This week must win some prize for weirdest weather ever. Beginning of the week my driveway was Greenland ice sheet, and today it was positively tropical outside—60 degrees warmer, windy, and bucketing down with rain. Driving to Boston this morning was NO FUN. But I’m glad I did it—I’m writing this at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation Convening for the recipients of grants from Nellie Mae to work on root causes of educational inequity. I’m here because the Center is a technical assistance provider to the Manchester Public Schools to support them as they work on equity. That’s not really why I’m here. I’m here because I love being with this team. You may have seen my tweets about the equity squad in Manchester, which is an adult-youth partnership unlike any other I’ve been involved with, and I applaud the efforts in Manchester to bring together such a diverse group. I wish that some of the youth were here. I think they’d love it and I think they would make a contribution.
The ideas that have most resonated with me are about strategy. I think about strategy more than I think about anything else—other than food, I think. And that’s because I have seen a lot of plans that miss the mark in terms of identifying the work that it will take to accomplish, realistically, the mission of the organization. I have an article coming out on this topic in the March issue of the Kappan (you’ll be hearing more about this, trust me), and Jennie Weiner from UConn and I are working on a book proposal.
I try to engage individuals and organizations around strategy in a variety of ways. One of the tactics that I use, especially with aspiring leaders or leaders new to their role, is to take their improvement plans (which sometimes run to 30+ pages) and to cut and paste the action steps—just the action steps—which typically fit on to one page. (That in itself is sometimes a surprise—that we have this enormous plan but it boils down to only these steps—what’s up with that?) Then I ask them to tell me whether, if they do all these things, they will reach their goals. If the steps are all procedural (when meetings will happen, who will take the notes) or lack specificity (teachers will use high leverage instructional techniques, instructional coaches will work with all the 4th grade teachers), then clearly the answer is no, which opens up a coaching conversation about what will actually make a difference in terms of meeting the goals.
Another tactic is to ask leaders to name a success that they’ve had and to have them talk about all the things that they engineered to bring about that success. Then we can talk about a strategy in terms of a real-life example that they have already lived, which has the dual benefit of providing them with a template for designing strategy AND building their perceived self-efficacy; they believe that they can make a difference because they’ve already done it with some other goal. This is the backbone of a facilitation plan that my fab colleague Kerry and I are going to be using with a district leadership team next week.
And at the Center we continue to work on the connection between strategy and equity. Unless equity is the goal, what is the point of strategy? Likewise, if you are on a mission that uses the term “all students”, then you are embracing equity as a goal. But this is not always clear, and sometimes an equity team exists outside the center of power in the organization, such that its leverage to bring about change is weakened. How do we communicate to people that the plan for equity and the strategic plan should be one and the same thing? If the mission says “all students” then equity is the mission—there should be no separate equity plan, and I’m skeptical about the role of an equity team—by which I mean, I have no doubt that an equity team can be a powerful force for good, but I wonder if others think that the existence of an equity team makes equity somebody else’s issue, and not one that they need to concern themselves with.
I’ve been reading a lot about strategy—in general, in the military, in business—a lot of which is pretty nerdy, but I do particularly love the Marines book, Strategy (MCDP 1-1), because the language is so cogent. The books on strategy in education don’t really get at some of the organizing principles that Jennie and I think are important—equity, coherence, capacity, logic—which is why we want to write one. If you want to read about strategy in big picture terms you could try Strategy: A History, by Lawrence Freedman, or On Grand Strategy by John Lewis Gaddis. There are classics on corporate strategy by Michael Porter in HBR, but I always associate those with the folks who brought us Enron and Deepwater Horizon. Much better to stick with inspiring examples, such as Eyes on the Prize, which is billed as a history of the Civil Rights movement, but is really a book about strategy in the service of social justice. The documentary is available on Amazon for not much money.
Back to Nellie Mae tomorrow, which I’m very much looking forward to. The Manchester team is really a great group of educators; I’d like to thank them for helping me think about some of these ideas today. All the best, Isobel