What Happened in DC in 2008 – & Does it Still Matter in 2013?

If a prominent urban school leader told you he couldn’t recall being informed that half his city’s schools may have allowed the gross mistreatment of students to occur, would you believe him? And even if you did, would you still want him in charge of your children?

Now imagine that the leader in question is not just prominent locally, but nationally as well. Imagine that this individual has appeared on the cover of iconic news magazines and been interviewed on Oprah’s iconic couch. And imagine that this person has come to embody a singular approach to determining the effectiveness of schools and teachers – the rationale for which would be challenged if the allegations of mistreatment were ever proven to be true.

Would you want to know if any actual wrongdoing had occurred?

In fact this is not a hypothetical question, but an actual one we can apply to the nation’s capital, and to our nation’s most visible school reformer, Michelle Rhee. It is, therefore, a question fraught with potential implications for how we think about (and assess) modern American education reform. And it’s a question that has been given new life in the wake of PBS reporter John Merrow’s publication of a confidential memo in which an outside consultant suggested that as many as 191 teachers, scattered across nearly half the city’s public schools, may have erased and corrected their students’ answers on the city’s high-stakes standardized test, the DC-CAS, in 2008.

No one in a position of authority to inquire further is doing so – yet.  Both Mayor Vincent Gray and David Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee, say they do not plan to reinvestigate – even though all previous investigations forbade any sort of erasure analysis or an examination of the original answer sheets. Rhee herself, a self-described “data fiend,” stands by her original statement: “I don’t recall receiving a report  . . . regarding erasure data from the DC-CAS.”

The significance of a potentially uninvestigated cheating scandal in Washington extends beyond the personal reputation of Ms. Rhee. Other cities around the country have already suffered their own scandals, from El Paso to Atlanta. Increasing numbers of parents are opting their children out of standardized tests as a form of civil disobedience to what they see as the deleterious results of the high-stakes testing era. And anyone who spends serious time in schools knows how many educators are struggling to stay motivated in a policy climate that, albeit unintentionally, disincentivizes them from valuing anything other than literacy and numeracy.

If no subsequent investigation occurs, we will be witness in Washington D.C. to what happens when powerful people try to sweep uncomfortable subjects under the rug. Ironically, however, Atlanta has demonstrated what happens when the opposite occurs – and courageous public officials, combined with a watchful free press, commit to uncover the truth, whatever it may be. As Georgia Governor Nathan Deal (a Republican) put it: “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

Deal’s investigative team was equally forceful: “Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring,” they wrote in their 813-page report – a report based on interviews with more than 2,000 people and a review of more than 800,000 documents. “A culture of fear and conspiracy of silence infected (the) school system and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct.” As a lead member of the Atlanta investigative team told Merrow earlier this year, “There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that adults cheated in Washington. The big difference is that nobody in D.C. wanted to know the truth.”

Whether or not widespread cheating occurred in 2008 should matter greatly to all of us, even in 2013. What matters more is whether we are willing to find out. Because when we lose the courage and the curiosity to inquire deeply into our own practices – and the unintended consequences they may reap – we lose the capacity to reimagine education for a changing world.

(This article also appeared on the Smartblog on Education.)

Your Education Stories (for a price)

It’s suddenly in vogue to gather and tell stories as part of an organization’s larger strategy to build an audience and effect change. On one level, I love this development — indeed, I’ve been gathering people’s stories about their most powerful learning experiences for years, which has resulted in a website, a radio story series, and even a book (proceeds of which do not go to me, by the way).

I’ve done this because I believe that before we can solve the riddle of how to provide every child with a great education, we need to develop a deeper understand of what great teaching and learning really looks like — and requires. That is the motive. Over time I’ve also reflected a lot on the core elements of a great story — one that can inspire and edify — and tried to apply those principles in the current 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill. Like all things, it’s a work in progress, but we’re clearly onto something — as the appeal of this Prezi attests.

Yesterday, however, I received an email from Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First, relating to an effort underway there to gather people’s stories about why they choose to put students first. We’re told that Michelle nodded along as she read “the same frustrations and motivations that drive me to action reflected in their responses.” And we’re told that 100 lucky submitters will receive a signed copy of her new memoir, Radical.

