How to Do Everything Right in Schools

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Karin Chenoweth expands on the school improvement insight she shared in her article “How Do We Get There from Here?” (Educational Leadership, Feb., 2015).

EL 2-2Do we know how to make schools places where all kids can reach high, meaningful standards? Yes, it’s by doing everything right.

Just saying that demonstrates what a daunting task this is. How many people can do everything right at all times? But, as I wrote in “How Do We Get There from Here?,” that’s one of the points of having an institution—to establish processes that help the people within that institution examine their practices, pool their expertise, and collectively perfect their efforts.

Although we know from years of research what makes schools effective, it’s more akin to knowing general rules of cooking than to having an exact recipe. To make a cake, we need to mix flour, baking powder, and other ingredients before baking. But choosing the exact ratio of ingredients, oven temperature, and so on for a recipe we’re creating will depend on the available ingredients, the kind of cake we want, and the skill of the baker. Finding the right combination takes experimenting, evaluating results against a clear standard, and making adjustments when results are subpar or if conditions change.

This process requires not just professional expertise, but also a willingness to apply the principles of the scientific method: Begin with a theory, make a prediction, test, observe, modify the theory, and so on. Fields from astronomy to medicine have used this process. The fact that education as a field has not universally embraced this process is one reason it remains vulnerable to fads and fashions.

This is where the role of school and district leaders comes in. It’s up to those leaders to establish a culture of intellectual inquiry, one that values mistakes for what they teach us about what we might try next rather than one that uses mistakes as a reason to punish others.

This certainly runs contrary to the way some education leaders have been trained to operate. I was recently talking with someone in a large central office about a superintendent he had worked with. The superintendent, this man said admiringly, really knew how to read data—but he used the data to bully and punish. “He would call up and just berate the principals,” he said. This kind of berating often establishes an atmosphere in which principals berate teachers and teachers may even berate students for not reaching performance standards.

Contrast that with what Meridith Bang of Mississippi’s Pass Christian School District said while principal of the district’s high school. With two-thirds of its students on free and reduced lunch, Pass Christian High has a much higher graduation rate than the state average (89 percent compared to 76 percent). Its impoverished students and students of color achieve and graduate at the same rate as its white and middle-class students. That lack of an achievement gap is part of why the high school was recognized with Education Trust’s Dispelling the Myth award in 2013. Bang explained

We are never satisfied with where we are. . . . We share accolades for our success in one breath and present our plans for improvement in the next breath. We constantly consider ourselves to be in a plan of improvement because we know that as things are changing and evolving, we can do better. And it isn’t that we never make mistakes. . . . The erasers are worn down on our pencils as well. It’s that we work really hard to be sure that we don’t make the same mistakes and that we’re always better than we were yesterday.

Bang is describing an atmosphere of intellectual inquiry. This sense of urgency and pressure comes from believing in the ability of all students, but that pressure exists within a culture of learning from mistakes—which means being willing to make them.

It’s the only way to do everything right.

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