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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Too Many Initiatives ... Too Little Time?

By Peter DeWitt — October 26, 2014 5 min read
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At the same time the adults are battling at the top over the right changes, the students walk into school every single day hoping to be engaged.

When it comes to change, Michael Fullan says, “Focus on a small number of ambitious goals, stay with those and build capacity.” Fullan has spent years trying to get schools and state leaders to create change using the right drivers, which are:

  • Capacity building
  • Collaborative effort
  • Pedagogy
  • Systemness

Unfortunately, some schools seem too busy to take these right drivers into consideration because they continue to be under intense pressure to change...for a variety of reasons. State education departments, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, have their own ideas of how all schools should change. That clearly has some good and bad points when we take into account that not all schools are the same and lack the same resources. Yes, this is not new news.

When we go down to the district level, there are school district leaders who have their ideas about how their whole district should change. New years bring in new initiatives. Sometimes it does not necessarily come at the beginning of each new year; sometimes it comes after a new idea comes across their desk that they believe would be beneficial for their whole district.

To make matters more complicated, building leaders have their agendas about how their buildings need to change. It may be another new leader, or based on the collective thoughts of their whole staff and school community. Change is something building and district leaders talk (and read) a great deal about.

Going a little further, many teachers have their own ideas about what changes they want to make in their classroom practices. Perhaps it came after a summer of reflection or a grade level planning meeting. Maybe they found a new resource through social media or read a great book that has inspired them. We never know when we will read something that can change our mindset.

All of these changes collide, and they do not always coincide with one another. Sure, leaders and teachers should be moving in the same direction, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

When the changes are all occurring at the same time, many educators feel that they cannot keep up. They go with the changes from the top because those are the ones that come with more pressure, and are often tied to funding. When this happens, teachers feel the need to let go of the changes they want to make because there is only so much time in the day.

The Cycle Continues

Over the past few years schools have seen an increase in the need to collect data, which many schools definitely do. The problem is that they collect so much data that they do not know what to do with it, and often do not have the time to properly reflect on the data that they collected.

There are so many ways that schools are being asked to change. Some of the changes are new, while others are the same topics that schools have been trying to address for decades. Three that come to mind are literacy practices, anti-bullying laws and technology.

Reading is a constant focus for schools. At the elementary level, improving literacy practices is always the center of the conversation where data is concerned. How well are students reading, are they increasing their Lexile levels, and what methods work best. Students are being progress monitored left and right, and the pressure to get all students to read on grade level by 3rd grade has created this intense pressure to intervene at every word when a child is reading. It’s sucking the fun out of reading.

In Reading Moves: What Not to Do (Educational Leadership. 2014), Richard Allington focused on some of the ways we do a disservice to reading, and it’s a byproduct of the era of accountability we live in, but it happened all too often before accountability ever entered into our lives. Allington wrote, “If teachers must continue to use so much oral reading, they should at least reduce its harm by suppressing their tendency to interrupt readers to correct every mistake.”

Another issue on the plate of schools is bullying. Schools have been charged with making sure they have adopted some sort of anti-bullying legislation. For example, in New York State all schools have had to implement the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which requires schools to make sure they have safeguards and curriculum in place that will protect students based on such things as size, race, gender and sexual orientation.

All of this is good of course, but often DASA is something that gets pushed off the plate because schools lack the resources to meet the mandate. If schools lack the people to do the work, the mandate will not get met.

One of the biggest issues that schools contend with is in the area of technology. During political campaigns politicians and want-to-be politicians talk about how they want to create “21st century schools.” Technology is a hot button issue. Technology alone is something Michael Fullan considers to be one of the wrong drivers when it comes to change, because it is too much about choosing the right tool, and not about how it will help learning go from surface level to deep.

School leaders spend their time asking whether they should go BYOD, or offer one-to-one initiatives? They wonder whether they should continue to block sites like Twitter, Skype and YouTube. And throw Professional Development, or sometimes not, at teachers to prepare them to use technology with the ease that their students can.

All of these elements are important when looked at in the right way, but we see the pendulum swing from one side to the other with some of the mandates, and we seem to recycle the same conversations with the others. At the same time the adults are battling at the top over the right changes, the students walk into school every single day hoping to be engaged.

Where Do We Go From Here?

School leaders and teachers are under initiative fatigue. So many things worth changing, along with so many things that are just noise. No matter the initiative, we have to look at the pros and cons of what they offer. Even with those agencies that we may disagree with, there must be something good about what they are offering.

Look what is already happening in your school. Perhaps it just needs strengthening and doesn’t need to be thrown out. Perhaps the change is really not a new change at all. Be clear in the direction you are going....clearer than you may think you have been all along.

No matter the direction, the decisions need to include teachers, and everyone needs to understand that they will not always get what they want, and that does not give them the right to complain loudly when they walk away from the decision.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.