Read This: Fewer Priorities Makes Schools MORE Productive

I've been doing a ton of writing lately for my fourth book — a title set to tackle the five frustrations of a Professional Learning Community — and thought you might be interested in a few of the quotes that I've stumbled across while researching. 

The first comes from school change expert Doug Reeves, whose most recent title — Finding Your Leadership Focus — is a must read for school leaders. 

Reeves writes:

"In other words, educational leaders and policymakers can make a large number of changes to improve the lives of teaching professionals, but if they fail to address the fundamental issue of focus—giving classroom teachers more time to focus on fewer priorities and giving teachers a voice in what those priorities are—then that failure to focus will undermine every other reform."

(p. 76)

NOTHING could be truer, y'all.  When classroom teachers have the time to focus on a small handful of priorities, remarkable things happen for students and for schools. 

Reeves goes on to recommend that EVERY school and district complete an initiative inventory every year, warehousing projects that aren't making a measurable impact on student learning no matter how essential they seem to be:

"For school leaders enduring the withering assault of initiative proliferation, the challenge of focus may seem insurmountable.  After all, they are near the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid of a traditional of a traditional school system and, along with classroom teachers, they bear the brunt of multiple demands of policy, procedure, and prescription…

By asking the right questions, focusing on the factors with the greatest leverage, guarding a culture of success, and embracing the power of teacher leadership, school leaders can be at the point of a diamond rather than at the bottom of a pyramid." 

(p. 65)

So here's a simple question for you:  What one initiative are YOU going to ditch tomorrow?

If you need some help deciding, you might find this initiative monitoring handout from my first book on Professional Learning Communities helpful.

_______________________________

Related Radical Reads:

Decorating the Christmas Tree with Initiatives

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

The Importance of a Clear Vision

7 thoughts on “Read This: Fewer Priorities Makes Schools MORE Productive

  1. Matt Townsley

    Bill, you said,
    “I guess the question that I have for you, though, is CAN you serve as the force field for teachers?
    How much control do you — and by you, I mean curriculum directors and school level leaders — have over the programs that trickle down to schools?”
    It’s difficult for me to speak on behalf of ALL curriculum directors. With that said, I think we have more control than some folks may let on to. Here’s a simple question I ask whenever I’m at a state or regional meeting, “Is this new thing we’re talking about *required right now*? Often times, I speak with my fellow district and building leaders and their impression is that they need to “get ahead” by implementing some new initiative before it becomes required. Here’s an example: Here in Iowa, the Department of Education has released some guidance around RTI (http://educateiowa.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2562:iowas-response-to-intervention&catid=57:k12-education). I’ve been to three meetings this year where Iowa’s RTI roll-out has been discussed. Some folks are going to buy the latest RTI book, take it back to their district and begin yet another initiative. Here’s the catch – RTI is NOT “REQUIRED” yet. A more cautious approach is to investigate the details further, find out what the folks in Des Moines have in mind, consider links to what we’re already doing (i.e. PLC philosophy, question #3)in the event some new report or paperwork is required by the state and keep the force field in tact.
    My situation might be unique though. My response to your question about choice is that we – curriculum directors – CAN have a choice more often than not.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Bob wrote:
    I think one point you did not make is that some initiatives that may
    seem unimportant to a leader may be important to some faculty.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _
    This is a great point, Bob — especially in schools that have experienced a ton of turnover or who are integrating a new leader into their community.
    The key for me is to have a clearly defined set of mission and vision statements — something that Ive written about a ton but that schools gloss over because theyre never used correctly.
    If a school collectively spells out exactly who they want to be in five years — what their grading practices would look like, what their parent communication practices would look like, what their purchasing and hiring processes would look like, what using data to drive decisions or reimagining teaching and learning in the 21st Century would look like in action — theyd be able to make better choices about which initiatives fit and which ones need to be pitched.
    Likewise, such a clearly defined set of mission and vision statements can promote unity and prevent division because they allow potential new hires — and existing teachers — to see exactly the direction that a school community is heading in. If that direction doesnt align with an individuals core beliefs, they can find a new community of practitioners to join.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  3. Robert ryshke

