Lessons from the Carnegie Conference

Professional headshot of Marina LinOne of the joys of being part of a learning organization is that we are all constantly engaging with others to find out what exciting, extraordinary work is being done around the world to improve schools, organizations and people. I attended the 2018 Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education and found it incredibly energizing to be surrounded by people who were willing to speak openly about failures and lessons so that others could learn from them.

Recognizing the Challenges in Education

While there were many successes to be celebrated, I enjoyed the fact that there was a strong emphasis on the many bumps along the way, as those lie at the heart of why continuous improvement processes are so critical. Only by honestly measuring and evaluating whether efforts have produced desired outcomes can we know if we should put more resources into an initiative, or if sometimes, despite all of our instincts and beliefs, we should change course.

One presentation that resonated with me was about a leadership program that focused on producing great principals for schools that needed them most. For the first few years, the program gathered feedback from participants that was incredibly positive, and they had great success at placing these principals in schools that met their general criteria for need, based on free school meals. The vast majority of these principals performed well and it could have been easy for the organization to celebrate and continue on its path.

Asking the Tough Questions

However, in the spirit of continuous improvement, they began evaluating their impact more carefully and rigorously, and a new researcher who joined the team asked some questions about the criteria for being classified as a high-need school. She pointed out that in the region they were working, almost all schools met their criteria, so the criteria was not doing a very good job of prioritizing schools that had the greatest need.

To determine what “greatest need” might mean, she examined what schools in the area struggled with most—in addition to high percentages of free school meal students, what really distinguished the highest need schools was their percentage of transient and homeless students. When she looked at which schools the program was placing its principals in, she realized that hardly any were going to schools with the greatest need, and the few that did were really struggling. This resulted in an overhaul of the program, as they had to review what was critical to successfully lead schools that faced these challenges. Since then, there have been significant changes to the curriculum and how participants are selected.

Focusing on Development

My previous role in the UK was with a leadership organization that focused solely on challenging schools, so I was immediately drawing parallels with lessons I had learned there, but then my thoughts shifted to my work at The Holdsworth Center. We do not have a singular focus on challenging schools or districts, but we do have a focus on providing world-class development and support to all Texas schools and districts. This means that we must think carefully about our evaluation, as the districts we work with can often be quite different. What works with one may not work as well with another, and the way we review our feedback and results must take that into account as well.

Average does not work for us, which is both a challenge and a gift. I am grateful to be at an organization that understands this and encourages us all to think deeply about tailoring and personalization so that we can do our very best for all the unique and wonderful children in this state.