Fresh Eyes on an Old Problem

Fresh Eyes on an Old Problem
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Not too long ago, I spoke before a group of school leaders in a district where the new superintendent had asked me to talk about the practices of high-performing schools.

In my presentation, I talked about what I have found in what I call "It's Being Done" schools -- that is, high-performing or rapidly improving schools with significant populations of students of color or students of poverty or both.

  • The schools focus closely on what students need to learn.
  • The educators in the building collaborate on how to teach it.
  • They assess frequently to see who has learned it and who needs extra help.
  • They use that assessment data to see patterns in instruction and figure out ways to improve.
  • They deliberately build personal relationships between educators and students and among educators themselves.

The highlight of my day was the enthusiasm for what I had to say by a Marine who had served in Iraq as a logistics officer and is now pursuing his lifetime ambition of being an educator.

What has struck him, he said, as he makes the transition from one field to another is that the collaboration that was the lifeblood of his work in the military is almost absent from his new field.

In the Marines, he said, he was in charge of overseeing large, cross-functional teams -- sometimes scattered around the world -- that had as their job making sure supplies and equipment were in the right place in the right condition at the right time. A great amount of time and effort goes into building those teams and making sure they can communicate clearly and effectively. Information is shared up, down, and across the hierarchy and decisions are evaluated quickly and accurately so that everyone learns for the next time-- because there will be a next time and a next time after that. Decisions come fast and furious in wartime; wrong decisions, of course, can have deadly consequences, and even the most mundane technical and tactical decisions can have operational and strategic implications.

An enthusiastic newcomer to education, the Marine is acutely aware that wrong decisions in education can also have deadly consequences, though most of the time the consequences are the more quotidian but still tragic ones of a child's potential going unfulfilled with extended consequences through the generations. He told me he was shocked at how little communication and collaboration he found in the high school in which he works. Teachers, counselors, administrators, security guards, school secretaries all seem to operate in their own spheres with few shared goals and little shared information.

This lack of collaborative connective tissue binding together a cohesive coherent community of practice, he said, is why so many people are disengaged and feel uncared for.

The frustration the Marine expressed was almost palpable, but it actually gave me hope and helped me see the value of people who have been successful in other fields bringing in fresh thinking and new ways of doing for solving problems that have been allowed to fester for decades.

I won't say, "Bring in the Marines!" but, maybe, "Learn from the Marines!"

And anyone else who can help think through the issues that we face.

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