One of the most fundamental errors we make as problem solvers is to define a problem in an overly narrow way, in essence limiting our success from the very beginning.
Perhaps this is what we are doing with education.
When I reflect on my own efforts to add value in the field, they have focused largely on introducing innovation within systems that are inherently insensitive and unresponsive. My approach has been one of strategy and mediation, delicately avoiding areas of extreme dysfunction while creating pockets of shared interest and capacity.
The ultimate limitation of this approach was recently revealed as I found myself pondering how to best introduce 1:1 technology within the Buffalo Schools. Although the opportunity of interest- providing low-cost tablets manufactured by a brilliant new company, Bak USA- is undeniably advantageous and well aligned with our hopes and goals for city students, figuring out how to navigate the layers of complexity quickly became an exercise in frustration.
And then it dawned on me. Maybe it wasn’t about the schools. Maybe we had been defining the problem incorrectly.
Ultimately, our goal is to open possibilities. By putting tablets in the hands of all students, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, we can afford them access to a world of knowledge and opportunity- the same access that is fueling our most exciting paradigms and innovations.
But trying to force these notions of open access and opportunity into the constraints of a system that perpetuates the very opposite? Suddenly, the folly of my thinking became apparent. We find ourselves trapped by the very definitions of education that spawned the system that now traps us.
Those who follow my work can anticipate where I’m heading. By redefining the problem as one of cultivating talent in its most varied and abundant forms, and connecting talent with opportunities for growth and impact (see my TEDx talk), we can free ourselves from viewing the schools as our primary solution or vehicle for empowerment. In fact by doing so, it moves the responsibility for stewardship and cultivation to the highest levels of community leadership.
We already know that inequality of opportunity, and measures of success, can be mapped largely to the learning that takes place outside of school, reading and conversations at home, summer enrichment, interaction with mentors and role models, and all the opportunities to navigate and study the systems that regulate growth and advancement. Accordingly, this same out of school time becomes an obvious vehicle for enrichment and empowerment. The beauty of technology lies in its ability to bring a world of opportunity and learning to those who are traditionally left out or behind, and reach them wherever they are and wish to go.
Rather than seeing technology as a luxury or a threat to short-sighted self-interests, we need to challenge ourselves and one another to think beyond the constraints that continue to limit our collective growth. By redefining our notions of education and harnessing the power of technology, we can finally realize the benefits of talent in its most diverse and abundant forms.
Recently I uncovered the full extent of my obsession with moral complexity. After opening a box of mementos that included artifacts from my entire life, I found myself racing past the photos and yearbooks and diving breathlessly into a stack of Ethics papers from my first year of college. As if discovering the Holy Grail, I poured over my final exam, an analysis of case studies conducted through the lenses of various theoretical approaches.
The cases were extreme examples of moral transgression. They included gross abuses of power, failure to intervene in heinous crimes, all clear-cut scenarios that could be neatly unpacked and dissected for the purposes of assessment. I recalled that it was soon after this exam that I left the major of Philosophy. It had felt too detached and esoteric, barely relevant to the dangerous challenges that threatened our society and even then captured my attention. After leaving Philosophy I had done a brief stint in English which I greatly enjoyed until realizing that I only liked to read and write about people, and especially those toiling with deep and complex moral crises. I had been relieved to finally find a home in Psychology, and eventually the world of Cognition, where I could explore the underlying structures and processes involved in decision making.
How ironic that as I reread my final Ethics paper, almost twenty-five years since I wrote it, I couldn’t help resonating with the relevance of the analyses and the obstacles they revealed. Without even realizing it, I found myself reading the paper yet again, this time inserting the case study of public education for analysis and moral critique. The most recent Buffalo News article about the dysfunction of the School Board and its likeness to a reality TV show echoed in my mind- name calling, accusations of self-interest and political pandering, all swirling around high-stakes decisions about closing and transforming city schools.
