Turning on the lights for better school reform

In my last post about the tyranny of “data-driven decision making,” I wrote about my adventures in data-driven hotel navigation.  At the end of that post, I asked the question, “Why don’t we turn on the lights?”  The hotel story is an analogy about the limits of data-driven decision making, while turning on the lights suggests a more stretegic way to look at school reform.

What would it mean to “turn on the lights,” data style, at a school?  Here are some suggestions for making it happen:

1. Envision the victory.  When our school “wins”—when we achieve the transformation we are dreaming of and hoping for—what does that look like?

2. Take inventory.  What is our school already doing so well that we would like to maintain in the new vision?  How can we ensure that we don’t lose those elements of our organization during the change process?  In addition to preserving some of our practices for the new vision, we need to honor all of the habits and practices that we are looking to change.  Whether these practices simply don’t meet our needs anymore, or even if they were absolutely dysfunctional, they got us and our school to this point.  No matter how or why we got here, being in a place where we are ready to make a positive transformation is a great place to be.

3. Look at the map.  Whether it’s a trip across the hotel room or across the country, the traveler has some decisions to make.  There are many paths to the same destination, and there are many obstacles along the way.  Some obstacles need to be avoided, even though our detour is going to delay our arrival at the destination.  Other obstacles are going to have to be confronted and dealt with because avoiding them will knock us too far off of our path.  In reforming our school, we may need to adjust our vision to accommodate existing laws or contract language, or we might have to adjust our union contracts and lobby for legislation in order to allow us to make the changes we want for our students.

4. Let the people drive.  Data should not drive.  I don’t think data even has a driver’s license.  If we allowed data or information to drive our road trip, then the first time we hit a detour, we would turn from our planned path and never get to our destination.  On the trip, data informs us of adjustments we need to make in order to get back on track as quickly and painlessly as possible.  So it should also be with school reform.  If we believe in our vision for a transformed learning landscape, then one set of poor test scores should not knock us off of the path to our goals.

5. Keep calm and carry on.  Fairy Godmother changed Cinderella’s clothes with a wave of a wand; Beauty transformed Beast by a kiss, but in the real world, change is hard.  It’s important for our team to be comfortable with what seems to be a contradiction.  Change takes time, and we can only achieve it one day at a time.

6. Check in.  Perhaps the main thrust of this post is providing me an outlet to vent my frustrations with data-driven decision making.  Here I was to step down off of my soapbox and acknowledge that while people should be driving, data should inform the drivers.  Periodically, our school should check in and discuss whether our goals and vision for our school still make sense.  If they don’t, then we can make adjustments.  If they still do, then we can have a second discussion.  Does our planned route still serve our goals?  Just like with reviewing our vision, we can affirm or adjust.

7. Just keep swimming; just keep swimming.  Once we check in on our goals and our plans to achieve them, we must get back to doing the day-to-day legwork of making our vision real.

If I had taken Noah’s advice, my late-night trip to the little teachers’ room would have been far less problematic.  I could have turned on the lights.  In no time, I could have clarified my goals, located my path, avoided the obstacles and achieved my goals.

We can do the same as we strive to transform our schools to meet the evolving needs of our students.

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