    Thanks for sharing these quotes from Reeves! I know you’re right on this one (Reeves too), but how do we discipline ourselves as leaders to make the bold attempt to “scale back” some initiatives. I think one point you did not make is that some initiatives that may seem unimportant to a leader may be important to some faculty. Not everyone has the same level of attachment to each initiative. The big question is how to decide. Which initiatives will have the most impact on student learning? These are the tough decisions that may be why leaders are immobilized in their efforts to scale back.
    Thoughts?
    Bob

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Matt wrote:
    We (leaders, in my context curriculum directors) owe it to the teachers
    AND students in our areas of influence to create a force field around
    the districts PD time so that learning experiences enhancing the
    central focus are allowed in and all else is reflected away.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
    I like the force field analogy, Matt — and couldnt agree more: If you REALLY want teachers to invest in ANY initiative, you have to give us the time and space to wrestle with it in a meaningful way. That currently doesnt happen in the VAST majority of districts — and I think thats one of my greatest frustrations as a teacher because when theres no discernible improvement in results, people are going to harp on those lazy teachers.
    As an aside, I think the force field has to be particularly strong in districts that have embraced professional learning communities simply because you send contradictory messages to teachers when on the one hand you say, we believe in the power of collaborative teams engaging in collective inquiry around practice and follow that up with but here are the 6 programs youre required to implement in your school.
    I guess the question that I have for you, though, is CAN you serve as the force field for teachers?
    How much control do you — and by you, I mean curriculum directors and school level leaders — have over the programs that trickle down to schools?
    One of the things that Ive heard time and again is that school leaders often have their hands tied because even if they dont agree with the implementation of a new program, they often dont have a choice because theyre being told what to do, too.
    Rock on,
    Bill

  5. Kristen Swanson

    BIll, I couldn’t agree the more. One of the projects that I am working on right now involves several component partners working with systems at the same time. Sometimes this can get very confusing and muddy.
    Marzano (2003) tells us that a guaranteed and viable curriculum is the variable most strongly related to student achievement.
    And I don’t think we spend enough time focusing on that….sigh.

  6. Matt Townsley

    Hey Bill,
    I’ve been thinking along these lines for a few weeks now. It all started when I was talking with a group of fellow curriculum directors. We were talking about the focus each of us has currently in our school district. The lists were astounding! It all stemmed from a few of us discussing our implementation of the professional learning community concept a few years ago. Several others said, “yeah, we took a few teachers to the institute, but it hasn’t really taken off.” In my mind, I was thinking, “perhaps the reason it hasn’t taken off is because it was just another initiative on the list!”
    Here’s my point: If teachers in a district are feeling initiative fatigue, the burden of responsibility likely falls on the leaders. I’m pointing a finger at myself here. One of the ongoing processes we have in place is surveying our staff after each district-wide professional learning opportunity. (See example here http://mctownsley.blogspot.com/2012/01/feedback-drives-our-professional.html)
    To further provide evidence that we’re working on this, here (http://scsdinstruction.blogspot.com/2012/01/120-from-directors-desk.html) is a message sent to all staff in the district following up on our most recent survey.
    We (leaders, in my context curriculum directors) owe it to the teachers AND students in our areas of influence to create a force field around the district’s PD time so that learning experiences enhancing the central focus are allowed in and all else is reflected away.

  7. Jason Lynch

    Hello Mr. Ferriter,
    I truly believe that is a key success for teachers in their classrooms. I will hopefully be in a classroom after graduation and I have heard horrible stories of teachers being over run with so many problems and not having the ability to focus on what is truly important. I believe, that if teachers were allowed to focus on just a handful of opportunities then the classroom success would only be able to move up. The diamond would only get sharper.

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