Category Archives: Governance and leadership

Rise of the Architect-Leader in Schools

I kept a blog from Tom Olverson pinned to my browser for most of a week, letting it stew to see if I could add anything to what is already a tremendously elegant argument on school leadership.  I think I can, but only because I am building on such well-crafted thinking by Tom, and by the original authors of “The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School”. Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016, Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard conducted a study of leadership and impacts in underperforming public schools in England.  Tom’s blog correctly suggests that the results are highly relevant to American independent schools. I would like to take it one step further: the results are highly relevant to ALL schools and, most importantly, ALL educators, not just those tasked with “leading” struggling schools.

As and aside: why are all of the good stock images of male architects, when so many great architects are women?

Please read Tom’s blog, but I must summarize the key findings here so I can get on to the extension of my thinking.  The authors identified five types of leaders, but only one that had real success in turning around a struggling school.

  • Surgeons, who try to find that one thing that will produce quick and measurable results. They are often successful in this in the short term, but there is no meaningful long-term change in the organization, particularly if the leader leaves.
  • Soldiers, who squeeze more out of the organization, without adding additional resources.  The authors say that people in these schools are often left with low morale, forced to sacrifice quality to meet a bottom line outcome.
  • Accountants, who “try to grow their school out of trouble”. Olverson rightly points to the failed hope in American tuition-charging schools over the last two decades that there is some magical non-tuition source of revenue that will mitigate a school’s financial woes.
  • Philosophers, who believe that good, well-supported teachers alone are the solution to pretty much all problems. They are loved, of course, by the faculty for having strong educational vision, but are not competent at actually running a large, complex organization.
  • And, finally, architects, the one group that was by far the most successful at dealing with the full range of issues facing a troubled school and, in my opinion, any school.  Quoting here from both Tom’s blog and the original article:

these leaders “combine the best parts of other leaders, but they make these changes in a different sequence and for different reasons—to transform students and communities.” Just as importantly, architects possess humility: “They are visionary, unsung heroes. Stewards rather than leaders, who are more concerned with the legacy they leave than how things look whilst they’re there.” According to Hill, et al. these are the only educational leaders that bring about long-lasting change and often they go unrecognized for their performance.

I have worked with some extraordinary architects, including Greg Papay and Brandi Rickels of the firm Lake/Flato in San Antonio.  I learned a great deal from them, particularly when architects “design charrettes” were a relatively unknown forerunner of what now call “design thinking”. In my experience, good architects are good because they:

  • Observe and listen.
  • Create a vision for the future that meets the needs of the user.
  • Work from a large pallet of options, not one cookbook solution.
  • Want to build for the long-term.
  • Create solutions that work for all members of the team—plumbers, roofers, electricians, landscapers, framers, etc—not just for their own aesthetic sense.
  • Are willing to make changes after a first iteration, even if those changes run contrary to their initial ideas.

I think the research showed that this kind of leader was most successful not because the schools studied were struggling, but because this leadership style fits today’s challenges in education and the other leadership styles simply do not.  We know we are dealing with rapid changes and a vastly more VUCA world (look it up if you don’t know the acronym), and the architect-leader has the tool kit and DNA to succeed in VUCA world.  Organizations outside of education have understood this for about the last two decades; schools are just now starting to realize the critical importance of this leadership style, for both successful and struggling schools.  One of the seven big levers of school transformation I write about in my new book, Moving the Rock, is simply to make modern organizational leadership training radically more accessible for educators, something that is just now starting to evolve.

The other critical point is that, while both the original researcher and Tom Olverson focus on leadership “at the top”, I think virtually every bit of the argument is just as relevant for other administrators and for teachers.  We all know the “surgeons”, “soldiers”, “accountants”, and “philosophers” who teach at our schools, and I would argue that school transformation requires that each of these add a chunk of “architect” DNA to their genes.  That does not mean that we totally discard the value of the other archetypes, but when we ask teachers to lead rather than always follow; to take risks rather than play it safe; to create rather than just consume; to work as a member of a learning organization, not as a separate cog working in an isolated silo, then the value of the “architect-leader” DNA is highly evident.  When we get enough of this DNA into the gene pool, the school changes in very positive, unthreatening, even joyful ways.

