A World-Class Driver in a Yugo Will Not Win The Indy 500

There is plenty of research to support the value of great teachers. Skilled and committed educators often make a difference for individual students as well as entire classes. There is little to no debate about this fact. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the skill of the teacher is the only factor. In fact, you can have an amazing teacher who, given the right conditions, can experience less than impressive results with a group of students.

Or, as I state in the title of this article, a world-class driver in a Yugo will not win the Indy 500. It doesn’t matter how well the driver handles the curves. That driver’s car lacks the horsepower to compete. The driver can be passionate, committed, and the most skilled driver in the world; but still find himself/herself in last place.

To what extent does this same concept apply to teachers in many schools? What are the key resources necessary for great teachers to produce great results? Some argue that great teachers are just great teachers. Put them in a room with students and they will make magic happen. This is a wonderfully inspiring and romantic view of the teaching profession, and I don’t deny the fact that great teachers are more likely to help create a rich learning environment than those who lack skill in or commitment to the task. Yet, there is a limit to this vision and I’ve witnessed it in school systems.

Policies are not neutral. By their very nature, policies create opportunities and limit others. Policymakers quite often create them to address specific problems or amplify certain values and convictions over others. In doing so, they will muzzle other values and convictions, while also limiting certain practices. This includes unknowingly limiting the convictions and practices of great teachers.

This happens all the time. We set policies about testing requirements, unknowingly transforming how people spend time in school and class. We set policies about attendance, what constitutes attendance, and what constitutes truancy. We come up with measures like seat time that are well-meaning but again unknowingly limit creative approaches to teaching and learning. We create educational bureaucracies where the policies and practices are increasingly decided and distanced from teachers, students, and parents. We do it “for their own good”, often inspired by some sort of moral or pragmatic imperative. Then we find ourselves surprised when there is limited ownership by teachers, students, and/or parents. We put them in a Yugo of our own creation and then complain when they don’t place in or win the Indy 500.

Charter schools were created on the K-12 level to become incubators of learning protected from such a world. Yet, this has become the primary attack of charter schools by many, that they lack oversight and accountability. By freeing them from some of these policies we removed certain policies that protected against abuses. Unfortunately, these critiques are sometimes warranted as some have taken advantage of this freedom or failed to accept the high responsibility that comes with it. I’ve far from given up on the charter model however, as I see the alternative as even more dangerous.

I’ve met plenty of wonderful, quirky, interesting, committed, and skilled teachers who found charters to be havens from the bureaucracies that nearly drove them away from their callings. It is sad to see the passion extinguished from the eyes of teachers, and more importantly, students. The charter approach may not be the best solution, but I’ve seen enough cases of charters creating space for that passion to return that I couldn’t possibly argue for shutting them down. Until we have something better and scalable, I will be an advocate, albeit one who also calls for non-stifling but stringent accountability.

Yet, I don’t intend to make this article about the good and ills of charter schools. This is about setting people up for success. A good school leader must ask a couple of important questions. What are the conditions under which teachers perform at their best? What resources do I need to provide for that to happen? How can I get these in place? The same questions can and should be asked about students. What are the conditions under which students perform at their best, are engaged, developing a love of learning, and nurturing a senses of calling, purpose, and agency? How do we get both teachers and students out of our institutional Yugo and into something that sets them up for the best possible performance in the race of life and learning?

We Need Different Schools, Not Just Better Ones

I do it and so does almost everyone else who is writing about education. We write about making schools and education better. We refer to increased student engagement, improved student learning, better performance on test scores, increased graduation rates, and a dozen other metrics. We do this because they are ways for us to pursue, discuss, and consider how we can get better at what we do in education. Metrics have their place and getting better is certainly a worthwhile pursuit. Yet, I’d like to make a case for something else, something that is rarely discussed in education and that will likely result in some skepticism. I’m referring to the goal of pursuing different in education, not just better.

We don’t want to lose sight of better, but different plays an important role too. It gives us a distinct lens through which to look at education, one that has its own valid and valuable contribution to our efforts. It sometimes challenges us to not simply pursue incremental improvements of what we already do or to benchmark off of “best practices”, but to truly be open to re-imagining education in ways that will take us on a new adventure, one that admittedly has sometimes unknown results. We still keep sight of key quality metrics and agree to useful and reasonable accountability measures, but instead of making the pursuit all about getting better on some existing metric, we choose to value the goal of different.

