An Elegant Education System?

I’ve always been drawn to the elegant simplicity of well-designed systems.  Perhaps it’s the certainty of success that grabs me, the notion that the desired outcome will be a foregone conclusion once the design is complete and all components working in concert.  Or maybe it’s the inherent leanness, with no extra parts or unnecessary complexities, the entire system existing for a solitary purpose and functionality.

Nowadays we have endless examples of well-designed systems, especially in the technology domain. In fact, we’ve become so good at building them that we find ourselves providing conveniences and applications that we never even imagined ourselves needing or wanting.  Constrained only by our ability to dream up new functions and outputs, it’s not surprising that many view our capabilities as endless with nothing but potential ahead.

Yet in stark contrast to these elegant and efficient applications are the very systems that underlie and affect our most critical societal functions and needs.  And although a number exist, the most troubling by far is the public education system which impacts virtually every facet of our societal health and wellbeing. The target of seemingly endless criticisms and critiques, the education system as we know it continues to be both broken and incomplete with no indication that any of the component pipes or their respective leaders have the capacity- or intention- to reengineer the pipeline into an elegant system.

But since there is no viable alternative to be found, we must forge ahead with the painful yet critical comparisons between an elegant and well-designed education system and our current approach.  For it is only by envisioning our ideal system and ientifying and clarifying the gaps and failures that we can discover the drivers and levers for change.

I look forward to diving into this design and mapping work in the coming months.  I’ll try to post the products of our efforts as they evolve, but please contact me directly if you’d like to participate.

Please view and share my recent TEDx presentation to learn more about why our pipeline is incomplete in addition to being broken….

Dear Superintendent (From Say Yes “Letters to the Superintendent” Book Project)

May 24, 2012

Dear Superintendent,

It is with somewhat conflicted emotions that I welcome you to our schools and community. Like my fellow Buffalonians, I have anticipated your arrival with great hope and urgency and a clear understanding that the future of our youth and city lies largely in your hands. But as I welcome you I must also share a sense of caution and a need to prepare you for the darker side of our community’s embrace. You will find that like other cities across the nation, we too are experiencing a heightened need for accountability and change; a need that has grown over the years into an almost ravenous impatience, making us both fickle and self-destructive, and most desperately in need of leadership.

I pray you recognize that these two emotions- hope and impatience- have a common root; the realization that our children are our most precious resource and a fear that we have irreparably failed them. Of course this fear manifests itself in many forms- activism, policies and panaceas- and many voices, each colored by politics, ideologies, and agendas, all clashing and competing in a cacophony of noise.

But fortunately it is not only fear that binds us. Our community is connected by a bounty of riches that we collectively guard and admire, but have yet to unlock.  And while we celebrate our grand history, world renowned architecture, and cultural assets, few realize that our schools are among our greatest riches, offering treasure more abundant than we know.

You see, Buffalo is in the midst of a most extraordinary experiment, one worthy of the country’s most careful attention.  Today, there are no fewer than five major reform initiatives underway across the district- each supported by federal and/or local investments.  They include the coveted Promise Neighborhood grant modeled after the Harlem Children Zone; Say Yes to Education; Choice Neighborhoods, funded by HUD; a $10 million NSF Math Science Partnership grant; and an initiative on the West Side sponsored by Buffalo State College.  While these programs all share a common focus on student and community supports and evidence-based interventions, they also represent important differences, with each initiative testing a fundamentally different approach to school and neighborhood reform.  And at the center of these diverse approaches firmly stands the Buffalo School District, keepers of the participating schools, students, and their respective data.

Indeed, in no other city across the country is the problem of Urban Education being studied in such a fully developed quasi-experiment. The collective data, if compiled and analyzed within a comprehensive research design, could inform not only our own efforts but the future shape of policy and implementation with implications for districts and students across the country.  It should be noted that in Buffalo these efforts are already underway, with each initiative in varying stages of funding and implementation, with its own management and leadership teams.   All that is missing is a champion to rally us around the work and a process to weave together these disparate approaches into a thoughtful and comprehensive vision.

As Superintendent you will be a primary keeper of this vision, but since it has yet to be created there is still nothing to be kept.  We cannot skip the exercise of defining our beliefs, promises, and expectations. Our vision must be powerful, clear, and shared in a way that is meaningful and real- so real that with time we will all know it, dream it, and begin to make it happen- for our students, ourselves, and for future generations.  Clearly, this exercise and our resulting efforts will not excuse us from external mandates or performance expectations.  But it will provide a more meaningful frame through which to address and interpret related metrics.  If done correctly, this vision and its components will provide the clarity necessary for us to be nimble, deliberate, and collaborative- all signs of a healthy dynamic system able to thrive and sustain itself while adapting within an ever-changing world.

It is indeed an interesting and important time to assume your new role as our Superintendent of Schools.  But as you prepare for the many challenges and opportunities ahead, please know that we are ready for your leadership and eager to contribute our own resources and contributions toward the collective good.