I clicked on the link to read the stories, and a couple of things became quite clear: first, these are not stories. People aren’t being asked — nor are they being given space — to share a personal narrative; they’re being given an opportunity to reaffirm the professional rationale of Students First. And second, it’s clear that organizations like Students First don’t actually give a damn about individual people’s stories. They care about selling books, acquiring new email addresses and demonstrating the reach of their current network.

Those things, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily bad strategy — and they certainly aren’t evil. What they are, however, is indicative of Michelle Rhee’s impersonal approach to systemic change. And I can’t think of anything more ironic than a nationally-known “radical” reformer for schools — the most personal public space that exists outside the family in our society — who believes that, in the end, something as sacred as a person’s personal story is little more than a convenient framing device for giving away free books and building out an email list.

Buyer beware.

(This article also appeared on Huffington Post.)

What DC Can Teach Us About Teacher Policies

This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead.

1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn.

The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.”

Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education.

On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are clearly in need of an extreme makeover; and teacher unions have clearly been occasional obstacles to some of the larger efforts to remake our public schools. In that regard, any and all efforts to “upgrade classroom instruction” are exactly what the doctor ordered.

And yet, the reality is that the past four years have been more of a national debate about labor law – and less of a national investigation about how people learn. And the problem is not that labor law doesn’t need fixing; it does. But when things like “last in, first out” (LIFO) firing policies, collective bargaining rights, and teacher pensions crowd out our capacity to identify what highly effective teaching and learning really looks like – and requires – what we get are cover stories about personnel dismissals and litmus tests on national personalities, not evaluation tools that are designed to help the vast majority of teachers get better. Which leads to the second thing . . .

2. STOP spending so much time talking about the best and worst teachers; START focusing on everyone else.

Although mass firings of the sort DCPS reported last week are rare, the number of personnel affected was still quite small – just 5% of the total workforce. In fact, very few teachers were rated as either great or horrible; the vast majority – nearly 70% — were simply rated “effective.”

This underscores a rather obvious point: the only way to transform the teaching profession is by crafting policies that help the vast majority of educators improve the quality of their practice over time – not by lionizing the master teachers or demonizing the ones that should find a new line of work.

Is that what’s happening in DC? I believe our new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, when she says that IMPACT, the city’s new teacher evaluation system, is designed to build capacity, not just weed out the unwanted. Perhaps over time IMPACT will even become a useful national model for a different sort of evaluation tool that can provide feedback, reinforce high standards, and help ensure a high-quality teacher in every classroom. However, based on a recent in-depth review of IMPACT, we’re not there yet – and we’re still way too focused in our public rhetoric on the best and the worst teachers. It would be nice to see the rhetoric and the reality get more in line with each other. And it would be nice to imagine that some worthy educators won’t recklessly lose their jobs along the way.

3. STOP viewing poverty and education as an either/or; START viewing them as a both/and.

Anyone who lives and works in education knows that an ongoing argument has been occurring between some who feel you can’t fix education until you fix poverty, and others who feel you can’t fix poverty until you fix education.

The reality is that both sides – and neither side – are right. Poverty and education are inextricably linked, and the ecosystem each child inhabits – from his home and community to his health and his school – has a massive, complicated impact on that child’s capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, any new policies that fail to account for that complexity aren’t just poorly designed; they’re patently unfair.

This point was reinforced in the article about the DC firings and the IMPACT evaluation system. As Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, “a breakdown by ward confirms, as it did last year, that the overwhelming majority of highly effective teachers work in schools with lower rates of poverty and other social problems.”

This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – how could it be otherwise? – and yet too many of us are still suggesting the path forward must be lit by signs saying either “It’s The Poverty, Stupid,” or “No Excuses Means No Excuses.”

We can do better. We have the capacity for greater nuance in our understanding of something as complex as teaching and learning. And as we spend the summer months preparing for a new school year, we would be wise to be more mindful of what we must stop, start and keep doing in the months and years ahead.

