Leading the Blind

I was talking to a colleague from a nearby school district the other day. She had just come from a training session on a new math program they’re going to be using. From what I understand, it’s mostly a test-prep kind of tool. It identifies gaps in students’ math skills and provides instruction on those skills to bring them up to par. She didn’t sound too enthusiastic about it.


“It’s your fault we’re doing this,” she accused.

“Why is it my fault?”

“Our school does everything your school does. Your district uses this program, and one of our administrators has a child that goes to school there. She heard about it from her kid. Since your test scores are always so great, our school decided to adopt the program here, too.”

That didn’t sound right. This is a math initiative. I work down the hall from our math instructional coach. I see her several times a day. She’s never mentioned it. I texted her and asked about it.

“It’s a terrible web site that supposedly teaches math. We piloted it a couple years ago with some students over the summer. I’m not a fan. We’re not using it anywhere.”

As it turns out, the kid was part of the pilot, but mom didn’t realize that we had been trying out a solution that we ultimately decided was a bad idea. She inferred our endorsement, and adopted the program in her school.

Sometimes checking to see what others are doing can be perilous if you don’t ask the right questions. Sure, we want to be collaborators. And of course, others have great ideas. We can’t always assume we’re the smartest people in the room. We want to adopt the best practices of other schools who are facing similar challenges to ours. We want to learn from the wisdom of others. But I think we often follow others when we’re unsure of our own path. We don’t know what we want or which direction to take or how to approach a problem. So we try to replicate others’ success by copying what they do.

If I’m in a meeting where school leaders can’t agree on a course of action, someone invariably suggests a survey. Let’s see what other schools are doing. Let’s ask the teachers what they want. We need to get some input from our parents and stakeholders.

That feedback is important. We need to have a finger on the pulse of our constituents. We have to know what’s important to them, what challenges they’re facing, and what they want from their schools. But if we ask them what they want, they’ll tell us they want exactly what they have, but better, faster, and cheaper.

That’s not innovative.

It’s much more difficult to look at the goals and challenges, examine the available resources, and design a plan to meet the need. We have to ask a lot of questions, challenge assumptions, and predict how our needs are going to change. That takes a long time. And, often, we end up needing things that don’t exist yet. So we have to settle. Or we have to invent.

That’s why it is taking us more than two years to replace aging classroom computers. It’s not that we don’t have the money. It’s not that we don’t need new computers. The problem is that instruction is changing at the classroom level in fundamental ways. We’re doing less whole group instruction. We’re differentiating and individualizing instruction on a regular basis. Our students are collaborating and sharing and presenting. Our teachers and students and principals and parents are in the middle of this metamorphosis. They’re not really sure what their needs will be in three years or five years or seven years.

So we’ll take our time. We’ll figure it out. We’ll play with a lot of different approaches and see what works best. We’ll weigh tradeoffs and price compare and figure out which things are most important. We will get feedback from our stakeholders, and that feedback will influence (but not dictate) our decisions. Then, we’ll come up with an awesome approach.

And then other schools will copy it.

Photo credit: Ian Harding on Flickr.