What I’d hold YOU accountable for

I got a rush out of the time that I spent at Educon last weekend.  There’s nothing quite like having the chance to meet people that I’ve learned from online for so long in real life.

Intellectual networking—finding connections between my own thinking and the thinking of peers working in dozens of different schools—was awesome.

But I think I rubbed several principals the wrong way on the first night of Educon when I wrote:

Note to principals:  If you want me to innovate, you’ve got to create the conditions that encourage me to experiment.  

Seemed harmless enough to me.  It’s not like I haven’t written about the frustrations I feel with being held accountable for student performance while having my professional hands tied by decisions outside of my control before.

But I quickly found myself buried in pushback replies from principals.  “You can innovate if you want to,” they’d say.  “You’ll have better luck if you’d just try.”

Some of the replies were borderline sarcastic.  Most were overly idealistic.  All of them drove me nuts because the fact of the matter is the work of the classroom teacher is still largely controlled by decisions made by those working beyond the classroom—and many of those decisions are actively discouraging innovation and experimentation in our classrooms.

If you’re serious about encouraging innovation and experimentation in our schools, consider:

Completing an initiative inventory immediately:

Most teachers that I know are completely buried in new programs and projects dreamed up by someone working beyond the classroom.

We’re wrestling with new reading programs, behavior management programs, parent communication programs, character education programs, teacher evaluation programs, teacher professional development programs and innovative grading programs all at the same time.

And while each program has merits that teachers could get behind, tackling twelve different projects at once leaves us intellectually overwhelmed.

We can’t get our heads wrapped around so many big changes at once—and until we get our heads wrapped around the changes you’re asking us to embrace, we can’t even begin to think about innovating and/or experimenting with them.

So take some time to sit down and look at exactly what you’re asking your teachers and schools to do.  Make a list.  Rank your initiatives in order of importance—and then ditch all but the top two items on your list.

Pluheesse stop trying to hold us accountable for your inability to prioritize.  That’s just not fair.

Making innovation and experimentation a stated—and celebrated—expectation in your buildings:

This is going to rub someone the wrong way, but I’ve got to say it. I find it completely comical to hear policymakers and school leaders lamenting the lack of innovation in the classroom while rolling out scripted pacing guides that teachers are expected to follow closely.

How, exactly, are we supposed to innovate when our lessons are planned for us day after day after day after day?  More importantly, why would we even think that innovation was an option when we’re living in a scripted world?

If you were really serious about encouraging innovation and experimentation, you’d write school vision statements that described the actions and behaviors of innovative teachers—and then you’d ask us to provide evidence of how we were living up to the vision that you were painting.

Evaluations would include conversations about the instructional risks that we’d taken during the course of the year.  We’d share samples of lessons that we thought held real potential and explain what it was about those practices that were promising.

Better yet, we’d share samples of lessons that had failed and explain what we’d learned—about ourselves, our instruction and our students—in the process.

We’d detail the ways that peers—both those that we know in person and those that we ‘know’ digitally—had shaped our thinking about teaching and learning.

Sadly, none of this happens in most schools.  Teachers are held accountable for test scores if they teach in tested subjects, and if they don’t they’re held accountable for simple checklist behaviors.

Long story short:  If you want innovation and experimentation, you’ve got to prioritize and reward intellectual curiosity instead of basic compliance in every conversation that you have about teacher accountability.

Collect information on innovation and experimentation in your classrooms:

Can I ask you a simple question:  What kind of tangible data on innovation and experimentation are you currently collecting in your schools and districts?

That’s what I thought.  None, right?

I can’t say as I blame you.  We are, after all, stuck with an almost ridiculous set of reporting expectations for student performance on end of grade reading and math exams.

The problem is this:  Because we’re not collecting any information about innovation and experimentation in our classrooms, we have no way to objectively reflect on just how innovative our teachers and our schools really are.

Sure, we can all probably dig up a bit of anecdotal evidence.  “Mr. Ferriter’s kids were talking about this great project the other day,” we’ll say.  “I saw a bit of it and the class was excited.”

But anecdotal evidence is easy to misinterpret.  More importantly, anecdotal evidence is easy to ignore.

Are you really going to be able to convince anyone—parents, other teachers, your bosses, district or state level policymakers—to adopt new practices based on a few warm and fuzzy stories that collect in the back of your mind as you roll through classrooms each day?

Of course not.

So start actively documenting instances of experimentation and innovation—and the impact that it is having on students.

Create video libraries of progressive practices.  Share them at faculty meetings. Share them at parent nights.  Host webinars with members of your school community spotlighting what you’re doing and why you think it matters.

Encourage—and provide time, resources and training for—your teachers and teams to conduct action research projects on practices.  Develop libraries of written reports that your faculty—and the faculties of the other schools in your district and state—can refer to.

Start surveying parents and students every chance that you get.  Ask them to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of each new practice that your building has embraced.  Share reports with your entire school community.

Doing so will send a clear message to your community:  We care about reflection.  We care about trying new things.  We care about getting better together.  We care about more than the end of grade tests, and we’ve got a heaping cheeseload of evidence to prove it.

Isn’t that the kind of message that schools should be sending anyway?

Does any of this make sense?  Basically, what I’m trying to tell you is that I’m ready to start holding YOU accountable for creating the kinds of conditions that make innovation possible.

Bury me in all the “up-by-the-bootstraps, be-the-change-you-want-to-see” messages that you want, but until you give me the intellectual space to innovate and you start explicitly encouraging and documenting innovation in your schools, it ain’t going to happen.

Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable.

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