I recently read a story in the New York Times about a high school in Brockton Massachusetts that just ten years ago was among the worst in the state. Today the school is one of the best, outperforming 90% of Massachusetts schools. The changes are interesting to study from an educational policy perspective but also from a management perspective. These changes were not the result of a large influx of funds or an overhaul of the teaching staff but rather, the ideas of a few teachers and the buy-in of the rest of the faculty and administration.
After some dismal student testing scores in 1999 a small group of teachers, stating that they were motivated by shame, started meeting to discuss how things could change in the school. What followed could act as almost a step by step guide to effecting change on a profound level within an institution.
Step 1: A small group of people recognized a problem and took it upon themselves to find a solution. The group found that the most fundamental problem on the tests was the students’ reading and writing skills.
Step 2: The administration did not stand in their way. Too often changes like this can die in their early stages because those in power resist the idea that things have been moving in the wrong direction, particularly in a public school system where bureaucratic red tape means that most requests are met with an automatic “no”.
In addition, the group recognized early on that the teachers union could pose a potential stumbling block and therefore made themselves very familiar with the terms outlined in the union contract. While implementing their plans, the members were extremely careful to honor those terms to the letter.
Step 3: The group decided upon a specific plan and clearly outlined the steps for implementing it. Having recognized that reading and writing skills were the crux of the problem, the group decided that good writing should be taught in all classes. The members then put together a rubric to show what good writing looked like.
Step 4: The group used the people and reporting structures already in place to implement the plan. The group then held sessions to educate the department heads of all the academic disciplines on the rubric and then had those department heads run smaller sessions for the teachers within their own departments.
Step 5: The plan involved the whole community. The group decided that it was not enough just to teach good writing skills in English and history classes and instead sought to implement their plan across the disciplines, including gym class. By having the whole school involved in the effort, everybody was accountable for the success or failure of the plan.
Step 6: Resistance to the plan was met with support, not dismissal. Unsurprisingly some teachers were initially against the idea of teaching writing in every class and did not always see the value in this approach. The group sought to show why they believed this would be effective and attempted to understand instead of threaten. In the end, only one teacher was let go after refusing to participate in any of the writing lessons.
Step 7: The community publicly celebrated the school’s successes. When scores rose after the first year of implementation, the Massachusetts Education Commissioner visited the school to congratulate the teachers. When the school began to win awards, the administration made banners and displayed them prominently.
The Primary Message:
Change Leadership works best as a shared process.