Overcoming Uncertainty In Time of Dramatic Change

September 21, 2012

To state the obvious, as educational leaders, you have faced unprecedented challenges this year.  In all likelihood, you will do so again next year and the year after that.  It appears that our educational world has either entered a period of dramatic transition (which suggests stability sometime in the future) or a state of “permanent white water”.


Never before have educational leaders faced change of this magnitude.  In the past, most school change was technical in nature.  For example, in 1985, my first year as superintendent, my top priorities were asbestos removal and master schedule adjustments to accommodate new Regent Action Plan requirements.   By contrast, your challenges include extremely complex adaptive changes—CCLS, DDI, APPR, SLO—which taken together are designed to totally remake your institution.


In the face of such complexity which is so difficult to comprehend, natural human responses could include paralysis, avoidance, delay or minimal compliance.  And yet, the wonderfully dedicated and professional leaders with whom I interact regularly respond very differently.  Though frustrated by unrealistic timelines,  lack of clarity in the requirements, scarce resources and resistance to change, the leaders I know are still committed to guiding their school communities successfully through to a better place for kids.


Unfortunately, there are no easy answers about how to do this.  As H.L. Mencken noted a hundred years ago, “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution.  And it’s wrong.”  Despite training materials that may suggest otherwise, your implementation of the Race to the Top program will be many things but it will not be straightforward.  No magic bullets or packaged programs exist that will allow you to avoid the inevitable confusion and conflict which accompanies any large change effort.


Despite the uncertainty and ambiguity of the moment, I have every confidence  that, over time, educators will find ways to consider, implement and synthesize these catalytic changes and provide a quality 21st century educational experience for the youth of their communities.  As you go about doing this, I thought I would share a few ideas for your consideration:


Avoid a Compliance Mentality

Given the large number of changes, each with several moving parts, which must be implemented in a short period of time, it is easy to fall into a compliance mentality in which each of the new programs is treated in isolation and success is viewed as meeting the regulations.  Rather than installing APPR and SLOs, the Common Core, DDI and the inquiry teams in serial fashion, it is critical to help your school community to understand that these are actually an integrated set of initiatives designed to transform your curriculum, instruction, assessment and supervisory programs so that young people will be prepared for their futures.


Be Prepared to Adjust Your Plans

Initial strategic planning will only take you so far.  Though you must obviously consider when and how the pieces fit together, unforeseen events such as loss of key personnel, changes in state requirements, resource shortages or various misunderstandings will inevitably occur and force you to continually reassess and readjust your implementation plans.  As Thomas Carlyle advised, “Go as far as you can see.  When you get there, you will be able to see farther.”


Rethink Your Leadership Practices

The first responsibility of all leaders, and the one over which they have the most control, is to manage themselves.  How and where they spend their precious finite time in large part determines their success. In the new educational world that has dawned, the successful district and building leader will be found where teaching and learning are happening and not in the office.  Leaders’ days will be spent providing useful feedback to teachers and facilitating quality improvement meetings with faculty.  Office work, which currently consumes so much of the leader’s day, will need to be rethought or reassigned and not done on your second shift at the end of the day when everyone else goes home.


Share the Vision

Michael Fullan has observed that, “You can’t mandate what matters.”  In education, in the final analysis, leaders can ensure the compliance of others but can’t make them care.  It is critical to take the time to share, discuss, analyze and debate the vision of the new programs with others in your school community until they make it their own.  If you miss this step, you will find yourself returning to it as implementation will stall.


Become a Learning Culture

Schools that succeed in our dynamically complex environment will be those which have cultivated the enduring commitment, creativity and adaptability of their entire community.  They will also have leaders who are willing and able to empower everyone to continually learn, experiment, share and make meaning together.  The future clearly will belong to the learners.


Helping all students to attain 21st century knowledge and skills is a noble aspiration and one worthy of our very best efforts.  But, it is also an audacious goal since this requires schools to go where they have never gone before to meet objectives they have never met before.  That makes it exactly the kind of time in which leaders wish to live.

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