My paper had walked through some common approaches to moral analysis, the thinking behind decision making which can undermine the reasoning that serves as the foundation for a strong and healthy society. Moral relativism, egoism, dogmatism, and polarization- all flavors of self-centeredness that trap individuals in the emotions associated with protecting and aggrandizing their own views. In my paper I had made the point that although feelings are often good indicators for what’s right and wrong, ethical reasoning involves much more than venting one’s feelings.
And yet somehow it seems that we have plunged ourselves in a moral swam, indulging in a never-ending stew of self-validation and attack. Clearly, the issues facing our public schools- and other key social systems- are much more complex and multi-faceted than mere issues of ethics or morality. They involve structural and systems-level failures that call for strategic and bold solutions, perhaps better tethered to the world of Cognition than Philosophy. And yet, ironically the very same critique holds true. Emotionalism and self-centeredness always get in the way of good decision making, especially when our decisions have critical implications for the world in which we live.
As I sat listening to a Buffalo teacher talk about the realities facing her students, I felt a growing pit in my stomach that has seemed to have taken up permanent residence.
She was talking about the refugee children who make up a large percentage of her school’s population. She explained that over 40% of the students don’t speak English, and that another quarter have tested out of language services despite debilitating limitations in vocabulary, due to their parents not speaking English at home.
She talked about the circumstances from which the children come- war, famine, genocide; from the Congo, Nepal, villages and countries that most of us can only imagine. She remarked of the children’s strength and determination, a sort of self-selection that accompanies those who make it, enduring unspeakable hardship all for hope of opportunity. And she spoke of their talents and dreams, each as unique as their individual stories.
Yet in a school system focused solely on state standards, these kids are liabilities. Their extracurricular activities are stripped, no more outdoor time, no arts and culture, just more and more curriculum. Not surprisingly, most do poorly on the tests. And once the school is invariably labeled as failing, resources are taken away, and punitive measures put into place; anger and judgment rather than the support and celebration they deserve.
As I listened to my friend speak my heart grew heavy, but not because I was unaware of the situation. Just a few years ago I led the University’s partnership with the Buffalo Schools, working to leverage resources and opportunities for the most challenged. At that time, we and other local institutions were clamoring to be at the table, responding to a call by the new superintendent, Dr. James Williams.
But what began as collegial collaboration quickly gave way to suspicion on both sides. And with a foot in each world- paid by both the Board of Education and the State University- and a background in mediation, I certainly understood the mutual trepidation.
From the vantage point of the schools, many partners appeared predatory. The Superintendent would point out that nonprofits sustain themselves on grants and contracts with the schools, that poverty itself feeds the very organizations that position themselves as its savior. At an address to the largest teacher education program in the area, he remarked, “I know you all have excellent programs, but my children can’t read…” suggesting a certain degree of culpability on the part of higher education. He went on to describe a drowning child who is reaching for help, but the weight of so many hands trying to lift them up inadvertently sinking them deeper.
But from the outside perspective it has become virtually impossible to find a viable place at the table, especially one that is befitting our own needs for civility and good judgment. The circus-like atmosphere that has come to define public education, and the associated suspicion that surrounds all engaged parties, shuns meaningful collaboration and support.
While I no longer work directly with the Buffalo Schools, I now serve on the board of a local organization that places and supports refugee families. Ironically, even from this new vantage point, I still struggle to find a touch point.
Yes, the School District is the primary system for educating our children. But, they are OUR children, and we are ultimately responsible for their care. The weight of that responsibility is increasingly speaking to me, calling me to action, and I yearn to respond. But how?
I had the talk with my daughter the other day, the one about using her powers for good and not evil. It was in the midst of the talk that I realized it was actually the fourth iteration, a common thread woven across each of my children’s formation.
While the talk has varied with the particular transgression under review, the plot line has remained largely the same.
