By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director
It will be unpopular to write about taking the long view in public education at a time when everyone is struggling to get through the next few minutes in a day, but someone has to. I am convinced that if we don’t direct some of our energy to the possibilities the future can hold, we will squander the opportunities, which have become all the more apparent through meeting the challenges of the pandemic. If we are reluctant to act, the future will quickly become the past and there will be additional dire consequences, especially for black and brown, special education and economically disadvantaged children who were not served equitably before the pandemic. Do we have the will to act?
We all need to acknowledge that there were problems with our educational system long before the pandemic, inequities that mirrored those in the broader society. In many cases, the existing racial and socio-economic divide has been exacerbated. However, in some instances certain students have benefited from remote learning. One reason is, they can avoid the trials and tribulations of navigating the physical and social spaces in schools where bullying, peer pressure, discrimination and the like take place daily. These students, their parents and educators should be concerned about schools going back to “business as usual” in the Fall. We have learned through this pandemic that public schools as they were traditionally constituted are not for every child and there is evidence we can offer beneficial alternatives. Will we rethink the school experience?
Organizations, systems and people can create and innovate their way to sustainable solutions. Furthermore, though public sector employees may be hesitant to apply research findings from the private sector to their work, there can be applicability from a systems level, if not an individual level. One example of private sector research, which may be transferable to assisting with addressing the current decision-making challenges facing public education, comes from the book, “Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma,” by O’Reilly and Tushman (2016). The term the authors use, ambidexterity, may provide a path forward, but only if we are willing to let go of some of the past. What can we let go of?
O’Reilly and Tushman (2016) share research about successful organizations that hone and sharpen their strengths while simultaneously seeking the next innovation or breakthrough. This is ambidexterity, and yes, this concept can be applied to public schools. For instance, during the pandemic, districts, schools and individual educators have communicated with families and their communities in more personal and meaningful ways. Communication with families has always been a key component to student success. Schools have improved and expanded home visit strategies, or have turned to hosting virtual meetings at times convenient to the schedules of families. These are examples of improving on processes already in place.
To be ambidextrous, communication must be taken to another level. For example, in the book, “Just Schools,” Ishimaru (2019) describes how to build equitable collaborations with families through community co-design of the educational system. From this perspective, families and individuals who are often marginalized are empowered to be leaders in the decision making processes of schools and districts. Similarly, Green (2017), in articulating the components of a community-based equity audit, advocates for the creation of CLT’s or Community Leadership Teams. The CLT according to Green (2017) would consist of community stakeholders who are demographically representative of the community (p.25). In addition, the CLT, unlike many school or district community-based committees, would work to address challenges raised by the committee members, not predetermined agendas set by the school or district. As an ambidextrous organization, schools and districts in this example innovate communication, a foundational function, by developing and implementing research-based inclusive and empowering practices.
As budget discussions and planning for the 2021-2022 fiscal year take center stage over the next few months, it would behoove district and school leaders, educators and communities to consider how resources can be used to promote ambidexterity. These decisions should be grounded in vision, mission and values statements that speak to the value of sharpening your focus on current successful practices and investing in the research and development needed to innovate and implement “next practices.” R&D, once thought only to be the purview of the private sector can be used successfully in the public sector if we are committed to taking the long view. Are we willing to take the long view?