Thanks to the original authors and to Tom for bringing this work to my attention and allowing me to add a few pinches of spice to the stew!

What Kind of Leaders Are We Raising?

Does your school value students who exhibit character, grit, and leadership?  Is it in your mission to develop these traits in your students?  Probably, and rightly so.  But as I and others have urged educators to step back and think deeply about the meaning of the word “grit”, an important article by Susan Cain, writing in the New York Times, urges us to take a similar hard look at the meaning of “leadership” and how it is pushing our students into perhaps a narrow vision of their best selves.

We value leaders. We know that many elected and business leaders have been nurtured at “the best” schools and colleges. As Cain notes, many of those schools and colleges loudly stake claims to the production of leaders and the inculcation of leadership skills in their students. But Cain says that we now feel believe that leaders spring from many places, regardless of traditional pedigree:

It’s part of the American DNA to celebrate those who rise above the crowd. And in recent decades, the meteoric path to leadership of youthful garage- and dorm-dwellers, from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, has made king of the hill status seem possible for every 19-year-old.

 I would never argue that we should de-value leaders and leadership training.  The question that Cain raises, that I think is essential for educators to ponder and act upon, is this: what is the nature of valuable leadership?

At one end of the spectrum, leaders direct, prod, or rule over others. They are first among non-equals. Leadership in this construct is about power and position.  This is not a value statement, but a statement of fact. Human organizations often need this kind of leadership lest they devolve into randomness or chaos.

At the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps the end that has been ignored because it is more subtle, harder to find, or easier to overlook, is the person who leads from a place of humility, or the shadows, from the bench, or out of some deep creative passion.  At this end we find those who do not seek a position of leadership, but rather a path of leadership. We find the moral leader (Ghandi); the explorer (Earhart); the knowledge leader (Einstein); the servant leader (Pope Francis), the inventive leader (Musk).

Cain focuses on the nature of “followers”, who may exist at any point across the spectrum, but not in the spotlight; they are harder to see. They are a subset of those who lead from a position other than power. One of our jobs as educators is to combine the strengths of leading and following into human-social traits that help our students to be effective, valuable, and happy during their lives.  Cain says

So now we have high school students vying to be president of as many clubs as they can. It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.

Yet a well-functioning student body — not to mention polity — also needs followers. It needs team players. And it needs those who go their own way.

 It needs leaders who are called to service rather than to status.

One of the really huge questions for educators as we evolve away from the traditional industrial age model to a deeper learning model of schools is “how might we measure and reward what we truly value?” I tackle this as one of the seven levers of incredible transformation opportunity in my upcoming book Moving the Rock. If high schools largely reward those who get top grades for taking a bubble-test, or are elected to power-based student offices, then that is where students will focus. If college admissions offices are looking for students who demonstrate “leadership” by the titles they have held in high school or the number of “advanced” classes they take, we will have shoved students towards only one end of the leadership spectrum. As Cain says, if

…the outsize glorification of “leadership skills” is to the practice of leadership itself — it hollows it out, it empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve. It teaches students to be a leader for the sake of being in charge, rather than in the name of a cause or idea they care about deeply.

When I work with schools that are interested in transforming away from the rigidity of the traditional learning model, a main area of focus is “distributed leadership” or “leading from where you are”.  We know that human organizations that effectively evolve during times of rapid change (like now) leverage leadership from across the organization, not just from the top. Researchers like Alex Pentland, author of Social Physics, prove that the performance of groups of people is more dependent on how they work together than on the leadership of any one person. In fact, they find, dominance by one person diminishes rather than elevates group performance.

How is your school rewarding the servant-leader, the quiet leader, the non-titled leader, the student or teacher who makes those around them rise through the power of ideas and actions outside the spotlight?  How is your college or university digging deeper into those admissions applications to widen what has traditionally been a narrow view of “leadership”?

