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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

In Education, Execution Is Everything

By Guest Blogger — July 23, 2018 4 min read
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Kicking off this round of guest bloggers is Michael Sonbert, founder of Skyrocket Educator Training. Before Skyrocket, Michael was a teacher, instructional coach, and director of strategic partnerships with Mastery Charter Schools. This week, he’ll share some of the insights that have fueled Skyrocket’s work.

My first job was washing dishes at a high-end Italian restaurant on Long Island, New York. It wasn’t the most glamorous gig, but it was good money for a 16-year-old. It also taught me to hustle, as the cooks needed their pots and pans cleaned lightning-quick because from 5:00 to 10:00 pm, the food orders came in non-stop.

I loved watching the cooks—men and women in their twenties and thirties—moving quickly around each other, dropping ingredients into sizzling pans, sending steam and smoke into the air.

After a while, I became friends with one of the cooks, and he began teaching me how to make the most basic dishes. I thought, for a brief time, that cooking might be the career for me. That was until I made penne alla vodka for my mom, dad, and sister, and we all got sick. Like, really sick. And even before the sickness began, we all agreed that the meal just didn’t taste very good. Simply put, I was, despite my best effort, a bad cook. And yes, while I could have persisted and gotten better (this was before people were really talking about growth mindset and grit), I decided not to.

What I didn’t do at any point, though, was blame the ingredients. Or suggest that if I had better ingredients or new and different ingredients, the meal would have been better. But this is what’s happening all over K-12 education. School leaders, in an attempt to be more effective and to get better results, are looking for the “new thing” that will transform their schools. It could be blended learning, restorative practices, PBIS, EngageNY, the Danielson Framework, and on and on. Sometimes it’s less about new programming, and is more of an instructional shift—like a push for more student discourse, student-centered learning, or more rigor.

The issue here is that whatever the “new thing” is, it still needs to be executed by the current team that’s in place. Teams which, from my experience visiting schools and working with and training leaders all over the country, are often missing many of the foundational skills to execute new or current programming at a high level.

Through my work with Skyrocket, I coach school leaders to look inward instead of outward when it comes to transforming their schools. One of the four mindsets I coach them to adopt is that execution is everything, and that the programming they’re using is secondary to this. This isn’t sexy. I get it. It’s much more fun to try something new instead of grinding on setting goals, holding people accountable to upholding school values, defending calendars, using data to drive coaching meetings, providing consistent and transparent feedback to all members of the school team, real-time coaching, and so on. But in the absence of doing these things (and many others), the “new thing” that’s adopted will likely fall flat.

Last year, I began working with a school leader who was very excited about a school-wide shift they were making to integrate technology into the classroom. He truly believed that this was going to be the thing that was going to make a difference for kids. I couldn’t share his excitement, and, when he asked me what I thought, I responded with the following: “This is going to be another thing that you don’t do very well.”

We didn’t know each other very well at this point, but he took the feedback nonetheless. You see, in this school, there was trash on the floor. The bulletin boards were crooked and missing letters. And the student work on them was from months earlier. Teachers showed up late for meetings and PD, and it was because the leader did the same things. He also canceled half his meetings with teachers, so they didn’t take his calendar invites very seriously. Lesson plans were submitted late or not at all, but again, it didn’t matter because the leader didn’t provide feedback anyway. And on and on.

He trusted me, and instead of implementing the “new thing,” we went back to basics. We began walkthroughs every period to pick up trash and to pop into classrooms. We worked at getting him to defend his calendar and to ensure he made every meeting. From making certain that student work was up-to-date to providing lesson-plan feedback, he began executing all the current things in his building at a much higher level. Staff satisfaction went up, and, most importantly, the changes were reflected in a spike in student data as well.

This school leader was like me and my brief foray into cooking. We both weren’t good enough. And new and different ingredients weren’t going to change that. And while I was able to walk away from cooking and feel fine about it, the 400 students in his school deserved a leader who was willing to get better and execute at a higher level for them.

—Michael Sonbert

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.