Donald Trump’s campaign recently announced that it would focus on education during the entire week of August 29th. In general, most of us might think that attention given to education by a presidential candidate would be beneficial. Raising the profile of a critical but oft-neglected policy issue and informing voters about the positions of the candidate seems like a good thing.
It is my fervent hope, however, that education does not become a major issue during this Presidential election campaign. Given the quality of dialogue that is taking place on other issues—with facts being marginalized and sound bites rather than substance emphasized—I fear that attention from the candidates in this election cycle would not serve the best interests of students and might actually cause harm.
Two issues have emerged that illustrate my point. In post-secondary education, the push for universal free tuition for two years of college among Democrats has ignored the fact that students from middle and upper-middle class families—not students from low-income families—would reap the biggest benefits of such a policy play, and at a significant cost to the U.S. Treasury.
At the K-12 level, public outcry for the federal government to repeal the Common Core State Standards, adopted in some fashion by the vast majority of states, disregards the fact that the decision to set academic standards belongs to the states. Only states have the authority to take action, a principle that has been established time and again by state and federal jurisprudence.
As I noted in a previous post, in 2008 two major national foundations (Broad and Gates) spent tens of millions of dollars to promote education as a key policy area for discussion during the presidential debates of that year. Even this effort resulted in exactly one question asked during the 2008 debates, and it was immediately overshadowed by issues of the economy, trade, and taxes, among other things. Given the fact that this year’s campaigns seem to avoid real discussion of any issue, and that bombast and pandering to political factions seem to characterize the news, it is impossible to imagine that any intelligent discussion of complex education issues would take place should they find their way onto the debate agenda.
On August 9th, Michael Hansen of the Brookings Institution published a piece posing questions that should be asked of the candidates during the presidential debates this year. While interesting, it is hard to imagine that a reporter being watched by tens of millions of viewers—most of whom care about education but not about the specifics of federal laws or programs—would ask a question about whether Title I is achieving its intended goals or which specific education programs should be expanded or eliminated. To do so would likely mean it would be the last time they would ever be asked to question candidates in a high profile debate.
Even worse, candidates’ answers could lock the future president into positions derived from snap judgment rather than learned briefings and public discourse. Given the issues that face the 13,500 school districts in the nation, to say nothing of the 98,000 public schools, those kinds of knee-jerk policy promises would likely lead to further incoherence in systems still struggling to find the right balance between state, local, and federal priorities and direction.
Yes, we desperately need a thoughtful and balanced discussion of the state of and priorities for education in the nation. But I submit that presidential debates are not the appropriate place for this discussion, and the heat of an election is not the right time. My hope is that—after the election—local, state, and national leaders will come forward to facilitate the creation of a commission that would do justice to the issues at hand. Until that happens we should avoid snap decisions, facile responses, and comments that bring more heat than light.
At what point does an effort to scale an effective education practice turn into a mandate?
This question, I believe, strikes at the heart of education reform and suggests the cause of disappointing results for promising federal initiatives such as Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants.
The driving force behind every education reform initiative, from the national level to the local level, is ultimately to improve outcomes for students. It is a goal passionately shared by educators, administrators, and policymakers alike as they seek to identify effective education practices and implement them broadly. Yet, time and again, I have seen local efforts to bring effective practice to scale falter when an initiative is mandated rather than developed with the involvement of educators. In places as diverse as rural Kansas and Washington, DC, I have witnessed waning interest in promising education reform practices once a practice became a district, state, or federal requirement.
For example, in one urban district with which I work, principals were required for the first time this year to conduct regular, non-evaluative classroom observations and either provide “coaching notes” to the teacher or meet with the teacher to discuss what they saw and how instruction could be improved. At that time, these observations were not performed for the purpose of evaluating the teacher, and some principals in the district had already been successfully conducting observations and coaching teachers to improve instructional practice in years past.
