Exposing K-12 Schools Achilles’ Heel

One of the most prominent issues that affect K-12 public schools as social organizations is a propensity to operate from the position that “We’re going to do what we’ve always done because that’s what we’ve always done.” This notion is pervasive and widely unrecognized and acknowledged. Likewise, the habits that arise from this notion are formed subtly yet become deeply ingrained in (and debilitating to) the system operations. Practically speaking, school systems tend to employ practices or habits that are undocumented in policy, unsupported by data and are not effectively educating students. The negative consequences of this mindset include parents withdraw their students in favor of the more flexible and responsive systems of private and charter schools; educators’ efforts are constrained and academic performance is weak; the best and most innovative educators are recruited by other systems or possibly even leave the field; and students suffer because they are not prepared to meet the demands of an ever-changing society. Left unchecked, poor organizational habits within systems ultimately weaken our nation’s ability to compete on the global level.

Addressing the Issue
To address this issue, organizations should establish habits of reflection at the teacher and administrator levels so they can begin to make the connections between practices and outcomes more real or direct. Examples of these habits include coaching conversations between teachers and teacher leaders; feedback shared by teachers in professional learning communities; and collaborative administrators dialoguing about practices that should be started, continued, or stoped. Creating opportunities for reflection not only helps teachers and administrators, but it also promotes an environment and culture in which all stakeholders can challenge organizational habits.

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Policy Review
In addition to reflection, schools should re-evaluate policies to determine if they are being followed and if they are in support of their short-term and long-term goals. The only thing worse than a bad policy is a good policy that is not followed; nevertheless, both allow schools to continue practicing bad habits. Schools also need to review what is policy and what are actual practices in order to expose unwritten organizational habits. This involves questioning a policy’s clarity and usefulness, evaluating desired outcomes using research and measurement tools, and working to redefine policies based on their findings rather than politics.

Program Evaluation
Lastly, K-12 public schools should establish protocols for using data to make decisions, set goals, and evaluate programs or outcomes. This process should address the questions, “What do we do with the data we receive”, “What questions do you ask”, and “What data sets are most relevant?” Far too often K-12 schools are data rich but information poor; school systems must reach the point where they see the issues clearly and are able to mobilize resources to implement real solutions.

K-12 schools are charged today with the task of educating a quickly changing student body to face the challenges of a dynamic workforce and society. If schools implemented these practical solutions with fidelity, not only will they be able to finally dismantle the debilitating organizational habits that plague them, they will be able to change in the appropriate time frame necessary to respond to the needs of today’s student.

I encourage you to share your thoughts below on how your school of district could prevent exposing its Achilles’ Heel.

4 thoughts on “Exposing K-12 Schools Achilles’ Heel

  1. That makes sense. I guess I see it in a slightly different light. There are many school systems looking for that magic program to “fix” things. But I think that much of this stems from the accountability mindset of the NCLB era. We are seeing an increase in the number of programs that a school adopts and a change in the level of authority granted to such programs. Thus, situated where I am, there appears to be something both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the era before A Nation at Risk.

    However, reviewing your post I totally agree that reflection is a critical component to authentic reform. But all too often the teachers I know see reflection as, “one more thing on the to-do list”. So they don’t genuinely engage in reflection because they don’t take ownership of the process. If they fill out the right forms, smile, nod and don’t change their practice, then I see them doing what they have always done. But the sociopolitical landscape around them seems to have shifted: even if it has failed to achieve meaningful reform to date.

  2. Ironically, I believe the very behavior you described is a form of doing things the way it has always been done. Some school system have a habit of looking for a program or system to address issues without putting into place accountability or monitoring those systems.

  3. “One of the most prominent issues that affect K-12 public schools as social organizations is a propensity to operate from the position that “We’re going to do what we’ve always done because that’s what we’ve always done.”

    If this is the case, how would you contextualize your thoughts in light of the well documented pattern of schools implementing new initiatives year after year?

    For example: http://www.nyssba.org/index.php?src=news&submenu=on_board&srctype=detail&category=On%20Board%20Online%20February%2025%202013&refno=2439

    (I hope this doesn’t sound hostile. I really want to know what you think.)

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