Calling Bill Maher

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

After reading Michelle Rhee’s surprisingly casual dismissal of cheating allegations in DC’s public school system, I’ve decided we need to do something drastic if we want to shake ourselves out of this surreal set of conversations about school reform.

We need Bill Maher to make a documentary about education. Perhaps we can even take a cue from his first film, Religulous, and call this one “Edu-buh-cation.” Or “Stoopid.” Or “The Bee-Eater.”

Oh, wait, that one’s taken.

We need Bill because we are living in a country where smart people genuinely believe they’re talking about school reform – when all they’re really doing is talking about labor law.

We need Bill because we need to stop pretending that improving test scores is the same thing as proving that children are learning.

And we need Bill because the problems we face will not be solved by deciding if we’re for or against unions, or if we love or hate Michelle Rhee, or if we think charter schools are a great or horrible idea.

Ours is a society in seeming-constant need of some satire. And we need satire because we need some social criticism that can lay bare the idiocy of the moment, and queue up a different set of questions about how to improve public education in America.

Here are a few I could see Bill using in his interviews and profiles of people and communities:

  • What do we know about how people learn?
  • When and where were you when you learned best?
  • What are the core elements of the ideal learning environment – based on our own memories, and the best learning experiences of our lives?
  • What do we know about what motivates people?
  • What do parents want their children, when they graduate, to know, be, and be able to do?
  • What habits of mind and work will be most valuable to children when they graduate?
  • What if we stop pretending that everyone should go to college?

If this were to happen, I can guarantee we’d discover a deeper truth about what learning looks like – and requires.  We’d see that there are tons of schools and communities doing great things across the country – and we’d get the chance to learn about what it is exactly they’re doing. And we’d stop allowing the most powerful voices in the field to keep pretending that what we seek is as simple as replacing bad teachers with good ones, seeding more charter schools, and pretending that the solutions we seek can all be attained within the walls of our schools.

We need Bill Maher because he’s already doing this – as he did recently when he mocked the simple narrative that has developed in this country around “fat cat” teachers.

We need Bill because this issue is too important to keep being mischaracterized – as it was in that remarkable graphic in Waiting for Superman, in which a teacher attempts to pour “knowledge” into the empty heads of the passive, seated students, all in order to criticize the elements of the system that were affecting the teacher’s “aim.”

And we need Bill because the only way we can snap out of this stupor is if someone helps us see the ridiculousness of it all, makes us laugh at our own stupidity – and shames us into rethinking our approach.

We can do better. And Bill Maher can help us.

Bill – call me.

What If Learning — Not Fighting — Were the Focus?

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

As accusations fly back and forth over the reported DC cheating scandal – the latest in a series of battles between America’s two dominant Edu-Tribes – I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped spending so much time focusing on what is broken or who is to blame, and started focusing instead on how people learn, and how we can create better learning environments for everyone.

This week, as part of an effort to spur such a conversation, a coalition of individuals and organizations is doing just that — envisioning a movement of adults and young people in search of better places to work and learn, and highlighting powerful learning experiences to make a larger statement about how and when transformational learning occurs.

I am proud to be a part of the campaign, which is called Faces of Learning, and which aspires to help people understand we are all effective learners, with differing strengths and challenges. Kim Carter, executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation, a non-profit organization that is a member of the coalition, explains: “We want to elevate four essential questions that are, alarmingly, almost completely absent from the current national conversation about school improvement: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?”

To help provide the answers people need, Faces of Learning is asking people to share personal stories of their most powerful learning experiences; attend and/or organize public events at which people think together about how to improve the local conditions in which people learn; and use a new interactive tool called the Learner Sketch, which invites users to explore their own strengths and challenges among the various mental processes that influence learning. Rather than just categorize the user as a certain “type” of learner, the Learner Sketch feedback actually suggests strategies users can try to help them become even more effective learners. Users can also explore what research is teaching us about how we learn, and find resources that help improve the overall learning conditions for children (and adults).