A needs assessment of the district, conducted by my organization, determined that teachers’ use of effective instructional practices was sporadic at best and was likely contributing to unacceptably low student achievement. In an effort to improve instruction, the district began requiring principals—with training and the support of their supervisors (a newly created position)—to use a common observation template and process, observe at least 20 classrooms per month, and participate in a quarterly meeting in which results were reviewed and discussed.
The shift from sporadically used practice to required process certainly increased implementation, but it created another problem: According to a review that I recently conducted, principals and teachers alike view the district-mandated classroom observations merely as a compliance exercise and not as an opportunity to improve instructional practice. And while the observation and follow-up coaching processes certainly have room for improvement, I believe that the main reason for educators’ dissatisfaction is that the observations and coaching—unquestionably a great idea when done well—are now viewed as something they must do rather than as a practice that will improve teachers’ performance and ultimately increase student achievement.
Agency has been lost as boxes must be checked: Educators’ motivation has shifted from the internal (how can we improve instructional practice) to external (how do I meet the requirement that the district has imposed upon me).
None of this should come as a surprise anyone. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the great tide of education implementation research, Milbrey McLaughlin and others found that “policymakers can’t mandate what matters.” Much more recently (February 2015), David Berliner and Gene Glass noted that “school reforms that work in some places don’t work in others” and concluded that it is “no wonder we can’t find a silver bullet for school programs.”
So what’s the answer? First, we cannot mandate behaviors and expect that they are going to be followed in the way we intend or with the outcomes we desire. Second, general guidelines or principles—especially when emanating from the federal and even state levels—are much preferred to specific policies or rules. For the federal and state levels, setting goals, disseminating information, providing high-quality support, and requiring protection of civil rights and improvement of student learning are helpful; requiring fidelity to a set of specific practices (even if they were found to be effective in other schools or districts) is not.
I firmly believe that the vast majority of educators and administrators are trying hard to improve outcomes for students, even when motivated by complying with policies from “above.” But I also believe that these same educators and administrators will move mountains when they are motivated by their understanding of practices that work and have the ability to shape those practices in a way that makes sense for them. It’s a tough balance to strike, but it’s the only one that matters.
In January, the Southern Education Foundation reported that a majority of the nation’s public school students come from low-income families – 51% is the national average with many states experiencing higher rates. The implications of educating a majority-poverty population are complex and are increasingly felt by teachers, principals, and district and community leaders across the country. We know that low-income children have less access to early childhood and enrichment opportunities than their middle- and upper-class peers. And for a growing pool of too many, food security, emotional and physical health, housing, and other essentials are lacking.
Districts with student poverty rates soaring above the national average are turning to a community school model to try and address these challenges. Last summer, New York City superintendent Bill de Blasio announced a grant program to launch community schools in the city’s high-need areas, falling in line behind other urban districts including Oakland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.
Community schools are not new – the Coalition for Community Schools has been promoting and studying them for decades. The goal of a community school is to leverage district and partner resources to integrate academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement, resulting in thriving students, families, and communities.
This approach may seem tangential to many of today’s reform priorities – we know that great teaching and school leadership account for a sizable share of the student success puzzle. And much of our work is understandably focused there. But as schools serve more and more students from low-income families, non-academic factors can’t be ignored – and teachers, schools, and districts need help addressing them. Integrating student and family supports in schools is becoming less of a nice-to-do and more of a prerequisite to learning.
For the past five months, Cross & Joftus has worked with Tulsa Public Schools to examine their decades-old approach to community schools and suggest ways to strengthen it. We’ve found there, as we expect we might find in other places, that the community schools strategy has been implemented as a distinct initiative, parallel to but on the periphery of the district’s core instructional improvement work aimed at creating successful teachers, leaders, and students.
The district and its community and philanthropic partners want to change that, making sure that the services and supports students receive are tightly connected to individual student needs and the core work of schools and the district. What that looks like exactly is to be determined – with support from C&J, a group of community stakeholders are developing a strategic plan for accomplishing that goal. But for NYC and others interested in a full-service school model, Tulsa will be a place to watch.
Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice.
