Lessons about school improvement from a business book

dust jacket of Smart Growth by Edward D. HessI recently read Smart Growth: Building an Enduring Business by Managing the Risks of Growth by Edward D. Hess.

In it I found something I wasn’t expecting: Principles from business that apply to school settings.

Hess’s thesis is that the Wall Street model in which successful businesses grow smoothly and continuously with increased dividends every quarter is just plain nuts. (He phrases it more politely, but that’s the gist.)

Here in bite-size chunks are a few observations Hess makes in Smart Growth that struck me as applicable to schools as well as corporations. Unless otherwise indicated, the visuals are direct quotes from Hess.

Growth depends on people having time and learned knowledge to grow.

Substitute “school improvement” for growth and you have an often-overlooked fact about school reform: It depends on school staff having time and learned knowledge.

Schools can’t improve overnight, nor can they improve based on nothing but intuition.

People "act inconsistently and unpredictably, failing to learn…"

Much of school reform work is based on the assumption that educators will act consistently, predictably, and learn from instruction and mistakes.

That’s an unwise assumption.

Organizational growth is far from a smooth process.

Expecting 2016’s test scores to be better than 2015’s, and 2017’s to be better still?

Don’t count on it.

No matter how you measure it, student learning isn’t a smooth process.

Neither is school improvement.

People make growth complex and difficult School improvement can’t happen without people.

People don’t always cooperate in making school improvement happen.

You’ll save yourself a great deal of frustration if you don’t expect them to.

smartgrowth_t5

Change may carry unexpected negative consequences as well as the expected positive ones.

Innovation often brings something new, which we may find we didn’t really need, at the expense of something old, which we may later find we undervalued.

Quote: For companies to grow, their people must grow.For schools to improve, their people must grow.

Staff must experience intellectual, social, and emotional growth—none of which occurs in orderly, linear fashion.

Quote: People can change only so much, so fast, and so often.

School improvement depends on people. Administrators should remember people have limited ability to change—especially while they are being expected to carry on with other tasks that aren’t changing.

Quote: Any change will generate mistakes.Mistakes happen.

They happen every day while we’re doing routine things.

It’s foolish to assume mistakes won’t happen while schools are trying new procedures, new programs, new curricula.

Quote: Small changes can add up and have a big impact.

To avoid wasting time on trivia, schools often attempt big, broad, across-the-board changes.

All too often staff are not adequately trained for the big, broad, across-the-board change. (Remember New York State’s roll-out of Common Core?)

Time and resources for implementing the big, broad, across-the-board change may also be missing.

Small changes—even one teacher in one classroom implementing a better way of teaching—can add up to a big, broad, across-the-board improvement in a school over a period of time.


As you settle in to your fall teaching routine, which of these observations will help you avoid the frustration of trying to change your school by next Friday?

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