Good morning, I hope this finds you well. I know many of you just started the new school year, and many are just about to start. I know exactly that particular combination of anxiety, nervous energy, optimism and joy that accompanies the beginning of school. May all your best hopes transpire. I am writing this in the dining car of an Amtrak just south of Jacksonville, and the guy two booths down is singing along, loudly and stereotypically off-key, to a reggae version of a Lady Gaga track, so I’m having a great time.
It’s been a really busy summer and I have actually drafted several coaching letters, but none of them seemed right to send out at the time, and none of them seems right to send out now. So here is just my status report on how things are looking from my seat. (I mean that metaphorically—I am no longer talking about the man in the booth, who has now left, leaving a large hole in my heart.)
We continue to support districts who have used the Acceleration Framework, or some part or version thereof, to drive their work over the last couple of years. There are several parts to that framework: challenging task, perceived self-efficacy, scaffolding, formative assessment/responsive teaching, prioritize content. The Big Idea was, and continues to be, that despite educators’ well-intended effort—during the pandemic but not exclusively during the pandemic—to “meet students where they are”, this is easily corrupted to trap students in forever-below-grade-level-work, which is bad. Evidence suggests that this is still a problem for a lot of kids in a lot of places; TNTP, whose report on acceleration greatly influenced us when we created our own Acceleration Framework, issued a new report . Part of the summary reads:
These findings suggest that inequities in access to grade-level work that existed before the pandemic have only deepened, and that most school systems are not yet implementing real learning acceleration strategies. But they also offer a clear path forward, providing the latest evidence that all students can succeed on grade-level work when given the chance—and that learning acceleration should be a centerpiece of academic recovery efforts in the wake of COVID-19.
I’m very proud of the work we did on acceleration, and am ecstatic when we get feedback from districts that they employed our framework during the pandemic and give it much credit for their student results, which did not dip and in some cases actually grew.
We continue to work on continuous improvement and improvement science. We have been facilitating a Networked Improvement Community (NIC), which has been a lot of work but I have learned a ton and it has informed a lot of other work I do, especially regarding coaching and strategic planning. Shout out to David and Andrew, and to the NIC districts: Guilford, Manchester, Mansfield, Milford and Naugatuck. The continuous improvement work has expanded to include other districts, including Bridgeport, with the very public and enthusiastic support of those senior leaders, and a loose federation of district leaders hosted by Derby—they have allowed me and Andrew to use them as a proving ground, which has afforded us the opportunity to try out new ideas with smart people who give us high quality feedback—big shout out to Matt and Mike for making this possible, and to all the members of the Derby Group.
I’m also much clearer than I was a couple of years ago on how to support districts with strategic planning, and the connection between strategic planning and continuous improvement. And I’m also much clearer on the relationship between equity and improvement efforts—Rydell and I are working on articulating that right now for a conference proposal, and that will be useful to us whether or not the proposal is accepted. I think that the exercise of laying out your logic for improvement remains not just useful but imperative if you want people to understand what, why and how of your planning and implementation—you can see a 10,000 foot version of a strategy map here, but I’m even more sure than I was before that it’s the work of thinking through the logic that creates coherence, not the creation of a product.
Herb Kelleher, who founded Southwest, used to say that he could accidentally leave the binder of Southwest’s strategy documents behind on one of his planes and it wouldn’t be any good to another CEO, because that company wouldn’t have the culture to implement. I think he was both right and wrong. I think that it’s not possible to import wholesale someone else’s strategy, even if they’ve been really successful with it, but that’s not because of culture—it’s because strategy represents the shared thinking of a large group of people in interdependent but different roles, and that shared thinking is what matters. It’s like giving someone a Quran and thinking that makes them a Muslim, or giving someone a copy of the Constitution and thinking that they understand what it means to be an American. Obviously, not going to happen. To that end, I gathered some of my photos of district teams working on making their thinking about strategy visible; what you will notice is how unpolished they are. They are hand-drawn and hand-written, they are covered in Post-its and have other bits of paper glued onto them, some words have been scratched out and arrows have been re-drawn. They will likely mean nothing to you if it’s not your thinking on display, and that’s the point.
When I first started working on The Strategy Playbook with Jennie, I was still asking people to fill out a template for a strategy map—like the one linked to above—but it became clear really quickly that that was just an exercise in compliance, just like any other strategic planning template that they’d ever been asked (and are still being asked!—have you seen some of these things???) to complete. I had assumed that just because our template was infinitely better (which it is!) that people would see that and appreciate it, but they didn’t, because the experience was the same for them—just another blank set of boxes to fill in. When we switched to putting people in groups in front of chart paper or whiteboards with a marker, the experience was completely different—a profound shift from an emphasis on compliance to an emphasis on thinking that Peter Liljedahl has described so brilliantly in Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics—which is well worth reading even if you have a pathological aversion to mathematics.
The idea of strategy mapping 2.0, so to speak, was to take the work that folks did on the nonpermanent surfaces and type it up for them—but I realize that I’ve stopped doing even that. It makes more sense to take pictures and/or scan the work, and paste into a Google Doc or onto a team’s website, so that it’s available as a jumping off point, or an artifact of the story so far, because there is so much more work to do: deciding where to focus; looking for discrepancies and bright spots; thinking about how to measure if a change is an improvement, including what metrics to use; developing routines. So maybe we’re on strategy mapping 3.0? Because the other thing I’ve realized is that I’m less liable to actually label the tool—this is a strategy map, which is good for this, and this is a driver diagram, which is good for that—and just use it as a framework for facilitating the thinking that we want people to do.
The last thing I want to mention here is thinking about SEL, because I am never really sure what people mean by that. Sometimes I think that it’s a synonym for behavior management, sometimes it’s about wanting kids to self-regulate their emotions, but frequently that comes back to behavior too. I know a lot of what we’ve been refining is the connection between emotion and learning—students are much more likely to respond productively to feedback when they believe that it reflects a teacher’s high expectations of them; people adopt more challenging goals when they believe they are going to be successful; likewise, people are demotivated by beliefs that they are not going to succeed, that others don’t think they will succeed, or that they are going to be judged in some way; people’s performance suffers when they are under some kind of stereotype threat. Please read, if you haven’t already, Judith Kleinfeld’s 1975 article on the power of the warm demander, or the more recent article on the same topic in Ed Leadership.
I’ve also been doing a lot of reading on “soft skills”, which are also related to emotional awareness and skills—but soft skills have a lot more to do with how others perceive you and find dealing with you to be rewarding. Pretty much any issue of HBR has an article about soft skills: Are You Developing Skills That Won’t Be Automated?; Does Higher Education Still Prepare People for Jobs?; and What Makes a Successful Start-up Team? These articles aren’t talking about self-management, they are talking about the ability to connect with, manage, and support others—so how does that fit with SEL? I am not sure, but I do know that I’ve been spending a lot of time with college kids lately, and they are certainly a lot more encouraging, empathetic, and supportive of each other than my college peers. So I think we are doing something right.
I don’t know if it’s the best part of this job that I always feel like I’ve just discovered how much more there is to learn. Mostly I feel like it is, but sometimes it just feels big and overwhelming. Most days, though, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m sure you can relate to that. As always, if there is anything I can do to help you as you begin the new school year, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Best, Isobel