Earlier this month, the Wyoming legislature convened for its semi-annual session. Of the many important issues discussed, the most controversial may well have been whether to place the question of eliminating the elected chief state school officer on the 2016 general election ballot.
The discussion was informed by a study commissioned by the Wyoming legislature and conducted by Cross & Joftus. For this study, almost 1500 Wyomingites responded to an online survey and extensive interviews were conducted with 31 stakeholders groups. The study found that most Wyomingites are weary of the periods of stagnating tension between the elected schools chief, Governor, and State Board and want to see change. When the views of the elected Superintendent and appointed Board have aligned, the system has worked well. But when they have not, leadership has gotten bogged down and school districts have received conflicting messages about the state’s priorities.
Wyoming is a fascinating state. It boasts the smallest population in the nation but spends more (on a cost-adjusted basis) on education than any state, nearly twice the average of its immediate neighbor states. Despite this investment, Wyoming does not meet many of its student achievement goals. Low-income students perform quite well, but Wyoming has few concentrations of poverty and rural poverty can be far different than in urban areas. Non-poverty students do not do nearly as well, placing Wyoming in the mid-30s when compared to other states and about even with Slovenia if an international scale is used.
Across the study’s survey and interviews, a strong majority expressed dissatisfaction – even frustration – with the lack of a unified strategy for improving education at the state level. Time, energy, and attention seem to have been focused on the political leadership controversies in recent years, at the expense of a coherent vision and aligned services and supports to districts, schools, and children.
Our study concluded that Wyoming’s state-level education governance structure contains a structural flaw. The State Board is charged with establishing policies and standards, but when the elected State Superintendent determines that these are in conflict with his or her campaign commitments, there is no defined process for reaching a resolution. The result is often a stalemate in which the policies are either not implemented or done slowly or incompletely. Similarly, when the State Superintendent has made a campaign commitment to change certain policies or standards, that person lacks the authority to do so. The result can be four years of leadership stagnation – a serious problem when educational improvement is so vital to the future economic and social well-being of states.
Education is the largest single item in almost every state’s budget, yet elected chiefs are rarely at the table and can feel they have their own agendas to pursue. The state board and/or the governor can hold an appointed chief accountable on an on-going basis for effective collaboration, providing increased opportunity to ensure that districts are given clear guidance and support and that the state’s educational system continually improves. However, securing sufficient legislative and public support to change a state’s constitution is a difficult hurdle.
While we will not know for a few months what will emerge, it is significant that the public wants to see adjustments to the state governance structure. If the state does move away from an elected schools chief, they would be following in the footsteps of many other states. Today, 13 state chiefs are elected, down from 33 in the late 1940s and discussions around the issue of an elected versus an appointed chief are also likely to occur in Indiana and North Carolina. Will Wyoming be next to better align state education leadership? Stay tuned!
Watching the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers—now led by the great LeBron James—struggle early in the season got me thinking: What does it take for a group of great individual players, including one of the best players in history, to work together to become a championship team? And, what can schools learn from such basketball teams?
The best basketball teams (see the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as a great example) have hugely talented and hard working players, but they commit to implementing a system that maximizes the likelihood of team success, sometimes to the detriment of individual players’ statistics such as scoring. Similarly, in many cases, coaches with strong beliefs about how the game should be played adjust their approach to take most advantage of the skills of the players on their team and work endlessly to ensure that players understand and buy into the role that they are being asked to play.
Great schools and school districts are just like this. The San Antonio Spurs of school districts is Garden City Public Schools (GCPS), which serves about 7,500 students (three-quarters of whom are economically disadvantaged) way out in western Kansas.
Measuring Garden City’s success and growth is difficult. Due to difficulties with the statewide rollout of new assessments last year, neither Garden City nor any other district in the state has summative data from 2013-14, and the data from 2012-2013 was based on a state assessment that had not been aligned to the new standards. Moreover, the district switched formative assessment providers last year so trend data are not yet available.