It begins with me enumerating my child’s gifts and talents, articulating the qualities that make them uniquely special and precious to the world. I assure them that they will go on to do important things and acknowledge that they are clearly leaders, undeniably powerful. I provide evidence as to how their behavior makes a difference; how when they are at their best, they have a tangible impact on the people and situations around them.
At this point, they usually sense that we are circling back to their transgression, a realization that catalyzes a stream of excuses and accompanying tears. This is always the turning point in the talk; the place where I reaffirm my love and clarify that we always have choices, opportunities to add value and to do the right thing. Finally I offer a path forward, an opportunity to make things right and to reset intentions.
While I’m sure my children dread these talks, they always bring us closer. In the end, after the drama clears, there is a palpable sense of intimacy, a new bond that somehow tethers our souls more closely.
When I think of my own upbringing, I still remember the sting of disappointing my parents. But I also recall, and continue to cherish, the security that comes with their unconditional love and unyielding expectations that I will always do the right thing.
Of late as I have pondered the qualities of leadership, I have been accused of being overly romantic about all that we should expect. Courage, integrity, a commitment to doing what is right and true, and an ability to make strong decisions especially in the face of challenge or uncertainty. Aren’t these the very qualities that we expect of our own children, the qualities that we expect of ourselves and one another?
Although it is too early to predict whether my children- or any children- will go on to be great leaders or innovators, they are honing their powers every day, through their studies, their interactions, and their dreams. They are developing a sense of identity and place in the world, setting expectations for themselves and those around them.
The phrase, “for those to whom much is given much is expected” rings clear and loud in my inner voice. As a society it is our job to nurture and extol our children’s precious gifts, while setting high and clear expectations for their impacts.
The truth is that we simply cannot fulfill our potential without raising powerful people. And thankfully, with every new generation, we have another chance to finally get it right.
I recently attended a press event and left dumbfounded by the remarks of the presiding dignitaries. The vast majority either didn’t make sense at all, or were essentially vacuous in terms of actionable promises. Since literally bolting from the event, I have found myself pondering the importance of words as they relate to community development.
I have already confessed my general fascination with words in an early post http://marabhuber.com/2014/03/24/sculpting-our-words/, but in this case I’m reflecting on the lack of intellectual and ethical discipline that they often convey. Just recently I was accused in a LinkedIn group of being too academic and using “the turgid style that seems to say: “I’m smarter than you are.” The critic urged me to say what I mean. While I admit that I have often been accused of being difficult to understand, I would argue that my intentions are at least noble. In choosing my words, whether verbal or written, I strive and struggle for clarity and precision. In the world of higher education, which is my home, and more specifically in the realm of research, we are left to constantly defend the veracity of our assertions, and so we take our words very seriously. Whether in peer reviewed articles, presentations, or meetings, our words are scrutinized for logic and proof, and accordingly they serve as the very foundation on which our relationships and reputations are built.
I realize that Higher Education is not the real world, and that many “normal” people would argue that academics get lost in words and their meanings. Yet I strongly believe that regardless of your background or professional culture, words DO matter and should be treated with more care and thoughtfulness. And I would assert that this is especially true when we deal with matters of community development.
Why? Well, for one reason words are simply not interchangeable. It’s true that we have multiple words to describe similar ideas or concepts, but each connotes nuanced distinctions that are subtle yet important enough to be named. The differences between a partner and a customer, an opportunity and a contract, collaboration and commitment all become extremely important as projects play out, grants run their course, or tensions begin to rise. The ability to articulate one’s goals, needs, and boundaries in a way that is respectful yet clear can make all the difference in project outcomes and the ultimate longevity of relationships.
This is especially the case in community development where organizations are seeking to help and add value in humanitarian ways, while at the same time attending to their own budgetary needs and agendas. Even when all parties are nonprofit with no direct gains or monetary interests, the complexities of their missions and funding sources and associated political lifelines guarantee that ethical conflicts and landmines will abound. Without the ability to clearly articulate and maintain one’s position using carefully selected words with their associated meanings, the promise of successfully navigating the treacherous waters of community development will remain dismal at best.
