Must Must Read: Building School 2.0 via Lehmann and Chase

Must Must Read: Building School 2.0 via Lehmann and Chase

I can only wish I had the chops to have written Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need.

imgresI read a lot of books, many on the current state and future of K-12 education, best practices of organizational change and innovation, and the nature of creative individuals and organizations. I don’t recommend a lot of “must reads”; perhaps 1-2 a year. For two groups—educators who passionately want to implement real transformational change that will immediately benefit their students, and a more general public that recognizes that the fundamental structure of K-12 education fails to meet the needs of the rising generation—this book is a “must, must read”.

Co-author Chris Lehmann is the founding principal at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia; co-author Zac Chase taught English at SLA for eight years and is now an educational consultant. I have met Chris and interacted briefly with him over the past several years, and I cited SLA as an exemplar school in #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education. (Disclosure: both books were proudly published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand.) I continue to cite SLA as perhaps the iconic high school in America. It is a public school of choice; serves a highly diverse student population; is housed in an extremely modest physical facility; struggles with the turbid politics and terminal underfunding of a big city school district; and consistently produces graduates who matriculate to a wide range of selective colleges and universities, not because of their test scores (SLA offers no AP courses, for example) but because these kids have learned how to own their own learning and thinking through a rigorous course of work built upon their passions, interests, and understanding of the world in which they live. In short, the SLA community has co-developed an incredibly successful yet flexible model for truly transformational learning that can and should be scaled across America; the lack of this scaling reflects American society’s collective failure and inertia. I have not had the pleasure of meeting Zac, but I have found Chris to be on of the most honest, insightful, courageous, hold-no-punches educators we have.

Cloning educators like Chris and Zach may, in fact, be the limiting factor to scaling up SLA-type schools.The next best thing to a clone is the clone’s DNA, which is what Chris and Zac have shared in Building Schools 2.0, not in broad theory, but in practical, direct terms that any school or set of school educator-leaders can embrace. The book overtly borrows the template of one of history’s most provocative reformers, Martin Luther. There are 95 theses in this book, each comprising a few pages of honest, pithy, and in my opinion, absolutely spot-on arguments for why each thesis is a pathway to great learning for more kids with diverse life experiences. Each short chapter winds up with several equally direct, succinct, practical, activities or actions that educators can implement the very next day to begin to shift their own practice and/or that of those around them.

The theses are almost all pertinent and helpful; a few examples:

  • “Vision must live in practice”
  • “’What’s good’ is better than ‘what’s new’”
  • “Humility matters”
  • “Don’t admire the problem”
  • “Stop deficit model thinking”
  • “There are no sick or snow days”

…and many more. Each thesis is weighty, yet the authors engagingly convey key elements of “what”, “why”, and “what to do about it” in very few words.

For non-educators, the arguments are so direct and, frankly, obvious, that it gives both clarity and hope to the premise that, yes, we can actually change K-12 education in America and that the path lies not with acts of Congress, the Department of Education, State legislatures, school district administrators, highly publicized and overpaid pundits, or the “next big thing” canned by educational theorists and for-profit publishers. The answers lie within a range of highly actionable practices by the thousands of well-intentioned, hopeful, generally under-resourced and over-commanded educators who inhabit our classrooms and school offices, and who are begging for the system to change.

Must a school or educator adopt all 95 theses in order to truly change? Absolutely not. What resonated so powerfully with me were the range and number of the 95 theses that exactly mirror what I see as key levers for transformation in the schools I am fortunate to work with, ranging from the most selective, well-funded independent schools to highly underserved public schools. There is no one cookbook recipe that will work best for all schools; that is a myth that self-interested factions across the political and economic spectrum would have us believe. To me this book reads more like a catechism that calls on the reader to open to a page each day or week, reflect on the narrative and advice, and then just try some stuff that is proven to work.

I have been carving out what my own next book might be. I think I have identified 6-8 “big levers” that, if pressed strongly enough would collectively have the force to offset the inertia of an outdated system of education. After reading Building Schools 2.0, I am less sure that my next book is needed. It re-enforces for me that the true key to systematic school transformation is large-scale replication of the kind of knowledge and DNA that Chris and Zac share in this book.  I think I have found the key to such replication…and hope to announce soon!

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