W. Patrick Dolan
Labor-Management Consulting and Organizational Change

This web site focuses on my work with large, complex organizations and their labor-management relationship, with a particular emphasis on public education, its policies and practices.
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Patrick's Columns

Educational Reform:  A Little Truth Telling and Some Advice from a Friend

April 29, 2013

So where are we on the great educational reform road race really, lo these many years and high profile policy initiatives and competitions?  Well, it’s a very mixed bag at this point, and I have a feeling it is about to turn sour unless something almost unthinkable happens in the next few weeks—the US DOE  backs up publicly, gathers the two teachers unions, the CCSSO, the Gates and GE Foundations and a few others, and says three things:

we are going to pause and gather ourselves together to look at the relationship between and among the Common Core Standards, the teacher evaluation process, the measurement of student learning, and the testing and data blizzard;

we are going to, together, take the next two years to do the proper training and preparation so that we are ready to teach to the stronger standards and understand what good teaching is in classrooms across the country, before we link these two things together with such significant  repercussions for all those involved; (during that professional learning and reflection we will also have to figure out which strategy is an improvement strategy for the whole teaching profession and which is a strong sorting mechanism for what we determine is weak teaching)

we are, together with one voice, going to communicate that this is not a signal to stop deep improvement or work on the fundamentals, or even slow down; it means we are actually going to do the work carefully and well because it is so important, and not jam it with hurried compliance and little quality, lose the historic moment, and arm those further who want no change.

That’s what we ought to do, and that is what would save the wonderful work that has been done by some states and districts, schools and classrooms, across the country.  The good news is that tough issues have been named and are beginning to be addressed: 

-the number of children left behind each year, especially poor children and children of color;

- no feedback to a profession that is dedicated to learning but has had no time and no mechanisms to learn and improve itself;

-very poor training, recruitment, and retention strategies;

-those who traditionally did the evaluation were often quite distant from the research and practice of good teaching;

-enormous amounts of time and energy at district levels (of which there are 879 in Illinois alone as I write) spent on everything but a focus on children and learning.

All these issues are now in play in serious ways.  Demanding training is developing every where for evaluators on good teaching and engaged learning.  Strong tools for a balanced approach to teacher evaluation is emerging, much of it designed by the teachers unions working with each other and administrators (see Illinois and New York).  The teachers’ professional day is evolving to include time to look at student work, each others’ practice, best examples of approaches to the new curriculum, and deeper academic content training as well.  

But after all is said and done, the entire national dialogue is now about learners, where they are, how to engage them, all of them better, and how to not just teach better but build cultures in which we help each other do so.  That is an enormous feat of refocusing and unsticking, and anyone close to schools and classrooms will tell you the same.

So what’s the problem?  The stakes are too high and too fast.  As usual, what we say is wrong

with our schools and teaching is exactly what we are doing in the reform—it is too much, it is splintered, it is being done without the deeper preparation such a significant shift requires.  And let me say it one more time, IT IS TOO FAST without the correct vetting and preparation.

Three things will happen unless we slow down and do it right.

1.  We will do it very poorly if at all and utterly exhaust, and eventually lose, the best of the profession who are in behind this with all they have;

2.  We will lose an historic moment, having unloosened the right stuff, or enough of it that we truly have a chance to improve the whole thing IF we take our time and do it right;

3.  We will hand a tiny group of blockers all they need to stop the deep changes and take this back where we were.

It’s a real simple choice actually, and all it needs is a little dose of reality and a chunk of courage.  We should demand that.  

NEA President into the Pool              May 24, 2011

Summer is in the air, so maybe it was time for Dennis van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association to cannonball into the deep end.

Using the time tested committee process to find a balance, but clearly knowing the voice was more than overdue, Dennis van Roekel this month took a leap into the murky waters of his own organization as much as into to larger public debate on teacher quality.  After more than three years of often polarizing exchanges from all corners of the educational policy world, the NEA weighed in, and there were some pleasant surprises from the often silent giant of educational unions.

It hasn’t been an exactly pleasant year for the public sector unions, especially those representing public school teachers.  In Ohio, Florida, and (perhaps you’ve heard) Wisconsin, the attacks have been far from subtle.  An early study by Tim Daly of The New Teacher Project documented in a popular and understandable way what everyone close to public education knew:  there was no evaluation process for teachers after the first three/four years.  This set the course for the reality that not only was this basic process lacking, but as a result it was almost impossible to then act in any meaningful way in later years on those who were not close to delivering in classrooms.

The frame, then, that carried the day and set the debate was, “teacher unions defend poor teachers no matter what.”  Federal policy followed rapidly with the Race To the Top requirements for competing states that led with mandatory teacher evaluation connected to student performance.  All this was to be stirred with instant collaboration by unions and educational administration at state and local levels.  Then came the more frontal attacks as the new batch of Governors and state legislators took office.

The national leadership of the NEA began the defense in Wisconsin and other states with troops and resources as one would expect. On the positive side, on what it believed should be the correct approach to the fundamental issues of improving teacher quality, accountability, and evaluation, it was strangely silent.  It is a huge and very political organization, driven by a yearly convention and myriad resolutions enacted there set its policy directions. Its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, by structure and history is far more nimble. 

But organizations, good ones, have a way of developing the kind of leadership they require.  A former middle school math teacher out of one of the least union friendly states, Arizona, van R. has spent years building bridges and listening and leading at every level of the  3.2 million member NEA.  This is a deciding moment for the national teachers unions, and not to be in the middle of this fight is to lose it.  The question was not what the NEA was against, but how to build a coalition inside, yet powerful enough to take the high ground outside, to declare clearly and powerfully what it was for. 