Ideally, of course, a campaign like this would be unnecessary. And yet, when one looks back at the last 15 months – a period in which school reform has been at the forefront of American life, from “Race to the Top” to Waiting for Superman to the endless coverage of Michelle Rhee or the union fight in Wisconsin – what becomes clear is that we haven’t been having a national debate about learning; we’ve been having a national debate about labor law. And while that issue is important, it is a dangerous stand-in for the true business of public education – helping young people learn how to use their minds well.

What if our efforts were squarely focused on the true goal of a high-quality education, instead of the hidden goal of a well-funded few?

What if each of us could identify our own strengths and weaknesses as a learner?

What if each of us had the chance to discover – and contribute – our full worth and potential to the world?

What if all of us came to both expect and demand high-quality learning environments throughout our lives?

It’s a great and worthy vision. And before any of those things can happen, we all need to work together to see more clearly what powerful learning actually looks like — and requires.

Join our efforts – and share your voice – at www.facesoflearning.net.

Education Inception

(This article also appeared on the Huffington Post.)

I just watched Christopher Nolan’s remarkable new movie Inception, a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: “What’s the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it – but it stays there.”

Cobb’s movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today’s advocates for public education reform – how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children. And yet after reading Michelle Rhee’s two newest efforts to launch her own form of “inception” – an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization’s inaugural policy agenda – I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

Repeatedly, Ms. Rhee has shown she believes that the best way to mobilize people is through conflict, oppositional language and negative emotion. In the Journal, she speaks encouragingly about the fact that “public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo.” And in the introductory paragraph of her policy agenda, she seems encouraged by the fact that her actions will “trigger controversy.” This sort of language extends the tenor of her brief tenure as DC Schools Chancellor, when Rhee made enough inflammatory statements to become the single most polarizing education figure in country. Love me or hate me, she seemed to be telling us – but pick one you must.

In some respects, Ms. Rhee’s approach to idea-generation, much like her approach to management, is deeply rooted in 20th-century paradigms of mobilization and leadership. Our culture has nurtured numerous shared archetypes of strong, authoritarian leaders – people who can make the tough decisions, go it alone, and refuse to give an inch. To compromise or collaborate is to be soft and exceedingly conciliatory, not to mention a weak-kneed guarantee that nothing will get done. Get with the program or get out. You’re either with us or against us. Don’t tread on me.

Of course, like all archetypes, these characterizations contain partial truths. To be all about compromise and not at all about principle is a poor model for leadership, and we do need leaders who have the fortitude to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and speak simply and clearly. Similarly, we all should share Ms. Rhee’s sense of outrage. And in the end, several of her policies make good sense. But in terms of the overall effort at inception – at seeding the foundational idea – one thing seems equally clear: a national movement that is based primarily on negative emotion will not deliver us the long-term changes we need in public education.

Christopher Nolan certainly feels this way – it’s the core message of his movie. “How do you translate a strategy into an emotion?” Cobb wonders. A colleague suggests that an idea fueled by negative emotion will work best – something that would grow and fester in the mind of an individual, building both anger and discontent until it could be turned into action. But Cobb disagrees. “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.”

I agree, and I wish Michelle Rhee would, too. She has a national platform, a vital issue in need of being addressed, millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of followers. Now she just needs the right idea.

Is Michelle Rhee putting Students First?

Like everyone else who does education for a living, I read that Michelle Rhee is launching a new national advocacy organization, Students First. And after checking out the site and hearing how she articulates its purpose, I see some reasons to feel hopeful — and many more reasons to feel deeply concerned.

First, the good news: It’s hard to argue with Rhee’s four “we believe” statements for the organization. Who doesn’t believe all children deserve great teachers? Who would argue with the idea that students should not need luck to get a good education? Why not start allocating public dollars where they can make the biggest difference? And who would deny the need for more parental involvement and increased efforts to engage the entire community? So let’s all hop on the Rhee express, right? Well, maybe.

Click here to keep reading.

Questions for the Next Schools Chancellor

Today, presumptive-next-mayor Vincent Gray will meet with presumptive-ex- chancellor Michelle Rhee to discuss the future of DC public schools.

