Archives for the month of: February, 2012

While I was blogging this past weekend at Startup Weekend EDU Santa Clara, one idea crystallized even more for me the lean mode of thinking should be applied more frequently to school administration.  (If you want a brush up on lean thinking, here’s an earlier blog.)

I don’t need to convince Startup Weekend participants that they should follow a lean startup model—that’s what much of this past weekend was about.  Most teams struggled with defining their problem statements and refining their solution because doing this kind of work is hard and time consuming. It’s much easier to stay madly in love with your original startup idea.

Our LessonCast Learning team has spent hours working to define a single problem that we’re trying to solve, only to return to it again and again as we infuse new learning into our understanding of the problem. Still, it’s worth it. Until a problem is properly defined, it’s almost impossible to know if what you’re implementing is solving something.

Lean thinking clearly applies to launching a startup but I’m also going to be more deliberate about applying this philosophy during my work with my school district.

Many times the reason that decisions aren’t made is because the problems haven’t been clearly defined. Many great ideas bubble up; those ideas that are implemented usually happen because someone was able to persuade the right people to move it forward.

What would be more valuable—and rarely occurs—is for school administrators (including central office staff) to focus on defining the problems more clearly first. This past year our school system had each school and office complete a comprehensive needs assessment based on quantitative and qualitative data, which is a good start, but doesn’t completely capture what we need to be capturing.

Some common problems are never defined narrowly enough. For example, many school districts have students who are struggling readers.  There are many intervention strategies out there—outside programs, professional development, changing the organizational structure, adding instructional coaches, creating literacy campaigns.

However, a school can’t know which solution meets its needs best until the problem is more narrowly defined. For example, what’s the problem when some students struggle to read?

  • It is because the material doesn’t engage them?
  • Because their home situations are distracting?
  • Because they have gaps in learning?
  • Because they have learning differences?
  • Because they can’t focus because they’re hungry? Tired?
  • Aren’t in school enough because of suspensions?
  • Can’t sit still all day?
  • There are high rates of lead in their houses?
  • Because it’s not cool to enjoy reading?

We rarely take the time to dig this deep. Until we do, how are we supposed to recognize which solution is the best one to solve our problem?  If students aren’t focused because they’re hungry, that’s a very different solution than a student has a learning difference. In the first example, the solution would involve getting access to nutritious food for students. In the second, students would be tested to determine needs and a range of supports could be implemented. If the material isn’t engaging, then curriculum and instruction need to be addressed.

Lean thinking has the potential to focus on our limited resources on solving the real problems as well allowing us to see what works and what doesn’t more quickly and more efficiently.

Shaun Johnson’s article, “Climate Scientists, Educators, and Why We Avoid Consulting the Experts,” addresses an important issue that frustrates me on a daily basis—whose voices have the most influence in education? Johnson makes the parallel between non-climate scientists extolling their inaccurate expert opinions on climate change and “economists, statisticians, software engineers, CEO’s, politicians, financiers, hip-hop artists, and talk show hosts” explaining the best ways to improve education.  Why do we place so much weight on these opinions? If I need expert advice on how to treat my allergies, I wouldn’t ask a celebrity, my local congressperson or a financier. I’d ask my allergist. Yet, we don’t think twice of including these voices in debates about education.

Johnson also wonders:

Is it just coincidence that global warming and education are both socially and politically charged fields? There’s a lot at stake for wealthy interests to ensure that global warming remains controversial and contested. Otherwise, we’ll finally adjust our lifestyles and that could hurt a bottom line. A similar situation might be true for education. Certain well-heeled entities are very interested in the acquisition of valuable public per-pupil dollars. This might be why the real experts get shut out: they actually know what might be best for students and not someone’s bottom line.

This is the real question—what is the motivation for debates about education? Politics? Recognizing the possibilities of entering a $900 billion market? A (perhaps unconscious) desire to maintain the social status quo? Americans like to believe in the narrative of meritocracy—public education offers the opportunity for all Americans to pull themselves into a higher socioeconomic level if they simply work hard enough.  We hold tightly to this narrative, despite significant evidence to the contrary. Those in political power don’t want to admit that they might not have risen to that position if they had come from different circumstances—they all want to believe in the merits of their own hard work and labor.  If we really believed in equality in education, we’d make the hard decisions that would genuinely change the educational experiences of the children attending our under-performing schools.

When I’m evaluating people’s positions on educational reform, I’ve found that looking at their record on issues of equity serves as a good barometer for determining motivation. What other kinds of projects have been their passions?  Then I look to see their connections to actual educators—have they personally worked in education? If not, do they surround themselves with folks who have extensive experience in education?

There are certainly non-educators out there who fund projects for the right reasons—I’ve met a few. However, they’re the rare exception. Do I believe that only educators should be involved in educational reform or in creating new educational technology? No, what I believe is that we need true partnerships in designing the direction education should take that involve real education experts—those who have spent significant time in classrooms.

How can we shift our national thinking so that we recognize true expertise in education?