Most simply: as an educator, or a group of educators, do you know what you mean when you say that your school values leadership?  In a time when many question the value of political leaders who divide more than unite, and corporate leaders for whom the acquisition of ridiculous wealth is an overriding goal, are our schools contributing to these narrow themes of leadership, or are we “leading” students and teachers to explore vastly richer ways to lead.

Teaching the Death of Compromise

The tempest that is Washington D.C. these days provides a puzzle for educators: is it an opportunity for learning, or just too fractious to even touch?  What is our role in helping our students to make sense of something, when much of it does not make sense from many traditional perspectives?  Are we, as educators and adults equipped to help our students understand and benefit from critical lessons that don’t fit standard templates?

The vote today to change the rules of the U.S. Senate requires teachers and parents to think about our roles as educators of the next generation, and it is not a question of party or political viewpoint.  We witnessed what is likely a significant tipping point in the history of our country, one we will look back on decades from now, not unlike the run-up to both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the beating of peaceful protestors on a bridge in Selma, the dramatic erosion of the American middle class, or the shooting of students at Kent State and ask “how could they have let that happen?”

This week the Senate invoked the so-called nuclear option; the majority voted to change their own rules in order to win one vote.  The rules they changed have kept the Senate a place of relative civility for more than two centuries, because, in the words of several senators who voted for the change against their own principals, “we have had to reach out and work with those with whom we don’t always agree”.  The rules have forced at least some degree of compromise, a word that, perhaps more than any other describes the great strength of the American Experiment.  It is compromise, codified in our principles as far back as Magna Carta, that often separates democracy from dictators.

Who unilaterally changes the rules of the game when they don’t win? Most frequently it is bullies, spoiled children, autocrats, oligarchs, and dictators.  In school or at home we would never countenance such a solution amongst our children.  The idea that changing the rules to win because, at this moment, I can, and that somehow that is the right thing to do, runs contrary to everything mature adults know about how human social groups work best.

This is not a partisan issue.  The Republicans decry the moment when the Democrats changed the rules on lower court judicial nominations, pointing to it as precedent for invoking the nuclear option on Supreme Court nominees.  Both of these decisions are wrong for the same reason.  There are no innocents who have not been part of this slippery slope at the bottom of which we have now arrived.  Earlier this week, as Democrats, who were on the current losing end rightly railed against the rules change, a few of the more grown up Republicans said that this was a “dark day” in the senate, that every future member would come to regret this decision, that it was the wrong thing to do. And then they voted with the partisan majority to do something that they knew to be wrong.  Democrats did the same thing a few years ago.

This vote, like others of truly historic moment, did not come about just this week.  It is the result of more than two decades of increasingly partisan divides in our state and national governing bodies, where compromise has become first rare and then nearly extinct.  It will leave a bitter legacy, where accusations and feuds override discourse and reason.  It represents the triumph of the ends over the means in one of the great social systems to have evolved out of centuries of human enlightenment.

I have written and spoken extensively about how systems evolve, and about how the system of education is acting much more like a natural ecosystem than a system engineered for a specific, predictable purpose.  Natural ecosystems are subject to natural selection, a process which creates winners and losers. Some individuals and species are better adapted for the prevailing conditions and live; others are less so and they die.  We tend to place a positive value on this process; we tend to see evolution as “good”; that the “better” succeed.  This kind of value judgement is ridiculous; nature has no such system of values. This week, the evolution of our political system favored those with narrow, short-term, childish natures, and killed part of the system that has thrived in the past: compromise, collaboration, maturity, and respect for the long-term future.

How can we as educators—parents, teachers, coaches, mentors—make sense of this for our children?  What precedent do we have? Do we ignore it as inappropriate discussion for the classroom or the dinner table?  Can we have discussions about it as an opportunity for learning, or has the partisanship in our  system grown so cancerous that it has fatally infected our learning systems as well?