I look forward to meeting you and working together in the months ahead,

Points of Leverage: Teacher Preparation Programs

Just yesterday I had a discussion with my good friend Dr. James Williams, former Superintedent of Buffalo Schools. In addition to reminding me how much I miss him, our conversation focused on a topic that has dominated a great deal of our individual and collective attention- teacher preparation. Back in 2007 when I worked with Dr. Williams through my then role as Liaison for Higher Education Partnerships, and shortly after as Director of the UB- Buffalo Public Schools Partnership, he was very concerned about the (perceived) lack of alignment between area teacher education programs and the needs and realities of the Buffalo Schools. I, on the other hand, was continuing my early experiences co-leading the accreditation of the UB Teacher Education Program by serving on the Accreditation Panel for the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC), which has since become CAEP. My own interests focused on PK-16 collaboration and ways to ensure a stronger and more functional alignment between systems.

Despite our differences in specific focus, however, we have both continued our efforts and thinking related to this important topic. Dr. Williams has become actively involved in the process of researching the quality of teacher education programs through the lens of urban education and providing a publically shared rating system, in hopes that this will help drive reform and strengthen higher education programs. While I have maintained my engagement with the accreditation process, I continue to think about structural levers and mechanisms that could potentially support greater alignment if used appropriately. This is of course where my brain always goes- trying to “map out” systems and identify drivers that can help catalyze significant change.

In the world of teacher preparation I continue to see two prominent vehicles for major urban school districts to catalyze change. Although from the viewpoint of higher education these could be extremely scary if leveraged, I feel compelled to point them out if only as a “thought exercise”. The first involves hiring of teachers and the possibility of exercising (and publicizing) preferential hiring or endorsement of specific programs or specialized training. In major cities in which the public districts represent the main employers of new teachers, such public endorsement could have a significant impact on students’ choices for enrollment. And by partnering with districts to develop specialized programs that are deemed to be especially well-aligned, colleges could gain a competitive edge in a time when enrollments are becoming increasingly precious. Since the market of teacher education programs is not highly differentiated with regard to obvious curricular, quality, or placement related distinctions, it is theoretically sensitive to changes in the external market.

A second area that has significant implications is the placement of student teachers. Although higher education programs are required to place candidates in high needs schools/settings, there is no specific mandate for districts to accept and place student teachers. Accordingly, as a point of leverage, if urban superintendents were to limit the acceptance of student teachers based on endorsement of specific teacher education programs and their curricula, higher education programs could theoretically be impacted with regard to their own continued viability.

It should be noted that I am certainly not trying to put institutions of higher education and their programs at risk, nor am I passing any judgment on the quality of their specific programs. I am, however, pointing out some significant points of leverage that have implications for interests in strengthening the alignment between preparation programs and the realities of the districts they serve.

Mapping Not Mopping

Although the notion of a seamless education pipeline is inherently appealing, it remains a metaphor far removed from reality. The idea that the simple tightening of connections between PreK-12 and higher education will yield a continuous flow of preparation is a gross oversimplification at best. While important, public education and colleges/universities are joined by other entities such as federal and state departments of education; teachers unions; and teacher preparation programs that contribute to the overall drippiness of our current education system. These units and others that provide resources, policies, or expectations related to education must also be sealed together. But before we reach for the proverbial soldering gun, we need to make sure that all the pieces are in the right order.

The efficacy of a pipeline, after all, lies in its ability to channel matter to a specified location. It is that end location that serves as the driver for the entire system and determines the length and complexity of the plumbing. With regard to the education pipeline, we have seen a gradual lengthening over recent years. While education departments continue to focus on state assessments and high school graduation rates, they are extending their purview to include college readiness and participation. And although all agree that higher education represents a critical pathway, many have suggested adult workforce trends as the appropriate focus for reforms, implying that rather than PreK to college, the education pipeline should extend from “cradle to grave.”

By extending the pipeline to include workforce development it shifts our collective focus to the notion of “workforce readiness” and behooves us to identify the skills and dispositions that are critical for students, graduates, and employees. Clearly to be competitive in the global economy we need graduates who are innovators, problem solvers, and thinkers; men and women who can address the complex challenges and opportunities that continue to emerge and evolve within our communities- local, national, and abroad. Clarifying these dispositions and skill sets may be just what we need to reconfigure our education pipeline in a manner that will prepare our students for success- not by magic or exception, but by design.

Once our expectations are operationalized we can begin the task of working backwards to align and tighten. If we are serious about strengthening our economic competitiveness, workforce development must be front and center as we examine job trends and accompanying educational profiles, and push these expectations down through higher education and PreK-12 curricula. In addition to traditional knowledge competencies we must also create opportunities for the development of soft skills including critical thinking, interpersonal communication, and metacognitive strategies that will allow students to contribute as active participants in our evolving economy. And while we are tackling the curriculum it is also imperative that we align teacher preparation programs to ensure the development of teachers who are able to cultivate these dispositions and competencies- for we simply cannot prepare students without teachers who are prepared themselves.

Is it really possible to reconfigure a pipeline that is so complex and antiquated? Absolutely, and it is through this alignment ONLY that the system can operate efficiently and be evaluated in a meaningful way. But clearly, the system cannot overhaul itself. Regardless of their best intentions, the individual pipes lack the power to transcend their respective missions and goals. A job of this scale requires an architect who while knowledgeable about all components, maintains a clear and unyielding focus on the final vision. It also calls for a team of expert technicians who can map backwards from the endpoint, aligning and tightening as they go.

Clearly this task of retrofitting our entire education system is a daunting one. And understandably many may be more comfortable continuing with the status quo. But if this is the route that our country continues to take with regard to education, then our only hope- at the risk of taking the plumbing metaphor too far- is to invest in a serious pair of waders.