In the late 1990s, Apple launched their “think different” campaign, perhaps in response to the IBM “think” slogan, but it also represented a new an eye-catching worldview in the computer industry. They established themselves as a company that would not just iterate and riff off the innovations from others (although they certainly did and do that), but as the creator of completely new types of products. They established a culture that embraced what it means to “think different” and they invited consumers who resonated with such a perspective to join the movement.

Note that the Apple slogan is not “think differently.” It is “think different.” I’m pretty sure that this was not a grammatical oversight. I read it as a message about what we think, not how we think. To think differently is to think in a different way. To think different is to think about something different. I”m far from a member of the grammar police, but this perspective seems to work. Even if it doesn’t, we could also go with the idea that the creators of that slogan knew the grammatical deviance, but embraced it out of a spirit of “thinking different.”

Regardless, I’d like to defend the value of a strong “think different” contingent in education, one that is not silenced or demonized by the “think better” contingent. The “different” lens will help us see that which is blurred or not visible through the “better” lens. Yes, I’m suggesting that “different” is a valid motivation in education even as I and plenty of others are documented as warning against doing something new just to be different. In this instances, I’m challenging such a statement. Perhaps there is more value to “different”.

Let’s continue with the lens metaphor.  A fish-eye lens will give me a different perspective of the world than a telephoto lens. They both have important roles, but each offers me a new and valuable perspective. Different color lenses draw out attention to new and different features that might be missed or overlooked with what have become known as traditional lenses. This is what I mean when I refer to the “better” and the “different” lenses in education.

Yet, each new and different type of school or approach to education most often gets evaluated through the “better” lens. We too often take the same tests and assessments that we use to evaluate existing models. Yet, that can sometimes be like evaluating the quality of an apple by the measures used to assess the quality of an orange. If the apple lacks a strong citrus flavor, it gets critiqued as falling short. The same thing is happening in the various forms of schooling and approaches to education today.

May Angelou wrote, “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Expanding upon this, if you are always measured and assessed based upon what is currently defined as normal or good, we may well miss out on discovering new and previously not assessed forms of good. We need different in education.

We need different because we have an existing system that doesn’t do an especially good job handling a wider variety of students, and there are many of us who don’t fit the traditional schooling mold especially well. While some argue that a vision for a diverse educational ecosystem is an attack on the public education system, it can also be argued that the normal (as in not different) public school system is an attack on the different student.

If it isn’t working for the student, quite often people in the system argue that the problem is with the student. While not ignoring the reality that students sometimes have challenges that require assistance, there are other ways to look at this and approach it. One way is to truly embrace, welcome, celebrate, and cultivate different in both students and schools. It is for this reason that I argue for the importance of having schools that are different, not just better.

Would People Read a Book About Your School?

Would people read a book about your school? It is an intriguing question. What if I spent hours researching your school, what happens in it, what doesn’t, what makes it distinct, and what happens to the graduates. What if I then wrote it up as a story. Would people read that book?

It isn’t a perfect question. After all, if we wrote about some of the terrible things that happen in certain schools, that would probably be enough to draw the attention of countless readers. Yet, let’s bracket that possibility for a moment and consider the positive stories. Is there enough character to your school that people would read it and find it to be distinct amid the thousands of schools in the country or world?

I’ve written much about the importance of mission and “school-shaping” concepts, ideas that are so central to the school culture that they permeate everything that happens. That simple discovery stems from a decade of studying schools of many different types. These schools are full of people who are clear about their mission and identity, and they stand out in a crowd of other schools that follow the status quo in education. In fact, out of all the things that a school does to improve the quality of education and the quality of a student’s time in that school, I’ve come to believe that clarity of mission and commitment to a small set of core convictions is the single most important step in improving education.

Ambiguity of mission in a school breeds mediocrity…or worse. It fails to provide people with a sense of direction. Because there is nothing of substance in the community, people in such schools jump from trend to trend, they fall into lifeless ruts, or they engage in a disheartening frenzy of other social efforts intended to fill the void of something more substantial and central to learning. I know that this sounds like a strong critique, so I simply invite you to draw upon your own experience with schools and other types of organizations. Consider the organizations with a clear and compelling mission and with a set of core convictions. Then contrast them with the organizations that don’t have this. What is your assessment of the difference?