I have been thinking and researching a great deal about what educators, parents, students and community stakeholders can do to transform education in spite of, not with permission from, contrary forces of adult self-interest; it is the central theme of my new book, Moving the Rock. This unfortunate turn of American history gives us a chance to practice empowerment. We can either use this opportunity to teach our students how to make better decisions than the senate made this week, or we must own a piece of similar mistakes that those students might make in the future.

I know what I would do if I were a teacher, but I am not sure if that is what is right for others.  Each must decide.

A List of Not-So-Quirky School Metrics

If you don’t follow me on Twitter (what??), or missed it this morning, I posted another article on the Transcend Education site.  This was a re-boot from my archives that surprised me when I read it.  In 2012, Keith Evans and I came up with a list of what were then somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and definitely outside of the mainstream “metrics” by which we might measure innovation in schools.  In the last five years, many of these ideas are, if not commonly used as standard measures, are certainly mainstream elements of thinking and practice at many forward-leaning schools.

Take a look at The List in the article, and share any other slightly quirky ways you think we might want to assess how our schools are doing on the arc of change.

The Test That EVERY School Must Take

There is surely one thing that unites all educators: we are responsible for both the well-being and learning progress of our students when they are in our charge.  The role that testing plays in schools has correctly become an enormous point of controversy as we question just what are we testing and what the results mean.  Those controversies focus on academic progress and performance.  There is another test that all schools should undertake, because failing on this test means that we might offset all of the tremendous work by our teachers and the students themselves, condemning students to a lifetime of underachievement and health problems despite our very best efforts and intentions.  The test is for lead in the school’s water supply.

imgres-1We live in a time when scientific facts are questioned, and I am sure there some who might even question the science behind the relationship between lead consumption and long-term cognitive and physical health.  Let’s ignore that level of rejectionist ideology.  While there is not complete agreement on what levels of lead in drinking water are “acceptable”, authoritative research suggests that the answer lies somewhere between zero and incredibly small amounts.

As in the article I posted last week on the demise of coral reefs, I argue that when the potential risks of NOT acting are enormous, we should always err on the side of action. The vast majority of research suggests that lead is a remarkably insidious toxin, and practical experience proves that construction standards during much of the last century allowed the use of materials and practices that introduced lead into some parts of our water distribution system.

What are we to do? Is dealing with this potential threat to our students and teachers the responsibility of the federal government?  The water company? Your city or state?  The school board?  The thesis of my new book, Moving the Rock: How WE Will Change Education (due out in August), is that there are some powerful things we can do to transform education that do not require permission from, or empowerment by, the powers and forces that have created decades of inertia in the first place. I did not include a chapter on lead poisoning, but perhaps I should have.  In a time when the federal government may slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, or when local or state agencies may be tied up with political or resource backlogs, waiting for help from the government may be a really bad idea.

Testing for lead in your school’s water is not simple. You can buy a test kit for under $10 and send that water to a lab, but some quick research suggests that those results may not be reliable or tell you much.  It will cost a bit more in time and effort to find a respected, reliable laboratory to perform a suite of tests.  But put that cost and time in context. Look at what you spend in time and money every day at your school advancing the mission of well-being and learning for our students, and compare that to the piddling cost of testing for a chemical that could be permanently moving both of those needles in the other direction every day.

If you do find lead in your water, solutions will depend on the source of the contamination.  Short term solutions include using bottled water until you identify the sources of the problem.  Some solutions may lie on your own campus; others, as we have seen, can require enormous and wide-spread changes to water resourcing and public infrastructure.  Like the dying coral reefs, the solutions may be so daunting as to cause us to hide our heads and defer to hope instead of action.

As educators, we don’t have that luxury. Even if there is a chance that a test will tell us something we really do not want to hear, we are bound by our moral code to take the test, share the results, and then become part of the solution.  Until you can tell your community that have something like 99.9% confidence that your students are not exposed to an avoidable toxin every day, this is a test we just have to take.

