I have been to schools X, Y, and X two times each since the last post. I am glad I delayed any entries here. Sometimes instant diagnoses are good, and sometimes they are mistaken. I do not think my initial suspicions are wrong but I am not willing to lock into them yet.

That is a good thing on many levels. One level for sure is how or to what extent I let my OWN mental models steer the analyses at hand. I feel professionally obligated to do the right thing by the agency that charged me to conduct school quality reviews and were I to wield a heavy handed diagnosis and prescription of these schools I might be doing the agency, the school, and the school’s students disservice.

On another, I view these processes as an academic growth one for those involved. I am a firm believer in “teaching a man to fish”. All too often in my experiences, the Lone Ranger rides into town, cleans out the bad guys figuratively, then rides out of town. And all too often the bad guys come back.

In school improvement processes I fear, this is often true. An outside agency either by invitation or by state mandate comes into a school whose performance has been cited for one reason or another for some sort of plan to make it better. A self-analysis takes place; there is much conversation and I-thinks and Yes-buts that lead to conclusions, goal setting, and plans. The school improvement team, internal, external, or some combination thereof, “rides out of town”, pleased that it has made recommendations and hopeful that these are put in place.

And all too often, in my experiences, the plans get distorted, ignored, underfunded, under-supported, diluted, twisted, turned, resisted and corrupted. One reason among many for this, is that the school cited had poor performances because the systems in place were distorted, ignored, underfunded, turned, resisted, etc.

Maybe a better metaphor is the so-called medical one. You may go to a doctor with a nagging cough and plead for cough medicine. If the doctor gave you the cough medicine and sent you home she’d likely be doing you a real disservice. The cough was a symptom of something else, of an infection. If the infection were ignored the cough medicine might work to relieve the hack but the infection will remain to wreak all sorts of other kinds of havoc.

So yes, a school improvement group might identify some very sexy strategies to solve one issue or another. You know, like the technology du jour, or some guru or another with a magic wand. But all too often the group’s failure to peel back the root cause issues, to courageously identify what the real infection may be, inevitably leads to a temporary relief of the symptom but the worsening of the infection.

Senge calls this the quick-fix archetype and you can see how it is an apt title.

I saw some of that in school X. I saw a lot of resistance to the idea of outside agency in Y and Z thus far.

School X cited for poor performance in special education and African-American students in English has been extremely cooperative and eager to engage the process. Refreshingly so. In my initial conversations with the District Office facilitator I asked about another school in the district whose special education performance improvement had removed it from citation. I asked why it had improved. The administrator strongly felt that (s)he had removed the shackles from the school’s special education teachers. (S)He had encouraged the staff to take risks, to try new strategies and to not be fearful of reprisal or of second-guessing.

Read between the lines. What is (s)he really saying? And I’m not telling you what I think yet. But if the administrator is right and I am not sure yet the message behind the music represents one of the five disciplines that Senge speaks to.

Schools Y and Z are more difficult to describe. Next post for them.