I hope you can help me.
I’m looking for the name of a specific community leader, the one with the courage, commitment, and most importantly the capacity to bring us all together.
I’m not talking about waterfront development, or tourism. We’ve got those areas covered, and I too am excited by the growth.
The leader I’m searching for is focused on human capital- someone who understands the complexities of politics and poverty, but is driven ultimately by the promise of untapped potential; someone who can see and work across systems and is not constrained by specific agendas or ideologies. The leader I am seeking is a facilitator, a designer, a navigator of complexity, someone with thick skin who can deflect the negativity and fickleness that so quickly emerge, someone exceptionally smart, and definitely kind.
We are certainly not lacking in community leaders. But I don’t think they’re the ones I’m looking for. And I have been waiting for so very long.
My search began back in 2007 when I was working with former Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Williams, as liaison for higher education partnerships. When he would introduce me to leaders from various sectors of the city, I would pose the question in the most earnest and hopeful way, explaining that I was eager to offer my assistance once I could identify the right person.
Can you believe that in over eight years of asking the question, I haven’t gotten a single enthusiastic response- not one.
Since leaving my role with Superintendent Williams and returning to my work at the University at Buffalo, I have pulled back from the world of educational partnerships, waiting for the dust to settle so that I could identify the appropriate opportunity to reengage. And throughout the years and months I have continued to ask my question.
Just recently I learned of Mr. Wilmer’s press event and grew excited that perhaps the time had finally come. If Mr. Wilmers, a leader for whom I have great respect and admiration, a leader who makes big things happen for our community and schools, if he was rallying the troops, then maybe we could finally get something accomplished. But alas, I was told by numerous attendees that he was clearly not the one, that he had emphasized throughout his presentation that he was a banker and not an educator, and that the responsible community leaders needed to step up and find a way forward.
And then just this morning, a few brief minutes ago, I read of the upcoming Superintendent search and the School Board’s expectation that there must be a suitable internal candidate, a principal, who can step up and lead the District forward.
My heart aches as I ponder the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I continue to ask myself who is that leader, and I am hoping desperately that one of you knows.
Once we establish that our education system is complex, fragile, and precious (see earlier posts), the responsibility of leadership becomes one of calibration.
In http://marabhuber.com/2015/01/17/towards-a-practical-and-scalable-solution-for-saving-our-most-precious-and-vulnerable-community-systems/ we identified key points of fragility within school systems that can be tightened through self-study or guided evaluation. They include internal organizational integrity, co-evolution of the system with its environment, and the vision toward which the system is moving. While these areas can be tweaked independently, the complexity of their interactions demands a highly strategic approach that addresses the system in its entirety, identifying key levers of change that can be manipulated toward greater functionality and optimization of outputs.
If we examine the education system, and more specifically our most challenged school districts through the lens of complex adaptive systems, we can begin to appreciate the urgent need for calibration. While urban districts are vastly complex, they are also dangerously out of alignment with their key facets (internal organization; co-evolution; and vision) functioning at cross-purposes, and little comprehensive control or oversight. Accordingly, even when the system tries to pivot or refocus on some new mandate or external expectation, there is no effective mechanism for doing so, with even the most well intentioned efforts throwing the system into greater misalignment and instability.
With that said, it is entirely possible to recalibrate our education systems, but it is clearly a design challenge. In doing so, we need to view individual components through the lens of the greater system and place them within their respective places. Teacher unions and contracts, state mandates and assessments, school-level operations and policies, these are all components or variables that are critical to the ultimate performance of our school systems. But none of them, individually, should be drivers, determining the functionality or vision of the entire system. When given disproportionate weight or power, any of these components can begin to lead, causing further misalignment and fragility, not to mention compromised performance, ultimately threatening the viability of the systems themselves. Put simply, our most challenged school districts have become so complex, fragile, and misaligned, that they are no longer viable or sustainable.
