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“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Frederick Douglass

How Can Schools Better Address The Challenges of Education?

While it might not always be apparent (or feel remotely comfortable), it really is fortunate that we face challenges in life’s many domains—within our careers, relationships, parenting, even recreation—and in confronting these wide range of obstacles we can learn, grow, win, fail, and ultimately enrich who we are as individuals and within our many social roles. And yet while there is truth in this challenges-as-benefits view, we know that the reality of our experience of struggle can be a lot messier (disastrous?) than this, and that simply knowing that a given challenge is a possible opportunity for a better outcome can often feel like small consolation.

In education, some of these concerns have cast a long shadow, and often feel like they have the potential to derail what we aspire to accomplish for the students we serve. I’m sure you can readily name any number of them: severe funding shortages; staff retention; standardized testing pressures; delivering on the promise of equity in schools; providing authentic, life-ready learning opportunities. The list goes on, of course, and all are relevant—whether it is the daily logistics of busing or a larger need to activate kids’ passions for their world beyond school.

There is no silver bullet for solving these, and some aspects of many may fall outside our direct influence or control. But to help frame the following suggestions, try to first think more broadly about addressing challenges in education by bringing health to the system, versus applying a band-aid to acute problems. Just as a high-performing athlete trains for cumulative success in her respective events, the focused, intentional training has the added benefit of minimizing the risk of injury, or in recovering optimally when it does occur.

Likewise, in building the strength of your organization, you not only improve the behaviors and performance necessary for a high-functioning system but make it less pervious to the inevitable strains of any number of external pressures—even the ones that fall out of your ability to directly control.

Consider a dual approach for creating and sustaining a school system that can 1) thrive, and 2) withstand the valleys. The two kernels are these:

  1. Build and Strengthen the Culture
  2. Continually, Purposefully Improve the System

Let’s break these down and get more specific about each.

1. Build and Strengthen the Culture

When a school’s culture is strong, it weathers the storms. Teachers, staff, students, parents and community feel that they belong; that they are part of something greater than themselves; that they are contributing to a just cause; that they are there to give of themselves, contribute, collaborate, driven by a belief that the whole system is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s what makes any member go above and beyond, daily. You feel it when you walk the halls of the school, in the energy within classrooms and in staff meetings; in the cafeterias, media centers, and after-school programs. As Dr. Lucretia Prince, principal of Crestmont Elementary School describes it, “Even though you may not be able to put your finger on it, you realize there is something different about the place that you just entered…. Building a strong culture is not an overnight task, but it can be done.”

And then there is the absence of a strong culture. One that depletes morale, dampens motivation, and causes individuals to phone-in and burn out. If your culture is toxic, you probably already know it—rife with blame, distrust, lack of direction, and overall inaction to correct it, to name a just few characteristics. With the weak foundation of a negative school culture, how can a system effectively navigate the challenges of a constantly shifting education landscape let alone higher aspirations around student learning?

At ICLE, we see culture as the interstitial glue that binds together the entire school community and bolsters the organization’s ability to thrive. Built on high expectations and rooted in rigor, relevance, and relationships, a thriving culture provides the basis for the things we hold most dear about education itself.

So, is your foundation strong, or does it need work? (Hint: it always needs work). But while the urgent, pressing concerns of the moment may demand our immediate attention and resolution, do not take your eyes from the more substantive variable for overcoming education challenges and developing resilience against ones to come—building and nurturing a positive school culture.

2. Continually, Purposefully Improve the System

In 2019, at ICLE’s annual Model Schools Conference (MSC), author and speaker Simon Sinek’s closing keynote deeply resonated with attendees around how we must be viewing and approaching our notion of gains—and overall success—in our schools. To paraphrase his thesis, there’s no “winning” in education. Educators are participants in an infinite game (true also within business, relationships, and other domains). Our goal isn’t winning, it’s constant improvement—to progressively strengthen culture, leadership, instruction and learning; to leave our classrooms better than when we found them; to empower all students to be successful in life.

The concept of purposeful, continual improvement is at the heart of a high-functioning school system. And the word system is key here. To quote author James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” Now, goals are helpful and within our work, necessary—they can clarify direction, create transparency, and plant a stake in the ground for communicating where you want to be. But goals in the absence of a process for change are simply not enough. In fact, if a process for system-based continual improvement is in place, the intended goals and outcomes should naturally be met as progress unfolds. Like the famous NFL coach Bill Walsh said, “the score will take care of itself.”

“The concept of purposeful, continual improvement is at the heart of a high-functioning school system.”

This perspective about continual and purposeful system-focused improvement is at the heart of our theme for MSC 2023: Small Changes for Big Results. It’s also why in much of our leadership development work we help leaders get granular with connecting vision with action—from the highest level of a system’s core values down to goals and strategies, and then extending to the specific tactics that truly move the needle for any given initiative.

At ICLE, we have a model for what we see as the necessary levers for systemwide transformation—the focus areas and related actions for continual improvement, propelled by outcomes-driven, ongoing professional learning, and centered around what students need to be successful in life.

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At the classroom level, we use tools and resources with both leaders and teachers for quantifying, refining, and improving instruction and learning around the variables of rigor, relevance, and relationships, to build and sustain instructional leadership capacity, teaching excellence, and life-ready learning opportunities for kids.

What’s your framework and process for ensuring continual improvement? How is it working to measure the progress in the areas that matter?

Educational challenges are a permanent part of the game. Remember that our work in education is not finite—it’s a daily effort to create and shape the conditions for optimal learning. And it’s in confronting this infinite challenge of system-wide improvement that we aspire to greatness—for our schools, for ourselves and for our students.

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Bring your team to the 31st Annual Model Schools Conference, June 25–28, 2023 in Orlando, FL, where thousands of K–12 educators will collaborate and learn from one another to improve leadership, instruction, and student learning.

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