We already know what to do about education

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Let’s review. We need to fix our failing schools, sooner rather than later. If we are divided from our school district, our district will fail. Whether that division expresses itself as outright hatred or simple disrespect, we will fail. We have not spent enough to adequately maintain our facilities or get ahead of our growth. We could spend up to $1.3 billion, but it is OK to start with a lesser amount. We need to get started though. There are hundreds of opinions about how to fix a struggling school system. Most will fail when applied broadly across a district.

There are only a handful of things that seem to work consistently, sustainably and at scale to improve a struggling school system. Everyone already knows these things; they are obvious after all. Knowing something and pursuing it with an unrelenting focus are different things. Want to be successful? Data suggests we block out most other things and do the work below extraordinarily well. We have not done any of these well for quite a while. Reflect on that.

  1. Teachers, principals and staff are THE most important thing. Most discussions about academic improvement need to begin and end with the importance of teachers, principals and staff. Programs, calendars, bonds and school choice, while important, are secondary to the people at the helm of our campuses and classrooms and those in support of those roles. Recruit as well as we possibly can, relentlessly train and develop, hold people accountable for their performance without creating an atmosphere of fear. Fire the few when necessary, but create a culture of respect for people that permeates every decision and every action.
  2. Instructional consistency and simplicity are next. Good principals and teachers need to have space for creativity, but a simple, repeatable form of instructional methods and a coherent year-on-year curriculum are critically important. Some things will have to give. We need fewer choices and fewer programs. Let’s instead choose to teach a simple, foundational curriculum and choose to do it well across the district. Simplicity, consistency and coherence. This consistency is often at odds with a system of great schools by the way.
  3. A focus on pre-K through third grade makes a difference. A unique program that could be a real difference maker will soon be unveiled in Midland. It is the result of a multiple-year collaborative effort among several organizations each of whom focus on solutions rather than merely problem identification. But it is only a start. We will be reluctant to focus in this area because it feels like all grades deserve equal attention. All grades do deserve attention but pre-K through third will be a long-term difference maker. Reform takes courage that most of us don’t have.
  4. Data is important. If we are going to use data – and we should – we need to use it as a tool and avoid the temptation to weaponize it. The goal of data is to improve outcomes, not penalize people. In return, our staff can’t get defensive if they don’t like what the data is telling them. Use data as the tool it is intended to help us get better.
  5. The school board needs to narrow its role then perform that role well. The board’s primary roles are to hire the superintendent, hold her patiently accountable, then shield and support the team. Systemic success takes a minute; that is the patient part. It requires courage to persevere, to not try something new every other year.  For accountability, board level measures should be straight-forward and few. This will be uncomfortable, because it is different than what we do now. A superintendent needs a few key measures to be held accountable though she will have a host of measures for her internal use. Define her goals succinctly then give her space. Resist the urge to micro-manage. In terms of shield and support, does every item someone is mad about or interested in have to come before the board? Do we really need a committee for so many things? Do board meetings have to be a marathon? Hire well, hold people patiently accountable, then shield the noise from the district’s professionals so they can do their jobs. The board will absolutely play a key role in our success. It just may be a narrower, simpler role than it has been. It might actually become fun again to be a board member.
  6. Facilities matter – kind of. What would I do? While it would be nice to have two new high schools, I would probably phase in what needs done. Maybe a phase one of $500 million to address deferred maintenance and build a new high school.

We are lucky to have Dr. Angelica Ramsey and her team, and we need to act like it. Let’s show them some grace and have some patience. I think it will be worth it. That’s it. Hope the finale was worth waiting for.

 

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