If we are serious about fixing our education system, and more specifically our failing school districts, we must begin to view leadership through the lens of calibration. Ultimately, our school boards are responsible for setting the vision and overseeing progress. And yet few boards fully accept this responsibility and have the competencies or support necessary for doing the work. Clearly, boards can not to do it alone. Consultants and accrediting bodies, along with community foundations and consortiums, should provide the frameworks and strategic support needed to guide them through the complex and important processes, helping them clarify the necessary steps and roles that need to be filled. Only when this design work is done effectively can superintendents and leadership staff be hired based on their ability to lead and execute the identified plans. Only then can we begin to recalibrate our systems and achieve the results we seek not by chance, but by design.
Towards a Practical and Scalable Solution for Saving our Most Precious and Vulnerable Community Systems
If we accept the premise that non-profits are both highly precious and vulnerable, then the obvious question becomes how to save them. Based on responses to my last post, http://marabhuber.com/2015/01/11/why-stability-isnt-always-a-good-thing-nonprofits-as-complex-dynamic-systems/, the complex adaptive systems approach appears to be a useful paradigm that resonates for both the modeling and theoretical community, and those in the trenches involved directly with board governance.
Towards the goal of pushing this notion further, I offer a general analysis with recommendations that are both highly practical and scalable. And although this process should apply to any non-profit system, I will focus primarily on public education since it is particularly complex and urgent with regard to community health and sustainability.
Step 1: Identify the major points of system fragility that require our focused attention and support. A review of “A Mathematical Theory of Sustainability and Sustainable Development” by Ricardo Alvira (2014) suggests that the following might be particularly salient:
- Organization of the system– the interacting parts that distinguish the system from its environment
With regard to non-profits this refers to the organization’s programs, structures, and processes that together comprise its unique identity. Alvira notes that adaptive systems move toward dissolution over time, and while there is a need to adapt and change to respond to changes in the environment, systems must maintain some internal stability in order to evolve. How non-profits “hang together” in terms of their various components represents a particular area of concern since they tend to become increasingly complex and rigid over time, due largely to diversification of funding sources and associated expectations.
- Co-evolution with the environment. Since environments are also systems that change over time, interactions between the system and its ambient environment can have significant effects on efficacy and sustainability
For non-profits, changes in the environment have significant implications for the work that is done. With regard to education, mandates and programs required or incentivized by state and federal agencies and/or funding sources can have major effects on the operations of school districts and the associated student experiences. In fact, if powerful enough, such mandates can result in entire school systems reorganizing to respond to their changing expectations. How these systems interact and influence one another is a major source of fragility and concern.
- Directionality- Adaptive systems move toward some desired state
Although non-profits are influenced by changes in the environment to which they must respond, they are ultimately steered by some aspirational vision set by their leadership. On paper, boards are often responsible for setting the vision and stewarding movement toward the desired state. And yet many boards abdicate this responsibility and control to executive directors or other paid leaders. The relationship between the vision setting and implementation for non-profits is another critical point of fragility to consider and address.
Because these three components interact in complex and unpredictable ways, any meaningful support must address all aspects simultaneously, helping the system move toward an optimal state through which it can achieve stability, nimbleness, and directionality in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change.
Step 2: Identify existing frameworks and/or processes that can offer support related to these specified structural focus areas. Because complex adaptive systems are found across so many domains of study and application, and because we have developed specialized toolkits and frameworks within these individual fields http://marabhuber.com/2015/01/03/unstuck/, it stands to reason that usable framework already exist and can be adapted and brought to scale for our current purposes.
Based on my own experiences in higher education, I would suggest that self-study frameworks associated with program accreditation offer the type of support that we are seeking. Specifically, I would suggest that the original TEAC (Teacher Education Accrediting Council) framework represents a particularly robust and useful paradigm to be explored.
