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  • Abner Oakes

The Change Process

Readers of this blog know that we recently completed a set of implementation benchmarks - see here and here - for schools and districts to use to assist with their effective implementation of JumpRope and their standards-based grading system. This fall we want to delve more deeply into some of the benchmarks, to tease out our thinking behind them and provide the detail that we might get to if we were working with a school or district on the benchmarks.

So here’s the first in a series of posts, and we will begin with the second benchmark, about change:

My district/school leadership has a process to manage change. It recognizes that change takes time and seeks the active involvement of stakeholders to garner ideas and support to help with the change.

This is my favorite benchmark, for several reasons. First, it mirrors the work I did as part of the school reform group Modern Red SchoolHouse (MRSH), which I have written about in this blog before; what we brought to schools and districts with the MRSH design was a sea change, in the same manner that a move to a standards-based grading system is a sea change. Second, this benchmark holds high those characteristics that are critical to any effectively functioning school or district: That it believes in process, that successful ventures in any school or district take time, that everyone gets a voice, and that collaboration wins the day. In fact these qualities are what individual people in any school building, any district office, need to strive towards - heck, not just a school or district but any work environment, right?

Change and the change process have been written about extensively in school reform and improvement literature, and an important theme in this body of work has been school culture and that culture’s alignment with change. In 2000 Christine Finnan wrote that “where a match between the cultures exists...the reform is more likely to be successfully implemented.”

For the most part, in our work with schools and districts, it is the culture that drives their desire to implement standards-based grading. For example, the school or district may have a very student-centered approach to teaching and learning, and so more specific feedback and progress-monitoring make sense. Or maybe the school or district just does not hew to the traditional path and has come to the belief that traditional grading practices do not aid student learning. We find that schools and districts such as these are often well along with this benchmark already, reaching a 3 or 4 level on our implementation rubric.

But that’s not every school or district with which we work; a few come to us not having had these kinds of conversations and seeing this change far too superficially. We push back then, using Christine Finnan’s language: Does your culture reflect this desired change? Are standards-based grading and your culture well aligned?

For this sea change to take hold - and to take hold effectively - there may be the need at some schools and districts to re-culture, as Andy Hargreaves has written about. Re-culturing

“...creates a climate of trust in which teachers can pool resources, deal with complex and unanticipated problems, and celebrate successes. Collaboration also furthers the development of a common professional language, so that teachers can resist the pervasive business vocabulary of quality control and performance targets that is now consuming education.

“A key component of reculturing is the willful involvement of critics and skeptics, who might initially make change efforts more difficult. We must recognize that diverse expertise contributes to learning, problem solving, and critical inquiry.”

As you might imagine, re-culturing and its effects fit nicely with those qualities often associated with successful reform initiatives in schools and districts. In book The Challenge of School Change, edited by Michael Fullan, Penelope Peterson, Sarah McCarthy, and Richard Elmore wrote about three schools where reform efforts had succeeded and identified four qualities: (1) vision or philosophy was related to student learning; (2) teachers engaged in meaningful discussion about the reform; (3) teachers were involved in shared decision-making concerning the reform; and (4) teachers had access to new ideas about reforming their practices. Notice the shared importance, between these authors and Hargreaves, of collaboration, of trust and shared-decision-making, of diverse expertise and new ideas.

Let me end this post on the first quality that Peterson, McCarthy, and Elmore identified: That any worthwhile work in schools and districts - and that includes potential re-culturing - needs to be connected tightly with student learning. Does the culture of your school and district start with your students? Have you made or will you make the shift to standards-based grading because you have your students first in mind? As we begin to work with schools and districts with our implementation benchmarks in hand, those questions just might be some of the very first we ask, as we make a determination of where our partner schools and districts are on the change/change process continuum.

I got the above image from here.

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