So, I return to the opening question. Would people read a book about your school? If not, then maybe it is not distinct enough. Yet, some might jump right to the assumption that we must try to turn the school into some sort of educational Disneyland. That might work, but I’m not suggesting that. In fact, I’d like to suggest that a much more basic effort can turn your school into the type that would make it a page turner. That comes from investing in and creating communities where students have the opportunity to create and become part of rich and engaging stories of learning and growth.

Ask the students in your school a simple question. What is the story of your learning and growth in this place? When you ask that question, what answers do you get? What stories do they tell you? Do they tell you riveting tales of learning adventures, overcoming adversity, curiosity, pleasant frustration, intense challenges with rewarding outcomes, being stretched and achieving goals previously considered beyond reach? Those are stories that people would want to read, not to mention ones that people would want to live.

So, let’s ask the question once more, this time with an invitation to act. How can we turn each of our schools into places that would make them books worth reading?

Tests & Standards Can’t inspire a Compelling Vision for Education But This Can

We need a compelling vision to drive education reform and it will not come from debates about tests and standards. I had the privilege of working with a group of people recently who are exploring the possibly for a new and different type of school. Having the chance to facilitate such conversations and be welcomed into these coalitions of the willing continues to be a humbling and incredibly rewarding experience for me, whether I’m helping a group think through the possibilities for a new school, a new startup, a new educational product, or perhaps to reimagine what an organization is already doing.

As such, I always find it helpful to begin by getting to know the people individually as well as the community or communities that they represent. So, I started by sharing an authentic and vulnerable story from my own life, something that tied to what they were considering. Then, others went around the room, responding to a simple question. “What do you bring to this meeting?” What sort of beliefs and values did they bring to the meeting? What goals and desires did they bring? What fears, uncertainties and questions?

I can usually tell how a session like this is going to go by how people respond. If it is a trusting and open community, it is not uncommon for people to start to open up with powerful, sometimes even emotional stories. This is only natural because we are gathered to explore something that is important to people, something that relates to their core beliefs and what they value in life. After all, we all have personal experiences with school or education in some form. Some of those are pleasant and others are quite unpleasant, even traumatic. We have experiences of our children in school, and our joys and fears associated with that. For the teachers and school leaders, we have experiences of what worked, what didn’t, our dreams and passions for education, and the sort of core motivations and reasons that often led people into the profession in the first place.

So, when people started to share about their personal and unpleasant experiences with schools, their joys and moving experiences with schools, their dreams for reaching new populations of students, I knew that we were going to have a great day. Yet, even as I am writing this and reflecting on the experience, there was one short story shared by a person in his introduction that continues to move me. It illustrates the types of narratives and metaphors that can fuel our innovations and reforms in education. Grounding our efforts in something raw, real, and meaningful is far more important than many imagine.

It was an assistant principal who recalled a recent eighth-grade graduation speech. In the speech, the young man told of his experience coming to their existing elementary school. “When I came to this school, I was a broken window,” this young man explained. I don’t know what that meant for him personally, whether it was pain and loss in his life or something else. Yet, it was clearly this young man’s way of describing some sort of brokenness in his life. But then, the young man went on. He explained that he came a broken window, but through the nurturing and experiences in that school, the broken glass in his life had been turned into a stained glass window. His brokenness was turned into something whole and beautiful.

Now that is a compelling narrative upon which to describe the power of possibility of education in the contemporary world. As I write in What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, our modern conversation is too bogged down in debates about careful alignment of standards and standardized tests as the most valuable measures.

I don’t deny the role of these things, but they lack a compelling why for school leaders, parents, teachers, and students. They lack a broken window to stained glass window way of thinking about what we do and why we do it in schools. As such, if we are not careful, we risk creating learning communities with a meaning and purpose deficiency. Yet, we know that meaning and purpose are critical for student motivation and engagement. They are critical for persistence. Why try if it doesn’t matter? Why persist through struggle and difficulty? Why do more than just go through the motions? Education is and must remain, at its essence, about meaning and purpose, and about the transformation that happens with learners and teachers alike when they swim in these meaning and purpose-rich learning communities.

If you agree with me, I invite you to join me in deepening our public conversation about education and education reform. Join me in refusing to let that critical dialogue be dominated by outspoken voices that unintentionally seek to promote efforts and set agendas that dominate the conversation with lifeless policies and provisions. Join me in championing a conversation about what really matters in education.