In a way, this is a lose-lose meeting for both. As Rhee has made clear in her typically tin-eared style, she is skeptical Gray shares her commitment to a particular set of reforms. Meanwhile, Gray’s ultimate decision about Rhee is guaranteed to disappoint a significant percentage of his electorate – either those who voted for him to register their disapproval of Fenty’s and Rhee’s style of leadership, or those who voted against him to see her reign continue.

This puts Mr. Gray in a bit of a pickle, but he might as well use the opportunity to think about the essential questions he would want to ask any potential candidate to be the next Schools Chancellor. Here are five he might want to consider:

  1. Thank you for meeting with me this afternoon. Clearly, this most recent election was in part a referendum on leadership in general, and on the different approaches people take to decision-making, community engagement, and working with the forces of change. With that in mind, tell me about your personal philosophy of leadership, about what you believe are the central characteristics a leader must possess, and about how you intend to leverage those characteristics in your work with the many stakeholders of our public school system?
  2. IMPACT, the new teacher evaluation system in DC has received national attention – and both praise and scrutiny – for its increased emphasis on a diverse set of data points to determine teacher effectiveness, a more frequent use of third-party observations, and a commitment to link student test scores to individual teacher evaluations. Tell me, when you imagine your ideal system for evaluating teacher effectiveness, which aspects of IMPACT would you stop using, which would you keep using, and which new features would you want to start using, and why?
  3. In any system, a leader has to identify in which areas of the system s/he wants to seek traditional changes, transitional changes, and transformational changes. Based on what we know about systems change, it’s often wise to pursue all three types of change at the same time, and in different parts of the system, so that the pace of change is neither too slow nor too fast, and so people will experience both the up-close significance of short-term wins and the galvanizing power of a long-term vision. Knowing that, in which aspects of the system would you pursue the most traditional changes, and why? Where do you think the opportunities exist for a transitional set of reforms in DCPS, and why? And how do you feel those changes will help prepare our city for a more transformational set of changes that will help our current 19th and 20th century modes of schooling start preparing children for the unique set of challenges and opportunities posed by the 21st century world they will enter when they graduate?
  4. The past four years have seen DCPS focus relentlessly on improving student results on 3rd and 8th grade standardized exams in reading and math. Banners have been hung in front of schools trumpeting these scores, and for the average parent or community member, schools are still deemed successful or unsuccessful based on these scores alone. When it comes to evaluating the extent to which children are learning, what is your ideal balanced scorecard of indicators, and how would you revise the city’s assessment and accountability system to ensure that future performance data reveal not just who isn’t learning and what isn’t being learned, but also why students are struggling and how DCPS teachers can address their needs?
  5. My final question to you has less to do with any specific changes you hope to make, and more to do with how well you understand the equally important role of communicating those changes to the residents of this city. Let’s imagine it’s four years from now, and we’re looking back to see which central words, ideas and messages the average citizen associates with your tenure as Schools Chancellor. What do you want them to say, why do you want them to say it, and how will you go about executing an outreach strategy that helps ensure the residents of our city feel an alignment between the actions and the aspirations of your administration?

Why Adrian Fenty Lost The City – and How Vincent Gray Can Win It Back

Now that the dust is beginning to settle from the DC mayoral race, it’s worth examining what outgoing mayor Adrian Fenty failed to understand about leadership and systems change, and what Vincent Gray will need to understand – and do – if he wants a different result.

This is an issue I explore in my most recent book, in which I argue that any organizational leader, whether s/he is an elementary school principal, a Fortune 500 executive, or the mayor of an urban city, needs to develop three foundational skills: self-awareness, systems thinking, and strategically-deployed collaborative decision-making. I also explain, in greater detail than I can here, how each skill is necessary and insufficient by itself, and how, in an organizational context, each functions in a nonlinear fashion. It is only through the combination of these abilities that leaders become more effective, and there is no strict and surefire order one should follow in order to cultivate these skills in himself and in others. As with everything else, human beings refuse to behave so predictably.

