“The simple way isn’t always the easiest. Often it requires more time, more money, and more energy. It might require you to step on a few toes. But more times than not, it will lead to measurably better results.” Ken Segall, Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s SuccessTis the season, or almost the season, for schools to begin that process of “examining data, pondering goals, and discussing improvement” all in the service of our now established ritual of “School Improvement Planning.” It has become a religious ritual, with school leaders serving as the high priest, or priestess of improvement, hammering out details of plans on how to improve their school or district.
But in all this improvement planning, we sometimes forget important things we know are inherent about planning in general and school improvement planning specifically. In our efforts to be thorough and “good little administrators” we make school improvement planning much more complex than it should be, and we lose sight of what is important. Now, I am certainly not advocating the idea of proverbially flying by the seats of our pants when it comes to leading schools or districts. We know plans are important. But as we move into this Season of SIP, let’s keep some important principles of school improvement and common sense in mind.
1. Keep it simple. Sometimes in our zeal to plan for improvement, we make the school improvement planning process too complicated. For example, if it takes a masters degree to figure out how to complete your school improvement template, then that’s a problem. We should take a lesson from Apple with our school improvement plans. According to Ken Segall, “Everyone of Apple’s revolutions was born of the company’s devotion to Simplicity. Each new device created a new category or turned an existing category on its head---all because, as an old iMac ad put it, the technology was “simply amazing, and amazingly simple.” We can have school improvement plans and planning processes that are simple too. When anyone, educator or non-educator, looks at our plans, they should be “simply amazing, and amazingly simple” not some document no one reads because it is too complicated and needs interpretation.
2. You don’t have to wait to include it in your school improvement plan to improve it. I have actually been in schools and districts that refused to take on new initiatives simply because “it was not in their plan.” How’s that for being majorly short-sighted? Sometimes the best improvement ideas and improvements are those that come to us in the middle of the night, and if we wait until we can get it “into the school improvement plan” opportunities disappear. School improvement must be nimble and responsive, but when our school improvement processes become ponderous and rigid, how can we expect to be able to engage in any lasting and significant improvement? We need to be willing to sometimes “Make it so” to use the words of one of my Star Trek heroes.
3. Improvement can begin with the smallest things first. Schools become dysfunctional often due to a large number of small things that build up over time. Cultures get sick because of the small things that get neglected. If you really want to engage in school or district improvement, look to the small things first. While it might seem insignificant to you, I can bet the coffee you buy means something to someone. The lack of a pleasant greeting impacts someone when they walk into the building. We are sometimes blinded in our thinking by seeing improvement as the “big things,” when very often, changing all the little things make the big things better.
4. Focus on making things better for kids, not raising test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates or lowering drop out rates, suspensions etc. When you focus on numbers you can lose sight that everyone of those data-points represents kids. Data is important of course, but we should not be data-centric. We should be kid-centric. This means when planning improvement, there might be things that would improve test scores or lower drop out rates, but still not be good for kids. When your leadership focuses on numbers instead of kids, well, you get people who play games with numbers. Hence, you get Georgia testing scandals, DC testing scandals. Behind every non-proficient score you have a kid, not an object that we can “add-value” to.
5. Improvement should be continuous, and it is not always relegated to what you have on paper. Those who have an “improvement mindset” know that improvement is not something done every two or four years. It is something engaged in every single moment of every day. If you want to improve your school, you can begin in your classroom, office, or hallway, and keep improving things everyday.
6. Improvement is much easier if your school community strongly believes in what you are doing. This is a no-brainer. All that talk and effort about “stakeholder buy-in” is unnecessary if your school community culture is powered by common belief and support for what you are trying to do. You get your school community to believe in what you are doing by attending to their desires, needs, etc. When that is not possible, you work extra hard to get them to understand why, and while they may not agree, they can accept what you’re doing.
7. If you have to work too hard to convince your school community to buy into your plans, then maybe there’s something wrong with your plans. One of the grandest obstacles to school improvement are egos. School leaders with enormous egos sometimes come into school communities with grandiose plans that are more about them than the people they serve. Perhaps if that plan you have requires an extensive PR campaign, it isn't what your school or district needs. Just maybe it's what you need more than your schools need. Knowing when to back off with your plans, especially when its more about your ego than school improvement, is a key leadership trait.
As you and your school district move into this season of school improvement planning, taking Ken Segall’s advice when it comes to simplicity is important for those plans. He reminds us:
“By embracing the values of Simplicity, you will be the one to promote change, keep colleagues on course, and prove your value to the company (school, district) day by day.”If your school improvement planning and plans are made ponderous and difficult they do not have to be. These seven principles can guide your school or district to simplify and make your school improvement "simply amazing and amazingly simple."