I have been lucky over the years to work with people across the globe who are giving everything they have to lift their school systems. Some succeed, some fail. To be honest, most succeed a bit and fail a bit, but they all keep striving to change the lives of kids across their system. Not just a few kids, but real change at scale. This blog is about providing a new way forward for these people.
I believe the current education policy debate fails system leaders more regularly than it helps them. It regularly asks for the impossible, and allocates blame when it is not achieved. Academics and commentators talk about the need for evidence-based policy as though it is a cure-all, but the sad fact is that it doesn’t change what actually occurs in most classrooms, let alone across entire systems.
When things don’t work, system leaders are then told to improve implementation, alignment, and system-wide approaches, create policy that is owned by schools and a trusted profession, and so on. System leaders are regularly told to do all of this work and it all sounds great (and is impossible to disagree with), but it is mainly unhelpful and sometimes even destructive. Leaders are basically told to do a whole lot of disjointed, ambiguous things that unfortunately rarely address the real issues in schools. Calls for better implementation are normally excuses for bad strategy, and phrases like alignment, trust, ownership, and system-wide change, while accurate, are useless without a roadmap: concrete steps for the leaders who wake up to all these pressures every day and have to work out what to do first.
In the past, I have often told system leaders to pursue a comprehensive systems approach, as Singapore, Ontario, Hong Kong and British Columbia have done. Yet I was never clear on what a systems approach actually meant, never provided a way forward for policy makers. This blog is about rectifying these mistakes.
Making system improvement tangible
I haven’t changed my belief that achieving sustained improvement in a system requires a comprehensive approach. But just saying that doesn’t help. Worse, it leaves a policy maker feeling that they must change everything to improve something. And that is impossible. It also leaves them feeling powerless; very few people have the power to comprehensively change a whole education system. Where does a call for ‘system change’ leave a senior policy maker in charge of, for example, teacher professional development across an education system?
In recent years I have come to focus much more on tangible prioritisation and sequencing of reforms and how they interact with each other. I went back to the high-performing and improving systems around the world and focussed on the sequence of their reforms over the past decades. I worked with leaders in systems at all levels of performance. I realised we need to bring together research from a broader number of fields and industries to better understand effective strategy and system change. This emphasised the need to go ever deeper into the detail of curriculum, pedagogical content knowledge, assessment and the practices that make classrooms effective.
Embedding this detail into system strategy is fundamental to a new approach. Lifting schools at scale can never be an abstract concept. It is about educators working together through specific steps to improve teaching and learning of a specific curriculum. So much ‘strategic advice’ talks about improving schools abstractly, which almost guarantees failure for the system leader who is left trying to contain the mess once the consultant has left the building (who then blames the failure of abstract strategy on poor implementation). I have lost count of the number of failed numeracy strategies I have read that don’t include the specifics of how teachers should improve their teaching of fractions.
None of this work is easy and systems are often structured in a way that separates strategic decision-making from schools, but I believe we are now at a point where we can develop a new approach to system improvement. A number of systems around the world are embarking on this path. We can share their experiences, support them, and encourage others to start the journey.
Policy interactions that start in the classroom
Tangible steps for a new approach require a change in thinking. Put simply, system improvement is not about how you need to improve all parts of the system; how you create all the pieces of the perfect pie. It is about the interactions between key elements of the system that impact teaching and learning in classrooms. For example:
- The interaction of curriculum and professional development better connects professional development to what needs to be taught in classrooms.
- The interaction of professional development with the agreed steps school leaders need to take for continuous school improvement enhances the impact of professional development.
- The interaction of the agreed steps school leaders need to take for continuous school improvement with leadership development provides a clear focus for training programs (that are normally far too broad).
- These interactions then form the basis for data, accountability and reporting policies.
Focussing on policy interactions means that each policy is designed and implemented in a more targeted way. This approach turns on its head the common process of policy alignment; it rejects the notion of designing separate policies and then trying to align them. Instead, it starts with specific interactions in schools and classrooms as the anchor from which all policies are designed.
This leads us to the two foundational policies for system improvement; policies that show everyone what they need to teach students, and the steps they need to take to get better at teaching what they need to teach students. In policy terms, it’s the interaction of:
- Quality curriculum that shows what students need to learn in school
- An improvement cycle that shows the steps educators need to take for continuous improvement of teaching and learning of that curriculum.
To be effective, these foundational policies must be specific about how they interact in schools. For example, it is not about creating the perfect improvement cycle. It is about agreeing on clear steps educators need to take to continuously improve teaching and learning of the curriculum.
Developing a new approach
To better explain these ideas, we will produce a number of blogs and supporting research and resources for everyone to use. Next week’s instalment will introduce a series of papers on the improvement cycle, which in various forms has been the engine of growth in high-performing systems such as Singapore, British Columbia, Hong Kong, Ontario and Japan. It is the basis for improvement in most public education systems in Australia and has been a key element of the rise of the District of Columbia Public Schools.
It is important to remember that success in these systems does not guarantee success in all systems. Because system improvement requires a focus on specific policy interactions, putting generic improvement cycles into systems will fail more often than succeed.
Instead, a focus on the interactions of the improvement cycle with the curriculum, and then with other policies, shifts improvement from an ambiguous, feel-good discussion to identifying specific steps people need to take, and what in the system needs to change so that people can take them (in other words, how policies should interact to bring about the required behaviour and practice change in schools and other levels of the system).
I’ve promised that this discussion will move away from the ambiguous towards clear steps people can take but I know this initial blog is very high-level. I have pointed to research and examples without providing detail and evidence. First, I want to give everyone a feel for where this blog will go and the issues it will tackle. Later blogs (supported by papers and resources) will provide detail on the clear steps people can take, using real examples from schools and education systems.
As this blog develops I will bring in new partnerships and share stories from people going down these roads. I don’t believe for a second that anyone can do this alone. I look forward to creating and sharing this new pathway with you.
Ben Jensen is CEO of Learning First.