There is, however, a general continuum of which we should be aware. At the personal level, we begin by reflecting on who we are, what we value and where we are most likely to thrive and struggle as leaders. At the relational level, we start to become more aware of how our behaviors contribute to the culture around us; gradually we develop the capacity, with the help of others, to “see the whole (chess) board.” And at the organizational (or city-wide) level, we resist the urge to sell “our” ideas, opting instead to consistently invite others to co-construct the ideas – and the responsibilities – we will share.

When these three skills start to take root in individuals and the organizational culture of which they’re a part, a palpable shift takes place. Transformational change, and the collective will and clarity needed to achieve it, becomes possible. This doesn’t mean transformational change will necessarily occur, only that the proper conditions will have been created. At this point, we need a fourth leadership skill: ensuring that people have the understanding, motivation and skills they need to continually work with the forces of change.

Working with the natural forces of change is very different from “managing change,” just as co-creating a common vision is distinct from getting people to “buy in.” In one approach, organizational systems and the individuals who inhabit them are managed like machines, and people are given pre-packaged “solutions” that supersede community input; in the other, people and organizations are seen as complex, living systems, and the inherent creativity and commitment of the people being asked to change is what drives all decisions.

The fact that so many initiatives struggle to change core behaviors or processes is particularly troubling when one considers that, in essence, learning itself is change. But the greater truth is less that people resist change (though they do), and more that they resist being changed.

Knowing what will be easy and what will be difficult when it comes to systems renewal is essential for working with the natural forces of systemic change. And although there is no single way to be successful, there are different stages of the change process that can guide Mr. Gray in his work with us.

The Three Stages of Change – Mind, Heart & Voice

In everything the new mayor does, he should be mindful of how his constituents will experience the changes in three areas – their minds, their hearts and their voices.

Here’s what I mean by that: Before we are willing to change anything about our work or our behavior, we must first understand why the change is necessary and what it will require of us (mind). To actively participate in a major change initiative, we must feel intrinsically motivated in some way to contribute (heart). And to follow through on our individual and shared visions of our future community, we must have the skills and capabilities to not only demonstrate new behaviors, but also ensure greater alignment between our internal passions and our external actions (voice).

Often, what happens in massive change initiatives is we pay attention to some, but not all, of these stages. Teachers are asked to adopt a new teaching style before they fully understand why they should do so. Schools in search of more parent participation fail to explicitly consider what it will take to motivate greater numbers of adults to get involved. And students are invited to play a more active role in school governance before they’ve been equipped with the skills they need to do so effectively and responsibly.

Implicit in all of these scenarios is the recognition that implementing systems-wide change requires an approach that encompasses individual, group, and organizational learning needs. Some of these needs will be simple, visible and straightforward, such as providing basic information; others will be intangible, invisible and elusive, such as addressing basic human emotions.

To me, the most accurate (and damning) criticism of Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee was that they failed to understand, or even value, the importance of addressing the human elements of change. Some might say that such a statement is too soft-hearted, old-school and quixotically progressive to have any currency in the modern world. Yet this is what I learned in business school, not education school. For example, in Big Change at Best Buy, their book chronicling a major restructuring initiative at the consumer electronic retailer, authors Elizabeth Gibson and Andy Billings underscore the universality of these distinctly human elements of change. “Getting merchandise out on the shelves at the right time, staffing the service counter with the right number of people and within the labor budgets – these are the ‘hard’ or concrete issues,” they write, “and they are the easiest to assess and change.

“By contrast, the ‘soft’ issues are more difficult  . . . and they are the heart of transformational change. The tangible features may represent the face of change, but the human factors – dealing with uncertainty, motivating and energizing people, and creating behavioral change – are critical to success. When soft issues are not addressed, the organization and its people appear resistant to change. As with any large system, organizations have their own inertia. Resistance, though an inevitable feature of change, becomes the convenient term for failure to address the soft side of change.”

Understanding the forces of change in this way places a unique set of challenges on a mayor, or a schools chancellor, or an organizational leader, because it means they must balance the community’s attention to both hard (visible) and soft (invisible) issues.