In general, self-study involves a comprehensive examination of system components to evaluate and improve overall efficacy and sustainability. While different professional programs and associated accrediting bodies call for specific learning standards and competencies, they all guide organizations in the self-study process, setting standards for evidence of programmatic efficacy and quality, and offering related support and assurances.
I am particularly drawn to the TEAC framework as it emphasizes the very aspects of complex adaptive systems that we have identified through our analysis. Although these relate specifically to education related programs (associated with teacher education and educational leadership), they seem to hold for non-profits in general and certainly the public education systems that we are addressing. Specifically, the framework examines:
- Program rationale- how the program “hangs together” with regard to their various components, processes, and assessments. Programs are asked to provide a comprehensive cross-walk connecting all components both conceptually and statistically to demonstrate cohesion, stability, and relevance with regard to environmental contexts. In order to do this successfully, systems must make sense of their respective complexity, unifying programs around common philosophies, themes, and constructs toward greater clarity and stability.
- Institutional capacity- whether there is sufficient institutional buy-in and support to sustain the program. TEAC auditors meet with institutional leaders to ensure that the vision and mission of the program is supported, and those who are responsible for stewarding and implementing the program have capacity to do so even in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change. This aspect of the process gets at the “directionality” of non-profit functioning, and could address whether boards have sufficient understanding and capacity to effectively steward these complex adaptive systems.
- Quality control systems- TEAC requires that all programs have functioning quality control systems that allow them to ensure a high level of quality and consistency while effectively addressing any challenges or exceptions that should arise. A required audit forces programs to check the clarity and fidelity of their systems, identifying any issues and making appropriate changes. In the end, the quality control process cuts across all aspects of complexity that we have identified. Unless the system can consistently produce the outputs that it is designed to produce, regardless of the degree or type of variations that might occur, the system cannot ensure fidelity, efficacy, or sustainability.
As someone who has participated in the TEAC process at multiple levels, including co-leading an institutional self-study, participating in a program audit, and serving on the accreditation review process, I have witnessed the impact of the process on the organizations themselves. By simply going through the process, organizations change and tighten their programs and related functions. They become more cohesive, nimble, and effective and better positioned to select the right leaders and staff. If the process is clear with appropriate support mechanisms and staff, virtually any program or system can work through it with minimal cost and disruption, making it a highly practical solution for strengthening and ultimately saving our most complex and vulnerable non-profits.
Step 3: Identify mechanisms for bringing solution to scale.
Even if I could convince people of the value of guided self-study with regard to the stewardship of non-profits, the ultimate challenge is how to bring such frameworks to scale. To be honest, the primary (and perhaps only) reason higher education embraces these processes, is because they are mandated to do so in order to remain accredited or receive important designations that are tied to enrollments or growth. We would be delusional to think that non-profits will voluntarily embrace accreditation or self-study as a means of self-improvement. Nor should we look to regulatory bodies to mandate such processes, hoping that they will get it right and/or utilize these frameworks in an appropriate or idealized fashion.
Instead I recommend that we begin by making these frameworks available to those who naturally see the value, working with foundations that support board governance and community development and who understand the complexity and fragility associated with these areas of focus. By starting as a pilot, we can begin to study the impact of such frameworks on the efficacy of non-profits and the communities they serve.
When we are ready to bring participation to scale we can encourage the active endorsement by key funders, employers, and governmental agencies that offer resources and support on which the non-profits rely. Just as complex dynamic systems inherently re-organize to address changing environmental constraints and opportunities, so too will our community organizations as expectations for internal cohesion, nimbleness, and capacity for stewardship begin to increase.
Ultimately, we as communities and a collective society set the directionality and expectations for our non-profits. Only when we understand the inherent complexity and fragility of their work, and the preciousness of the communities they serve, can we begin to truly support and steward their potential through solutions that are both practical and scalable.