“Our school system wasn’t designed for the needs of our students and so we have to figure out how to change a system never designed to serve the kids we serve.”
These were a few of the powerful remarks made by Dr. Luis Cruz during the opening keynote of Rowland Unified School District’s professional learning day last week. As I listened to his message, I couldn’t help but wonder what will finally tip the balance? What will it take to truly redesign public education systems?
I agree with Dr. Cruz that our “system” has to be redesigned and yet I also worry that talking about the need for a system to be redesigned allows us to abdicate some personal responsibility. Taking on an entire system is complicated and yet a system is made up of a group of units that regularly interact and form an integrated whole. So taking on any part of a system and redesigning it has the potential to influence other parts of a system. This is where personal responsibility is key. I believe EVERY educator has a responsibility to redesign the system. I recall too often from my days as an Assistant Superintendent, hearing teachers and principals talk about the need for the District Office to do something about one issue or another as if the DO were some magical entity. Whenever I heard this, I would politely interject that the District was made up of ALL of us, sure some may have more power to impact changes but we ALL have a responsibility to speak up for changes needed for our students.
As framed by Dr. Cruz, systems can be broken down by:
Policies - Do the policies we have in place serve ALL students? Unfortunately, some policies that we have in schools make zero sense when looked at from viewpoint of serving the learning of students. For example, how does your school interact with truant students? It is almost comical, but some schools discipline truancy with suspension. If we want students to be at school then why are we suspending those who might need us the most?
Practices - Do the practices we have in place serve ALL students? The practices can be a little trickier to uncover as these aren’t usually written down anywhere. Our practices are the just the way we do things or have done things for years. One practice that we should collectively call into question, is the practice of placing our most inexperienced teachers with our neediest students. Can you imagine a first-year surgeon taking on the most complicated case of conjoined twins or a new lawyer taking on a high profile case like the OJ Simpson trial? It doesn’t make any sense and yet we have practices like this that don’t serve our students well.
Procedures - Do the procedures we have in place serve ALL students? What are the grading procedures at your school? I was chatting with a parent who shared that her son only gets two bathroom passes a day and if he needs another bathroom pass he loses points from that class, impacting his grade. How does that serve his learning?
People’s Mindsets - Do we have the right mindsets to serve ALL students? This is where things get more complicated. Education attracts people for all the right reasons. Most people who go into education do so because they want to help kids, and yet those very same people can be very resistant to change. As Dan Lortie points out in SchoolTeacher: A Sociological study, teachers are often drawn to the system because it worked for them making it nearly impossible for them to have any real desire to change the system. For teachers, unknowingly our internship starts at the age of six and then we unintentionally replicate the system we have been a part of for most of our lives.
Of the four P’s listed above, people’s mindset is the most important to change. I have seen that with the right collective mindset of people, policies, practices, and procedures are so much easier to change. This is why I devote so much of my time and energy toward helping leaders develop new mindsets. As Albert Einstein so eloquently shared, “ We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
I’d love to hear how you are working to redesign the system!