Creating cultures of continuous improvement in our schools
Can schools be agile?
We certainly don't need to run our schools like businesses—but we could benefit from educational organizations more focused on continuous improvement.
We've all had those deja vu moments that make us think "I've seen this before!" I experienced them often in the late 1980s, when I first began my career in industry. I was caught up in a wave of organizational change, where the U.S. manufacturing sector was experimenting with various models that asked leaders, managers, and engineers like me to rethink how we approached things like quality, cost, innovation, and shareholder value. It seems as if every year (sometimes, more frequently) we'd study yet another book to identify the "best practices" necessary for making us leaner, flatter, more nimble, and more responsive to the needs of the customer.
Many of the approaches were so transformational that their core principles still resonate with me today. Specific ideas and methods from thought leaders such as John Kotter, Peter Drucker, Edwards Demming, and Peter Senge were truly pivotal for our ability to rethink our work, as were the adoption of process improvement methods such as Six Sigma and those embodied in the "Toyota Way."
But others seemed to simply repackage these same ideas with a sexy new twist—hence my deja vu.
And yet when I began my career as a teacher, I encountered a context that didn't give me that feeling: education. In fact, I was surprised to find that "getting better all the time" was not the same high priority in my new profession that it was in my old one (particularly at the level of my role as a classroom teacher).
Why aren't more educational organizations working to create cultures of continuous improvement? I can think of several reasons, but let me address two.
Widgets no more
The first barrier to a culture of continuous improvement is education's general reticence to look at other professions for ideas it can adapt and adopt—especially ideas from the business community. The second is education's predominant leadership model, which remains predominantly top-down and rooted in hierarchy. Conversations about systemic, continuous improvement tend to be the purview of a relatively small group of school or district leaders: principals, assistant principals, superintendents, and the like. But widespread organizational culture change can't occur if only one small group is involved in it.
Before unpacking these points a bit further, I'd like to emphasize that there are certainly exceptions to the above generalization (many I have seen first hand) and that there are two basic assumptions that I think any education stakeholder should be able to agree with:
- Continuous improvement must be an essential mindset for anyone involved in the work of providing high-quality and equitable teaching and learning systems for students, and
- Decisions by leaders of our schools will more greatly benefit students and the communities in which they live when those decisions are informed and influenced by those who work closest with students.
So why a tendency to ignore (or be outright hostile toward) ideas that come from outside the education space?
I, for example, have certainly faced criticism in the past for suggesting that we look to other professions for ideas and inspiration that can help us better meet the needs of students. A common refrain is something like: "You're trying to treat our students like widgets!" But how could our students be treated any more like widgets than they already are? They matriculate through school in age-based cohorts, going from siloed class to class each day by the sound of a shrill bell, and receive grades based on arbitrary tests that emphasize sameness over individuality.
It may be news to many inside of education, but widgets—abstract units of production that evoke the idea of assembly line standardization—are not a significant part of the modern manufacturing sector. Thanks to the culture of continuous improvement described above, modern, advanced manufacturing delivers just what the individual customer wants, at a competitive price, exactly when she wants it. If we adapted this model to our schools, teachers would be more likely to collaborate and constantly refine their unique paths of growth for all students based on just-in-time needs and desires—regardless of the time, subject, or any other traditional norm.
What I'm advocating is a clear-eyed and objective look at any idea from any sector with potential to help us better meet the needs of individual students, not that we somehow run our schools like businesses. In order for this to happen effectively, however, we need to scrutinize a leadership structure that has frankly remained stagnant for over 100 years.
Toward continuous improvement
While I certainly appreciate the argument that education is an animal significantly different from other professions, I also believe that rethinking an organizational and leadership structure is an applicable exercise for any entity wanting to remain responsible (and responsive) to the needs of its stakeholders. Most other professions have taken a hard look at their traditional, closed, hierarchical structures and moved to ones that encourage collective autonomy per shared goals of excellence—organizational elements essential for continuous improvement. It's time our schools and districts do the same by expanding their horizon beyond sources that, while well intended, are developed from a lens of the current paradigm.
Not surprisingly, a go-to resource I recommend to any school wanting to begin or accelerate this process is The Open Organization by Jim Whitehurst. Not only does the book provide a window into how educators can create more open, inclusive leadership structures—where mutual respect enables nimble decisions to be made per real-time data—but it does so in language easily adaptable to the rather strange lexicon that's second nature to educators. Open organization thinking provides pragmatic ways any organization can empower members to be more open: sharing ideas and resources, embracing a culture of collaborative participation as a top priority, developing an innovation mindset through rapid prototyping, valuing ideas based on merit rather than the rank of the person proposing them, and building a strong sense of community that's baked into the organization's DNA. Such an open organization crowd-sources ideas from both inside and outside its formal structure and creates the type of environment that enables localized, student-centered innovations to thrive.
Here's the bottom line: Essential to a culture of continuous improvement is recognizing that what we've done in the past may not be suitable in a rapidly changing future. For educators, that means we simply can't rely on solutions and practices we developed in a factory-model paradigm. We must acknowledge countless examples of best practices from other sectors—such as non-profits, the military, the medical profession, and yes, even business—that can at least inform how we rethink what we do in the best interest of students. By moving beyond the traditionally sanctioned "eduspeak" world, we create opportunities for considering perspectives. We can better see the forest for the trees, taking a more objective look at the problems we face, as well as acknowledging what we do very well.
Intentionally considering ideas from all sources—from first year classroom teachers to the latest NYT Business & Management Leadership bestseller—offers us a powerful way to engage existing talent within our schools to help overcome the institutionalized inertia that has prevented more positive change from taking hold in our schools and districts.
Relentlessly pursuing methods of continuous improvement should not be a behavior confined to organizations fighting to remain competitive in a global, innovation economy, nor should it be left to a select few charged with the operation of our schools. When everyone in an organization is always thinking about what they can do differently today to improve what they did yesterday, then you have an organization living a culture of excellence. That's the kind of radically collaborative and innovative culture we should especially expect for organizations focused on changing the lives of young people.
I'm eagerly awaiting the day when I enter a school, recognize that spirit, and smile to myself as I say, "I've seen this before."