Nothing Like Seeing Deeper Learning in Action

NOTHING is as effective in transforming schools as seeing “it” in action.

IMG_3086I spent Monday with a visiting team of elementary school teachers from Albermarle County in Virginia as theytoured four elementary schools in Cajon Valley USD, just east of San Diego. Albermarle Supt. and national edu-leader Pam Moran sent the team out to look at deeper learning in action as they develop a plan to gut an existing school and re-build it for the future. As I have written previously, Cajon Valley is a highly diverse district of about 17,000 students. School demographics range from largely Caucasian upper-middle class, to highly underserved with some of the densest concentrations of immigrant, refugee, and ESL students in the country.

Now in his 4th year at Cajon Valley, Supt. David Miyashiro and his team have made changes that others think are impossible.  In classroom after classroom, with student-teacher ratios ranging from 28-38 to 1, we found focused, engaged students learning in highly differentiated modalities.  Since they became a 1:1 laptop district, teachers have begun to adopt a completely new relationship to their classroom. Students down to the level of kindergarten clearly have and take responsibility for their own learning.  Teachers spend vastly less time talking to whole classes at a time, and much more working with small break-out groups for short periods.

IMG_3080Students are not required to sit at their desks. In almost every room we visited, students were grouped and sprawled where they wanted and needed to be, on the floor, on couches or pillow, under tables.  But we did not see a single student doing nothing; they were all on task.  We asked students repeatedly some version of “what are you doing; why; and how do you know if you are being successful?” Every student had a good answer appropriate to age and grade level, even students for whom English is pretty new ground.

I had two big takeaways from the day:

IMG_3089First: I was overwhelmed by the calmness in these classes. I did not see any students bouncing around, noisily bothering others…and these are little kids! Some of this is due to the personalized routines that largely have students working at their own pace on their computers. But they are not glued to computers all day; much of the work is in collaborative teams, and I frankly was amazed at how well all the students were working with very little teacher direction. These students are not constantly asking the teacher “should I do…?” or “what should I do next…?”

Second, I asked David his response to those who say “this system is like an aircraft carrier and just takes sooo long to change…”. He said, essentially, “you can change what you imagine and believe you can change”.  And the district is proof.  They have no advantages in terms of money, demographics, or facilities. They have HUGE advantages when it comes to leadership, vision, communication, and growing community support of what is taking place in these schools.  And ALL of those are within the control of every educator and community in America.

The Albermarle teachers’ heads were spinning with ideas and confirmation of some of their own initiatives, and I am sure that is only increasing as they visit other schools this week, including a tour I will help lead at Design 39 Campus on Friday.  Yes, it is an expense to fly a dozen people across the country for a week, but it is a small expense compared to what we spend in our schools every day, and a uniquely powerful investment if we really do want to turn these aircraft carriers around.

Major Education Game Changer Launches: The Mastery Transcript Consortium

Two years ago, Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, told me about an idea they had to dramatically enhance high school student assessment and how that might revolutionize the outdated drivers of college admissions.  He asked if I thought it would attract support from like-minded school leaders. I told him, simply, “get the first ten schools into your group and you will fundamentally change our system of education.”  Two short years later, with the official launch this week of the Mastery Transcript Consortium and 55 independent schools already on board, they are well on their way.  You REALLY need to know about this!

The MTC is “a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.”

Simply, the MTC will design, test, construct, disseminate and help schools prepare for a new set of assessment options that measure what we actually value in student learning.  As I was granted some informal access to the genesis of the group, I was able to focus on the MTC in a chapter in my new book, Moving the Rock: Seven Levers That Will Revolutionize Education, coming out in September:

There is an enormous, rigid dam that stresses students, constrains and frustrates teachers, frightens parents, and kills innovation at most schools. At school after school, district after district, I hear a variation on the same anxious theme: “We can be innovative in elementary and middle schools, but our parents are afraid of changes in the high school because it might jeopardize their kids’ chances at college admissions.”  The twin blocks in this dam, how colleges admit students, and how college admissions in turn drive K-12 student assessment, particularly in high school, kill innovation in schools, even where entire communities want that innovation to explode.  We, the community of school stakeholders, have been complicit in erecting and preserving these blocks, and we have total control over them. We built the dam; we preserve the dam; and we can bust it wide open with no permission from anyone and no threat other than to our own fear of change. The dam is rotten to its core, needing just a stick or two of well-placed dynamite to breach it forever.  Why? Because just about everyone–educators, parents, students, college professors, university presidents and admissions officers, and employers—knows and agrees that the system is wrong and is only getting worse.

