methods of student-driven learning, others will be pursuing their greatest interests in a democratically structured "school-within-a-school." To me, those things are moving the culture forward, and that's what I want more than anything.

  10. Lisa, have you had conversations with the two educators trying to open a charter to see what is holding them back from instituting change within their schools? To get to the point where you'd rather open a charter than do something in your building, something has to have gone terribly wrong. Figure out what that is (bad culture amongst staff? poor administrative leadership? a school board that lacks a real vision?) and then do something about it (easier said than done, I know).

  11. I have thought of it...unfortunately, I positioned myself very early on as against the charter, therefore against them. They're good at what they do, and are doing good where they are now; I would say that staying there and analyzing how to change their district would be a good goal, but they didn't ask me. :)

  12. As a member of the schoolboard, should they have to ask you?

  13. Of course not; I was responding to your suggestion that I speak to them.