That said, GCPS has been on an upward trajectory since 2008 when it joined the Kansas Learning Network (KLN). KLN, created and managed for five years by Cross & Joftus (C&J), was the Kansas State Department of Education’s intervention for the lowest performing schools and districts in the state. Participating districts received an intensive needs assessment, coaching, and other supports. We assigned Joan Evans—the LeBron James of educators—to serve as the coach for GCPS.
Since 2008, GCPS has been focused like a laser on proving Michael Fullan’s maxim: “Every successful school and system in the world proves the point that only collective engagement will get us the results we are seeking.” GCPS—which, like the Spurs, has enjoyed very stable leadership—has become obsessed with the need to include teachers in the district’s planning and decision-making processes in order to build capacity and buy-in to what they are trying to do while emphasizing the need to build systems that are consistent grade to grade and school to school. These systems include most notably the best “instructional rounds” I have ever seen. The rounds are low-stake classroom observations by administrators and teachers that create and enforce clear agreements about what effective teaching looks like. The data from these rounds are analyzed and discussed in principal meetings to understand school implementation of high-impact instructional strategies and identify types of coaching and supports needed to continue making progress.
GCPS leadership would tell you that they got off to a rocky start, much like this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Teachers and principals didn’t understand the purpose of the observations and didn’t trust how the data would be used. But the district stayed with it and the culture has been transformed. Teachers and school administrators now lead professional development and proudly discuss the changes that have been made at meetings and conferences. And student achievement—though difficult to track over time—seems to be climbing steadily according to Darren Dennis, a senior GCPS administrator and a key architect of the reforms.
Unfortunately, there are no trophies to be won in education. But if you want to see a district that has created a championship culture, go visit Garden City, Kansas (just give yourself a lot of time to get there).
Read more about the C&J approach to School, District, and State Improvement.
The question remains: can one person, the Superhero Superintendent, save a struggling, broken school district or is she a mere mortal, destined to be defeated by a lack of systemic coherence?
Back in 2008, I partnered with Susan Tave Zelman, former Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction and current Executive Director of the Ohio Department of Education, to write an article for the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice titled Systems, Not Superheroes about the need for districts and states to stop putting all of their eggs in the basket of superhero leaders and start investing in “complete and interlocking systems to support reform.” Six years later, it seems that little has changed as demonstrated most recently by the Los Angeles Unified MiSiS record-keeping system problems and the subsequent leadership upheaval.
Nabbing high-profile executives is not a comprehensive school reform strategy, especially given how long most of those individuals stay in the job. A recent survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools found that the average tenure of urban school superintendents dropped to 3.2 years in the 2013-2014 school year, a decline after 10 years of modest growth.
As Dr. Zelman and I wrote in 2008, even the most qualified individual would have a difficult time leading when faced with disconnected curricula and assessments; nonexistent resource tracking systems; disconnected teacher and principal recruitment, evaluation, and retention systems; and a demoralized, unsupported constituency of students and educators. As depicted in the following graphic, an integrated system must be developed in which human, fiscal, and community resources coupled with accountability support and extend the instructional system to improve student learning and achievement.
Figure 1: Complex, interrelated organization with subsystems (Ohio Department of Education)
When we create such a system,
- Teachers and school leaders have the knowledge, skills, and professional development they need to help all schools learn;
- Funding is aligned to a plan, based on data, focused on clear goals, and provides effective support for educators;
- Parents and families, business and industry, local community organizations, state and local health and human service agencies, and the media are actively engaged in the effort to improve school efficacy and student achievement;
- Performance targets regarding knowledge, skills, and abilities are set for students and educators that are fair, attainable, but also a stretch; and
- Instruction is based upon clear expectations of what we want our students to know and be able to do and is implemented by educators with the capacity to teach well thanks to aligned community, human, and fiscal resources.
A coherent, interdependent, sustainable system such as this allows the district leader to abandon the failure-bound role of Superhero and embrace the far more valuable role of Instructional Leader. The district leader will then have the freedom to do something truly heroic, that of helping educators teach students in the most effective way possible so that they can achieve their true potential. Because while strong and charismatic leaders are essential, systems and extraordinary leaders need to live in harmony.