One of the most powerful elements of the MTC design to date is the input they received from colleges in advance of launching the initiative. In discussion with directors of admissions and college presidents, Scott and his team found a receptive audience “if you can give us something that we can initially scan in two minutes”.  It is also more than serendipitous that this effort was launched the same year that dozens of colleges and universities signed on to the “Turning the Tide” manifesto that refocuses college admissions on depth, interest, and passion, and away from multiple advanced placement courses, grade point average, and shallow community service experiences.

Another powerful argument for the MTC lies in what we know about the health and wellness trends amongst high school and college students. I go into some detail about this in my book, based both on data collated by the MTC team, and from a number of other research-based sources.  We know that current forms of assessment lead to elevated risks of an enormous range of negative lifestyle and health issues amongst our students and, as Scott emotionally put it to a group of school leaders last year: “We just have to stop doing this to our kids”.

“The mastery transcript is about acknowledging that we live in a changed world,” says Scott. “The MTC believes that the tools of the past may no longer work for students, teachers, colleges and our society at large. We believe it’s time for a change.”  With the overwhelming response to date, it appears that Scott’s timing could not have been better.  I predict that within a year or two school membership will be in the hundreds; this is a club that you absolutely want to join, and many of us eagerly await the day when a fully designed transcript of student mastery will be available to every public and private school in America.


What is the Traditional Breaking Point of Leaders’ Thinking?

What is the point at which people are not willing to look beyond the horizon?

Next week at the annual NAIS conference (#NAISAC), John Gulla and are are giving a three-hour workshop with the primary goal of pushing education leaders’ thinking beyond their current horizons.  We will have between 85-100 leaders from something like 60 schools, 26+ states, and at least five countries in the room.  John says that he has visited more than 200 schools in the last couple of years, and every one of them has tried to impress on him that they are “innovative”. His honest view is that almost none of them are; they are not pushing their thinking enough to keep up with the changes in education and what is required of us in the predictable future.

Today I tweeted that John and I want to push these leaders a bit beyond their breaking point. Thought leader Gary Gruber just responded: “What is the traditional breaking point?”  My answer: “That point at which people throw up their hands out of fear, discomfort, or uncertainty of what is over that horizon.”

Every single indicator we can find screams that almost all schools are not on a trajectory of change that intersects the future needs of our students, and therefore the future sustainability of our schools.  For many schools, the wolf is not at the door today, so leaders ignore these signs; they incorrectly assume that the past is a good indicator of the future.

Horizons change. It is only those who think that the ocean goes on forever who fall into the trap that the horizon always looks the same.  We are going to learn a TON next week in those three hours: all of those smart people with diverse viewpoints, sharing ideas and “next horizons”.  I will have a lot to share with you!

What Oroville Dam Tells Us About the Rate of Change

imgresThe pictures of water exploding through the eroding spillway of Oroville Dam is an opportunity for us to think about the nature of time, and the inevitable forces that control our collective destinies. It is a chance to back away for a moment of learning from the human-centric view of our world that governs most of our lives. At a time when the rate of changes created by human institutions is rising exponentially, we need to understand how REAL disruptive change actually takes place.

