Education Commentary

Focus: It’s About Time

By Mike Schmoker — April 09, 1997 10 min read

If you listen at all to educators these days, you hear the word “focus” a lot. I’ve recently visited with people from several districts across the country, and their frustration was often expressed to me as a perceived lack of focus. They were frustrated by the failure of their school organizations to sustain a clear, coherent program of action toward a manageable number of goals. They were tired of constantly shifting emphases; of being pulled, sometimes at a moment’s notice, in brand-new directions; of being asked to add yet another activity to an already full plate. These schoolpeople knew what we all should know--that a lack of focus wreaks havoc with effective, systematic school improvement efforts.

“Focus” is a simple notion, but a difficult reality to attain. If better results are what we’re after, though, focus is the indispensable key. It can give us fewer dropouts, higher achievement, a more productive, engaging, and inviting climate for students and teachers. All of this is within our reach the moment our schools decide to select a limited number of improvement goals and then work regularly and doggedly toward their achievement--all the while protecting them from potential derailments and distractions. The simple, happy fact is that, if we do these things sensibly and intelligently, better results are all but inevitable.

But typically we don’t. The problem isn’t that we can’t palpably improve our schools, even in the short term. It is that we haven’t yet learned the importance of maintaining a productive relationship between time and effort. If we have learned anything from the “fifth discipline"--systems thinking--we ought to know that this is one of its first principles. The failure to be focused is a systems issue; it is a time issue. Time and its best use are the essence of focus, of optimizing a system toward the results we want.

Focus means being organized. The difficulty schools have being focused touches on our failure in this area. Some people in the field have recently been saying that schools are not, in fact, “organizations,” but only convenient locations where freelance educators happen to be employed. This is a major part of the problem; focus requires a regular and relentless insistence on coordination and organization of effort. On one level, schools are fairly organized: The buses run; the classes get scheduled; events are planned. This is no mean accomplishment. But in the instructional sphere, and as regards school improvement planning, we still have a long way to go. If we are serious about engaging and educating greater numbers of children, we can no longer afford this. In the current chaotic climate, the enemies of focus flourish.

Let’s look at some principles that can act as antidotes to the common systemic impediments that kill momentum and derail productive, results-oriented efforts. Again, focus is fundamentally a time issue--our use or abuse of the single most precious resource in school improvement.

  • Facts feed focus: The importance of reviewing data at the school level. Improvement planning should begin with data, with a conscientious review of the facts of student performance. Nothing frustrates effective planning more than the absence of this first step. It may even be advisable to review data by grade level or academic department. The most ill-fated improvement efforts I’ve seen occur when (1) operational goals are established by the district rather the school, or (2) they are established by the site council without first reviewing school performance data. In both cases, the problem is the same. We bypass the only information that can compel passionate, targeted improvement effort: school-level information about where improvement is most needed. We inadvertently create solutions in search of a problem.
The moment we add more goals than time reasonably permits, we engage in denial and get what we have too often gotten: lots of unfocused activity but not much in the way of results.

To avoid this, the school itself should be the primary locus of improvement. Once the data are reviewed, the school is in the best position to determine its priorities and allocate time resources for collaboration and staff development. Directives from the district and the school board should be kept to a minimum. Should the district provide guidelines and parameters for the site-based team, like an insistence that the school improvement team review data and provide a rationale for how priorities were determined? Absolutely. District leadership and oversight are essential. But the district should carefully avoid mandating goals or initiatives that can encroach on the school’s very limited time for pursuing its carefully selected priorities.

Unfortunately (and often with the best intentions), many districts continue to set goals impulsively from afar. This all but guarantees failure--not to mention the perception among teachers that the organization doesn’t know what it wants. And this helps explain why so many year-end school reports are long on verbiage and short on results.

  • Build in a gatekeeping system. Time must be budgeted almost like money. Money goes only so far, and so does time. You can’t buy a new Mercedes with the same amount that you’d spend on a used Chevy. Likewise, you can’t pursue five major goals with the same time allotment needed to pursue two. Schools should make the intelligent use of time their highest priority. We can talk all day about how precious and limited time is, but until we begin to more formally budget it, keeping careful accounts of how much time we have against what we wish to accomplish, we will continue to squander time and effort.

Thomas Donahoe talks about a school in California where time and goals are very carefully apportioned at the beginning of the year on the basis of selected priorities. Any changes or additions to the goals after the beginning of the school year require a consensus of the school community--as well as the removal of one goal to make room for the new one. This may sound radical to some, but it demonstrates a clear, hard-headed sense of the value of time. We should routinely ask ourselves such questions as: How many early-release days and faculty meetings are there on the school’s annual schedule? How can we take maximum advantage of this time for staff development that aligns with school goals and--even more important--for regularly scheduled, focused collaboration relative to each improvement goal? Before the school year even begins, we should establish time for these meetings, taking into account the time necessary to conduct and score assessments, collect and analyze data on progress. If these are new processes for staff members, adequate time is even more paramount.