Now that is the happy ending we all wish to see.
Thanks to Torrey Shawe for her contributions to this post.
While our national economy is showing many signs of recovery including higher job growth and lower unemployment, many state education budgets are still feeling the effects of the recent recession. A recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities provided the following sobering statistics.
- At least 35 states provided less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. (These figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)
- At least 15 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in this school year than they provided a year ago. This is despite the fact that most states are experiencing modest increases in tax revenues.
- Where funding has increased, it has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, New Mexico is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years.
And even with reduced state investments, districts are being asked to do more—add more pre-K rooms; increase the use of technology; provide more options for high school students; support more STEM activities; ready teachers and students for new state standards and assessments; and upgrade their physical plan to support learning in the information age.
There is, perhaps, a hint of a silver lining in this very gloomy economic scenario. That is, in the face of declining revenues, district leaders are becoming more thoughtful and strategic in how they are choosing to deploy their resources (people, time, and money). Through our work with districts across the country, we are seeing:
- A focus on trimming budgets where cuts can do the least harm rather than across the board cuts that were so common just a few years ago. For instance, some districts have been able to maintain investments in key reform strategies like a longer day or one-on-one technology while cutting other programs or activities.
- The use of data to understand what approaches are working and attempts to preserve investments in those areas. The idea of calculating and measuring “return on investments” in education has gotten a large boost during this era of do-more-with-less.
- More partnerships between districts and other city agencies and community organizations to bring additional resources into schools such as additional adult volunteers to support project-based learning or increase access to technology.
While some may argue that education budgets have become bloated over time, the reality is that districts can only do more with less for so long. Eventually, budget cuts will (and some argue already do) limit the ability of districts to provide students with the quality of education that we have come to expect and that is needed for continued national prosperity. If we believe that education is the driver of our economy and that investments to improve teaching and learning, in technology, and in the physical infrastructure of schools are necessary for the development of a competitive workforce, than the continued reduction in state education budgets should be a shared cause for concern.
What’s an appropriate pace for reforming schools and school systems? Put another way, is there a “speed limit” that attempted reforms cannot (or should not) surpass?
These questions were on my mind last week when I was visiting Omaha Public Schools (OPS). As I have written recently (see here), we have been helping OPS navigate the twists and turns of education reform for about a year. The district has planned and reorganized strategically, and due to a variety of factors—including a new board of education and administration, an incredibly supportive community, and an outstanding instructional framework—the district appears poised to really take off.
OPS began implementing its strategic plan this summer and, to no one’s surprise, has gotten off to a tremendous start. As I learned on my visit last week, the district is actively and aggressively implementing many key strategies in the strategic plan, including:
1. Cross-functional working groups are monitoring and managing implementation of strategies from the strategic plan. Groups meet monthly to monitor the status of implementation, problem solve, and discuss any issues that should be shared with the Executive Council. A dashboard displaying progress being made on each strategy was developed and shared with all working group participants. The working groups have developed a five-year timeline to coordinate timing of implementation for all strategies.
2. District administrators are using a performance-management process (District Stat) to track and improve implementation of four strategies from the strategic plan. These four strategies were chosen for the intensive Stat process due to their foundational importance and high-profile nature.
3. Principals and executive directors of school support have been trained on a School Stat process that will track and improve implementation of school-based strategies from the strategic plan.
4. The district has reorganized the central office with the intention of improving supports for schools. Most notably, four cabinet-level positions – executive directors of school support (principal supervisors) – were created and filled and training for these individuals has begun in earnest.
5. A bond proposal to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for OPS facilities will be placed before Omaha voters in November.
6. Teachers and principals have increased their focus on expanding and improving the quality of instructional time with students thanks, among other efforts, to a district-wide emphasis on increasing instructional time during the regular school day and principal “coaching” visits to classrooms.
7. In an effort to enhance equity, maximize the impact of district spending on student outcomes, and lessen principal workload, the district is in the process of shifting to “priority-based” budgeting, which will be in full effect for the 2015-16 school year.