Last week’s statement moved the marker as only the NEA can.  Earlier in the month, in Illinois, the two major unions, the IEA and the IFT  (joined to some extent by the Chicago Teachers union as well) had worked together to fashion an historic agreement with the Legislature in Illinois to completely reform teacher evaluation, and to give it precedence over seniority among other things.  Now seemed the time to move. 

The new NEA policy proposal changes the debate and should be read carefully for the new frame.  It does begin with accountability and language about the nature and design of teacher evaluation including student data. That in itself is a significant bridge to cross and took some courage since it runs counter to some of the recent resolutions of the convention to some extent.  But then it gets more interesting.  It starts with use of the phrase “the true profession of teaching”.

I read the rest of the statement as a deliberate attempt to change the language surrounding the role of teacher as it has evolved to this point. There is language about student performance not as a threat but as data that continues “to enhance our own practice.”  This profession until very recently has not practiced in public driven by data.  Here is union language about continual growth, ”earned tenure,” ongoing feedback and a time for collaborative reflection together. 

The deep contradiction in teaching is that it was organized with an industrial model with language about hours on task, work rules and classifications.  And even if they left the school at 3:15 like a factory, everyone knew they went home to hours of preparation, reading of papers, and, for the best of them, knowing the literature and the changing practice.  They bargain to keep the exact pay for classification and time on the job, all in the name of fairness—since sameness is too easy a substitute.  Yet even the so-called professional athlete, also unionized, pays for different level of skill and results.

This is the time to define this thing called teaching as a true profession, with a professional day in which personal discretion and the work determine the parameters; skill is recognized at various levels; there is time and reflection built in so that that entire culture is one of constant improvement.   

Even as this debate started punitively, with threats and accusations, there is a chance for real leadership to understand the possibility of the moment and to act with courage—a courage that will urge others to do the same at the state and local level.  One can mandate and one can demand and one can attack, but the only one who can help move the culture is a trusted leader who can communicate a new vision and empower the profession to take itself forward.  There won’t be a time like this again, and as strange as it seems, in a moment of what appears to be the most negative attacks, now seems the time to step powerfully and positively forward. 

The educational world will be watching the NEA in July to see if the professionals have the courage to take control of their own future.  Van Roekel and his committee’s leadership have shown the way. The NEA ought to take responsibility to make certain “that every child has access to a teacher of high quality.”  Teaching might yet become a true practicing profession.  

Every body in.

Collaboration? For What?      February 24, 2011      

There are two kinds of work that most complex organizations have to undertake when they forced to step up to significant change in their quality, efficiency, and delivery to customers.  They have to look long and hard at the product itself in all its iterations, and they have to look at their own culture and internal processes to see if they actually have the wherewithal to make the large and painful changes.

Many urban school districts, their Board, administration and unions, are at this point now.  A good many of them have reached the point of no return. By that I mean, at the same time that they have to be brutally honest with themselves about achievement scores and the general profile of progress for children during these last few years, they also have to ask hard questions about their ability to work together to make the required changes.  Often the parties seem to understand this at some level, but whether they can confront their own blockages and fears remains a question, especially when it is time for changed behavior, real truth-telling to their constituencies—in short, leadership.  In many districts, especially in the early going, the role of a hard, third party voice can work with the key actors to help them through this moment. 

I have spent a good deal of time as the third party and have a good idea of the major issues and strengths of those involved.  Administrations need to have the tools to really manage the schools for stability and flexibility at the same time.  That means teams of teachers that are stable enough at school sites to build a culture, rethink their instructional strategies, learn to work in teams around student data and best practice, and set rigorous goals in a caring and supportive fashion.  Because of financial hardships, they are also going to have to find ways of developing high quality close to families so that efficiency of assignment and delivery are balanced with knowledge of children and community.   

Administrations have to develop a group of strong principals at school sites who know how to work at a rigorous level for all children in a caring fashion in deep concert with staff and support employees.  The school culture of rigor and caring and reflection depends to a high degree on this leadership. 

Unions are frequently seen as a blocker to all such changes.  Some unions, however, have a long history of deep reform in the quality of instruction, have voices of thoughtfulness and concern throughout their committees, and also understand the importance of significant change at this moment.  If I were to make suggestions to them, and I have, we need to work on the stability issue so that there isn’t a continual flow of teachers back and forth across the district.  We need to have time in the work week for reflection by the teacher teams, ongoing professional development, and more instructional time.  And finally we need contracts that are simplified so that the changes and correct focus is steady and not impeded by countless individual, historical memos of past exceptions. 

I understand that there is plenty of competition, vouchers, charters schools, excess building capacity, and so on.  But in the last 30 plus years, every industry and profession has had to rethink in profound ways their work and find the strength and courage to make the changes. There is no easy way out here.  The way out is together, trying to find trust in each other and courage and vision in ourselves to do this.  At this point usually the good of children is invoked.  I would say something larger.  

Our communities need unions and administrations to work together to succeed.  Public schools are about student achievement without doubt.  But it is also where our dreams of community and democracy coalesce.  It is the place where WE raise OUR children together, and in the process we value each other’s differences, learn the beauty of diversity, and earn each other’s respect.  

This is where we go to school as well.  

We shouldn’t quit on it now.

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