The moment we add more goals than time reasonably permits, we engage in denial and get what we have too often gotten: lots of unfocused activity but not much in the way of results.

  • Conduct a rigorous review of all meetings and a campaign to dramatically improve their quality. Too many meetings in school organizations are manifestly unfocused affairs. Yet the quality of team, department, grade-level, school, and district meetings will make or break a successful improvement effort. For this reason, meetings must be subjected to a rigorous review and reconception.

At most school meetings, there is scant time reserved for instructional improvement. How much of it gets appropriated to the achievement of the organization’s established goals? Specifically, how much time, at every level, is spent sharing the practical strategies and on-the-ground expertise that bear directly on the attainment of school goals? How much time is spent solving instructional or logistical problems that emerge? This is the stuff of improvement.

Focus is simplicity, clarity—a function of what we attempt to pursue as much as the amount of time we allot to pursuing it.

Sad to say, most school employees are relatively illiterate in the basics of effective meetings. Educators tell me that most meetings they attend are characterized by rambling and digression--with no clear instructions for action or follow-up. This tramples on every basic principle of effective meetings, the essence of which is to stay focused on what most clearly benefits students.

Schools have yet to learn what any well-run business learned long ago: Effective meetings are not “down time,” but the heart and soul of a learning organization. Every employee should receive training in the tools of focused, creative collaboration: brainstorming, time limits, posting ideas, ending meetings with a course of action and a future date for reviewing these efforts against desired results. This should be one of the district’s highest priorities.

  • Abolish amorphous goals and amorphous research. Focus is simplicity, clarity--a function of what we attempt to pursue as much as the amount of time we allot to pursuing it. Many of the improvement goals we establish are themselves the enemy of focus. In their best-selling book The Wisdom of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith tell us what so many have experienced: that goals which can’t be measured are only “delusional goals.” Without the wholesome pressure that measurement exerts, focus is lost and effort dissipates as people lose their way.

Complicating things further, many of these “goals” are pursued on the basis of supposed “research.” In many cases, what is called research is in fact interesting but only partially substantiated theory or speculation--never tested in a classroom. As often as not, “research” may mean that a topic was written about in an academic or educational journal--as though that, in itself, were a reliable basis for classroom instruction. We should be far more circumspect about how we select our goals; we should be just as circumspect about the research that informs our efforts to achieve those goals. And if we want students to learn more, we would do well to rely far more on research that has been tested in the classroom with measurable results.

Does that mean we ignore all else? Not at all. Some of the best ideas we know began in the qualitative and theoretical realm. We should avail ourselves of them. But we should not ignore the best classroom research in favor of the premature pursuit of attractive theories that have not yet been classroom-proven.

  • Assessment is one of the primary engines of focus. We should know by now that quality curriculum isn’t enough. What gets measured--not what is in the curriculum guide--is what gets done. Consider David Berliner’s interesting discovery that, in the same school, one teacher taught 27 times as much science as a teacher down the hall. If we do it right, what gets assessed is what gets taught, discussed, and focused on.

Districts like Frederick County in Maryland, Glendale Union and Mesa Unified in Arizona, the Clovis, Calif., schools, and the Pomperaug school district in Connecticut don’t rely on a common curriculum. They get great results because their manifold efforts are focused on common, consistent student assessments. They have their eyes on a common prize: real, palpable gains in both standardized and performance assessments. Teachers in these schools exercise a measure of instructional autonomy, but there is no confusion about the focus of instruction, whether in reading, writing, or chemistry.

Perhaps the greatest dividend of common assessment is the opportunity it creates for focused, effective interaction. Dan Lortie found that teachers need a “semantically potent common language” to be able to learn from each other. Common assessments provide that in spades. Without the reference point that common standards and assessments provide, examining and improving the effectiveness of our school systems will be a Sisyphean task.

  • Follow the time and money. If we want to know an organization’s real vs. its expressed priorities, that’s easy: Look at where the organization spends its time and money. Is the expenditure clearly and carefully targeted toward clear, intelligible priorities, rather than on whatever comes along or sounds attractive? Are time and money spent to acquire, adapt, or develop common instructional goals and assessments? Does the organization, at every level, exercise discipline in ensuring that conversation is devoted to gauging and even promoting progress toward those goals?

Yes, organizational efficiency does require planning, consensus, and even compromise in deciding what we do and when. But the payoff cannot be gainsaid.

We’ve just entered spring, the season of annual improvement planning. Let’s resolve to do it right this year--to treat both time and people with the respect they deserve. With a lot of focus and a little luck, 1997 could be a very good year for schools.

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 1997 edition of Education Week