8. The district is spearheading a number of important technology upgrades.
9. Central office is focusing on improving customer service for schools and the public by creating benchmarks and developing a number of satisfaction surveys.
10. The teacher and principal evaluation systems have been revised and improved. Starting this year, principals will be evaluated by a direct supervisor every year.
This is not an all-inclusive list, and even just a few of these initiatives would be considered a “heavy lift” for many school districts. But, as Mark Evans, the OPS superintendent, says, “They are all critical.”
But is it too much? Principals told me—as a consultant to the district—that they feel overwhelmed by the pace and scope of reform. Can reforms—even critical and strategic ones—succeed without the full support of principals? On the other hand, can important change take place in a school district without making at least some key stakeholders uncomfortable? I would argue that the answer to both of these questions is “no,” but finding the point at which stakeholders like principals feel uncomfortable but still engaged and supported is no easy task.
As a result of the feedback it has received, OPS is wisely (in my view) slowing down the implementation of some of its initiatives and re-doubling its efforts to engage principals and teachers. While the decision to slow down is disappointing to some in the district, it shows an instinctual understanding among OPS administrators and board members that education reform has a “speed limit” for meaningful and lasting change that will result in improved outcomes for students for years to come.
Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice area.
Why is it so hard to create a high-functioning HR team? We all want Human Resource functions that enable school systems to have the best and brightest in every role, but often times the challenge starts with the basics. The nuts and bolts operations of HR may not be the sexiest work, but if it isn’t functioning well, HR can get stuck in a cycle of reactionary firefighting that rarely moves to the strategic recruitment, development, and retention that every school system needs. I wanted to pay homage to this important work and share my own experience in this space.
In 2005, I became head of a newly minted Employee Services team in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that brought together all the transactional work of HR – data entry for new hires, salary changes, retirement processing, benefits enrollment, etc. Essentially anything that happened during an employee’s time at CPS came through our office. We had 65 staff members at the time to support 44,000+ employees.
Our team embarked on an effort to transform the way we provided service to employees every day. Our data was staggering: 12 weeks to turn around a leave application, a 45% call answer rate, and a reputation among principals and teachers of unfriendly and unhelpful service delivery.
At the start of the effort, I thought the primary issues might be the people and the technology. Perhaps with a different staff and an updated HR data system we would improve. But as I observed the staff doing their work, I realized that our issues were not the people or the outdated technology. In fact, most of our issues came down to the way our work was organized and distributed, and a host of outdated and dysfunctional processes that slowed us down.
It wasn’t easy, but after one intense year and with the help of an amazing leadership team and staff, we found ourselves in a very different place. Most of our transactions took 24 to 48 hours to complete, our call answer rates were above 95%, and our first call resolution was north of 75% as well. And that was accomplished with the same staff prior to the implementation of a new PeopleSoft HR system.
So how did we make a dent in the work?
We started by connecting our work to the most important work of the schools: we served our children by serving our employees well. We set clear performance expectations with three “Success Factors” for our work: 1) Impeccable Customer Service, 2) Accuracy and Efficiency, and 3) Cohesive Teamwork. Each success factor had performance measures and we watched them closely, troubleshooting and problem solving over the course of a year to fix dysfunctional processes and bottlenecks that stopped us from reaching our goals. We also created a weekly meeting with our key partners in Payroll, IT, and Budget to work through any communication challenges our teams were encountering.
Next, we studied our work. We painstakingly tracked our transactions and measured our work. We came to identify every single transaction we processed in Employee Services, analyzed how many staff members touched each one, and analyzed how long each transaction took to complete.
We identified the bottlenecks in our system. At the time, many of our transactions were handled by only one staff member. This meant that our specialists were also the only people who could answer any question, phone call, or unexpected walk-in. And if our specialists should have the misfortune of falling ill, their work would sit on their desk until they returned.