As a former geologist, we know that the landforms around us did not take shape through even, linear, gradual change.  The vast majority of changes take place in what, in human terms, are large, episodic, catastrophic events: really big earthquakes that displace enormous pieces of the earth’s crust be many meters; enormous floods; landslides that bring down entire mountainsides; volcanic explosions like Mt. St. Helens that changed an entire region in a second.  Yosemite Valley was carved in a single ice age, a blink in the eye of geologic time. The soils that nurture most of the food we eat, that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, can be blown away in a few years of Dust Bowl winds.

imagesIn the middle of the last century, environmentalists railed against the building of the Glen Canyon dam, and eco-terrorists dreamt of blowing it away.  In 1983, heavy snowfall and rapid melting in the Rockies filled Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam, forcing release of water through emergency spillways, much like what is happening this week at Oroville Dam.  The spillway pipes started to erode.  There was nothing anyone could do to stop the erosion, so they let the water flow at record levels…the only way to hope to save the dam itself.  Luckily the rate of melting slowed, and the dam did not fail.  It could just as easily have turned out otherwise: the explosive release of trillions of gallons of water in an epic flood that would have wiped out cities, towns, and huge chunks of three states and Mexico.

Events like this will happen; it might be later this week at Oroville, or that dam might hold for centuries.  But ten thousand years?  Not a chance.  Things happen that are beyond our control, or at least beyond our ability to see and react in time.  We built an enormous dam we thought would last forever, but it is a relatively small spillway that can start a cascade of failure. For years, the weakness in the emergency spillway at Oroville has been noted…and ignored. We can blame that mistake on our government, but our government pays attention to the things that we tell them to. After the disaster we will point fingers and say that “they” should have known better. Well, we did know better, but we were not collectively paying enough attention to the touch-points of true disruptive change.

We THINK we are sweating the big stuff in our increasingly divisive socio-political landscape, but we are not. While we are fighting about building a wall (and I don’t for a second diminish the real human, social, and economic impacts such a wall would create), it is the Hurricane Katrinas and Sandys, the lost nuclear material, the Ebola outbreaks and Fukoshima-region tsunamis, the Oroville Dams, the melting Greenland ice caps that will mark the major disruptions in the human continuum.  We have the ability to significantly control many of them; we just choose to ignore them and hope they won’t happen.  But that is not the nature of change. It does happen. Reenforced concrete lasts a long time…until it doesn’t. That failure happens in an instant, but the lead-up to the failure is often something we see happening and choose to ignore.

That is the lesson I hope we learn from the pictures of the spillway at Oroville dam. Real disruption happens very quickly. We can often predict what will happen more accurately then when it will happen. But just hoping that real change will be slow and manageable, is really quite naïve.

Keep an Eye on Transformation at Vista Unified Schools

Keep an eye on Vista Unified School District in California.  You may want to add it to your list of visits for your teachers and administrators to see how learning is dramatically changing, even in schools with very significant challenges.

I have written extensively about Vista Innovation and Design Academy, and the dramatic positive changes there in just the last two years under the leadership of Supt. Devin Vodicka and his team.  Then last fall, the district won one of the ten coveted XQ America super-schools awards for Vista High School.  Yesterday, at the EdTech Teacher Innovation Summit I sat in on a workshop given by a team from Rancho Minerva Middle School, which, like VIDA, serves a population of mostly low income students. In the last four years they have:

  • Adopted a 1:1 laptop and tablet program.
  • Built a student-centered personalized learning approach using a range of tools and classroom approaches, including individual student and teacher playlists.
  • Gotten rid of many textbooks and are building curriculum with open educational resources.
  • Created a mentoring program where every student meets individually with a staff member at least once a week.
  • Created a “swat” team of students to help teachers and other students learn to use technologies, and to partner with teachers in developing their curricula.
  • Found 85 minutes a day for teacher team collaboration.

Like other schools I have worked with and visited that started these shifts from a place of low student engagement and performance, the student results have been very positive.  And like other schools that adopt a deeper learning model, the teachers say that “they have never worked this hard and would not want to work anywhere else; this is why I got into teaching!”  What impresses me is that, given good leadership and a strong, collective vision, these changes, even in schools with significant initial challenges, are happening in just a few years.  That is light-speed in “school-time”. The models are out there!