Catching education’s white whale: school improvement


Nov 15, 2017

“And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth …” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 36.

Herman Melville’s American classic, Moby Dick, gave us the symbol of the white whale: a goal that consumes the lives of those who pursue it, but ultimately proves impossible to achieve. Sometimes it feels like education is pursuing white whales. Reformers endeavor to break the school to prison pipeline, suspend the effects of poverty, and fashion a future in which zip codes do not predict students’ life outcomes. We’ve had enough sightings of success to keep reformers’ pulling at the oars of progress. But when we look at how far we still have to go to create the education systems we hope for, a reasonable person can easily wonder if the noble vision of “education as the great equalizer” is just a wisp of mist in the air. To truly transform education systems that are rife with achievement gaps and chronically underperforming schools, we need a new map for navigating the seas of reform.

Last month, the Christensen Institute released a paper aimed to give states guidance on the tough work of school improvement. We argue that local innovation, not just better policy, is the key to ensuring that school improvement isn’t education’s white whale. Innovation theory can help state and local leaders address many of education’s perennial problems with more predictable success.

Most state-mandated approaches to school improvement fall short because different school communities have different beliefs regarding what they value and the solutions they think will lead to improvement. Through our research into organizations across many sectors, we’ve found that these differences in beliefs require different strategies for change management. Within an organization, the primary task of management is to get people to work together in a systematic way. A manager’s first step when pushing for any improvement strategy is to assess where that strategy falls along two critical dimensions: (1) alignment with existing shared priorities, and (2) alignment with time-honored processes. Based on these dimensions, the Tools of Cooperation theory suggests which management styles may best catalyze successful school improvement.

Power tools can work, but only in the short term

For a school community that cannot agree on shared processes or priorities, the best improvement strategy is often to bestow power tools—such as fiat, force, threats, and ultimatums—in the hands of an expert leader. Power tools allow a leader to break through the gridlock of dissent and discord. When a strong-willed principal or superintendent has a clear sense for the changes that need to happen in a school, power tools spark the engine of progress to turn over and rev into action. In effect, the power-tools-wielding administrator declares, “This is how we’re going to do things around here, and you need to either get in line or get out of the way.”

It bears noting, however, that power tools only work if school leaders have the authority to use them. They need freedom to set their school schedules, select their curriculum, and control their school budgets. They need broad latitude to hire and fire school staff in order to build teams that share their strategic vision and have the skills to execute that vision.

Power tools are also not a long-term strategy, but rather, a means for jumpstarting progress when a school community is fraught with conflict and cannot find consensus for making change. The results of power tools only have staying power if the changes set a school onto a new track record of success. If the curriculum, programs, and approaches a school leader selects do not work, power tools will ultimately fail. The use of power tools is rarely a particularly pleasant experience for anyone. Teachers, staff, and students’ families may revolt, and some will likely decide to leave. But there is good news: if the changes imposed through power tools gain traction and drive the school to newfound success, the people who stick around will often come around to the leader’s approaches.

Leadership tools inspire schools toward newfound success

Local leadership is key to any successful school turnaround, but power-wielding leadership isn’t the only or the best option for school improvement. Many struggling school communities have common priorities that can motivate them to rally around a shared desire to improve. They just need leaders that can help them identify those shared priorities and then translate them into organizational processes that can produce results. When there are apparent breakdowns or disconnects in a school’s operating processes, but a strong foundation of shared priorities, leadership tools—such as vision-setting, charisma, and role modeling—are a leader’s best approach for producing successful school improvement.

The dramatic transformation of Lindsay Unified School District in central California demonstrates how leadership tools can turn the corner for struggling schools. In 2007, Lindsay’s schools were fraught with challenges. Nearly all of the district’s students were eligible for free and reduced lunch, roughly 70 to 80 percent of the district’s students were not reaching proficiency, and schools were riddled by gang involvement, drug use, and more than 50 percent annual turnover among teaching staff.

Confronted by these facts, Lindsay’s superintendent, Tom Rooney, took action. Over the course of eight months, he and the school board worked with a consultant to develop the rough outlines of a shared vision for transforming their district. They then invited 150 stakeholders to an intensive, two-day community work session to articulate their shared values and goals in the form of a strategic design document that would be their compass for guiding all subsequent decisions. The district staff then worked with their school leaders to reinforce shared understanding of the strategic design while at the same time giving school leaders both autonomy and support to develop new practices in line with the district’s vision.

In the months and years that followed, Lindsay’s approaches to teaching and learning changed drastically. The district abandoned seat-time-based courses and standardized curriculum for a performance-based system in which the culture, learning, pacing, and other aspects of instruction are personalized to meet learner needs. With these changes, the district has achieved modest but steady gains in its students’ proficiency rates on state tests. Furthermore, the district doubled the number of its graduates transitioning to four-year universities, its suspension rates declined 41 percent, and gang membership fell from 18 percent to 3 percent. Lindsay’s example is a model of how leadership tools can turn around a struggling district. State leaders should take note, and find ways to support their local district leaders to take similar actions.

Transforming schools doesn’t have to be a white whale. The Tools of Cooperation theory outlined in our recent paper illustrates for state leaders how to assess the circumstances of struggling local school systems and then empower local leaders accordingly. Top-down mandates are unlikely to transform schools. But appropriate state-level support for local leaders can produce a sea change in local improvement efforts.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.