As an example, one process we examined was 12 weeks behind. When we looked closer, we realized that the transaction only took 15 minutes of hands-on time, but the volume of work peaked twice a year. By the time our competent staff member cleared the first set of transactions, the next peak was upon her. She was persistently backlogged.
Following in the footsteps of the private sector and the New York City Department of Education, we set up a call center to handle all calls and walk-ins coming into the office with the training and systems access needed to resolve nearly 80% of the incoming calls. This move alone eliminated a significant number of the interruptions that our transaction processors were experiencing.
We then cross-trained our team. The days of one specialist handling a single HR transaction were over. With a cross-trained team of 3 to 5 people for any single transaction, we could allocate staff as needed to stay ahead of our now forecasted transaction volumes. In breaking down the silos and reviewing our transactions, we were able to take a more “customer-centric” as opposed to “work-centric” approach. A new mom could then add her child to benefits at the same time she was reinstating from her maternity leave. Or a new hire could sign up for direct deposit, learn about health insurance, and know their salary all in one sitting. A first for CPS.
Finally, we continued to monitor our work. Our leadership team met every week to look at all of our success measures. When transactions were delayed, we would troubleshoot until we solved process-flow issues. As our turnaround times decreased, complaints decreased, and so did our call volumes. Eventually we were able to plan months ahead instead of days ahead, preparing for the predictable events of the year and staying ahead of our work volumes.
I once heard Mike Feinberg from KIPP say, “Operations should be like the air that you breathe, absolutely critical for your survival, but you never have to think about it.” That notion still resonates with me profoundly. If the HR operations work is seamless, in truth it should be invisible to the system. When teachers don’t have to worry about whether their paycheck is accurate then they can focus on what really matters, instruction in the classroom. And consequently, when HR operations are functioning well, the district frees up capacity to work on the strategic HR efforts that attract, support, and develop a great staff for each school.
I have been a close, professional observer of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education for most of my 30 years as a journalist and, more recently, communications consultant. Over time, I learned to avoid talking about what I do. Because, invariably, when strangers or casual acquaintances or even family members hear that I write about education, their memories and the experiences of their children and what they heard about at the office, at church or the synagogue, or at the beautician or in the barber’s chair, or what they read in a magazine or online pour forth like a river liberated from a dam.
The memories, anecdotes, rumors, and emotions yield strongly held opinions, usually lacking any shred of nuance. Get rid of tests! End teacher tenure! Pay teachers more! Longer school days! Who needs standards! Higher standards! Spend more money! No more money!
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter how much education the person has had. Highly accomplished professionals, who one would think had been well-served by the schools they attended, are just as likely to offer silver bullet solutions (and spread wildly false, often ideology-driven assertions!) as people whose schooling failed them.
One reason people offer up these solutions is, I think, that they understand the fundamental importance of education for their children and their communities. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother.
I try to keep these experiences in mind when I work with educators and policy makers who are trying to communicate complex changes in policy or practice to a variety of audiences.
One current such Cross & Joftus project is helping the Statewide Special Education Task Force in California produce its final report and recommendations. The language of education policy and practice is often highly technical; the language of special education even more so. But when their children need special education services, parents’ protective instincts kick in. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their children are well-served.
The members of the Task Force, who all have experience with special education, are acutely aware of that reality. They are committed to pushing for improved services for students with disabilities so that they graduate from high school able to think critically, solve problems, read and do math, and communicate clearly orally and in writing. Doing so, the Task Force leaders believe, will require bringing transformational changes to the entire enterprise of public education in California. That won’t happen unless parents and educators themselves advocate for those changes. And they won’t do that if the recommendations are overly technical and seem to address only the concerns of adults and don’t put the needs of children first.
Our job is to help the Task Force express its analysis and recommendations clearly and forcefully, in a language that will resonate with key audiences—parents, educators, journalists, foundations, and policy makers. We will assist the Task Force in building a strong, rational, research-based argument in support of those recommendations. But we also have to keep in mind that education stirs up strong feelings, so we also have to help the Task Force tell the emotional story that supports the recommendations.