Other insights from the private sector underscore this point, and help clarify the optimal role for leaders to play in systemic improvement work. Harvard Business School professors Michael Beer and Russell Eisenstat explain: “The most effective managers [in a multiyear study] recognized their limited power to mandate corporate renewal from the top. Instead, they defined their roles as creating a climate for change, then spreading the lessons of both successes and failures.” Management consultant Jim Collins puts it another way: “True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to.”

Because systems change is such a nonlinear experience, and because it requires leaders both to engender a sense of order (as opposed to control) and give people the freedom to co-author the process, it’s easy to imagine Mr. Gray feeling overwhelmed about what to do. I believe the three-stage framework of mind, heart and voice can help him for two reasons: first, it will provide a guide for him and his staff that helps explain human, group and organizational behavior in any major change initiative; and second, it can be used as a framework for outlining a specific set of knowledge, skills and dispositions that our schools and community agencies should strive to cultivate throughout their student, faculty and parent communities.

Election Day

It’s Election Day here in DC, and in my neighborhood of Columbia Heights, a diverse mix of citizens – old and young, wealthy and struggling, black and white and brown – have been casting their votes all morning in the basement of an old Baptist church. Inside, cheerful volunteers explain the ins and outs of the paper and electronic ballots. Outside, supporters of the prospective candidates line nearby streets to hand out leaflets and answer questions. As they do, two major construction projects – one a new restaurant in an abandoned storefront, the other a new apartment complex in an abandoned building across the street – fill the air with the sounds of power saws, hammers, and the voices of workmen.

Election Days are supposed to be about possibility, hopefulness, and the promise that comes from a system of accountability, transparency, and the will of the people. And yet in my neighborhood, amid the din of new development and community renewal, the primary feeling, paradoxically, is of disappointment and discontent. In DC this year, the election is less a contest between two candidates, and more a referendum on the leadership of mayor Adrian Fenty. And if the polls are at all accurate, it is also the beginning of the end for him and his high-profile schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee.

As I’ve already written, Fenty’s demise has been brought on by a self-inflicted march of strong-armed, tin-eared words and decisions. That same approach to leadership has characterized his choice for schools chancellor, Rhee, even as her tough-minded style has been celebrated nationally. But what the media reports gloss over – and what this election is likely to demonstrate – is a simple fact: the only way real change occurs is if you invest equally in technical expertise (so people will have the knowledge and skills they need to bring about a new way of seeing), and emotional commitment (so people will have the motivation and passion required to see a difficult set of challenges through). The art of democratic leadership comes from loosening one’s grip, at least partially, on what the exact “end result” needs to look like. This doesn’t mean ceding all ground or any core ideas. But it does mean painting a picture for the electorate that is intentionally incomplete, thinking strategically about which broad brush strokes must anchor the work, and leaving ample room for others to fill in the remaining blank space on the canvas. Only then will whatever emerges truly reflect the collective wisdom of a community.

In elections like this, however, too many observers still frame the issues as a false choice between choosing the path of reform or maintaining the status quo.  As always, it’s more complicated than that. In the DC schools, there are undoubtedly some serious issues with the teachers union. There are undoubtedly some horrible teachers in our schools who deserve to be fired. There is undoubtedly a shocking injustice at our continued inability to guarantee each child the same basic opportunity to a high-quality public education.  But history tells us – not to mention common sense – that you can’t address those issues by recklessly demonizing a majority of the people you will need to bring about a paradigm shift in the school system. This style of leadership is media-friendly because it provides a clearly defined cast of heroes and villains. And, as we’re about to see in DC, it will also get you voted out of office by unnecessarily polarizing the electorate.

The language of hope will not always unite. But the language of division will always divide.

I don’t know what type of mayor Vincent Gray will be. If history is any indication, he is as likely to disappoint – and become a victim of his own hubris – as the countless candidates who have gone before him. Still, I cast my vote for Gray this morning because of the possibility that he will take heed of his predecessor’s implosion.

A good first step would be to heed the insights of Edith Warner, the woman who spent her life living along the Rio Grande, and writing about the delicate balance between humans and the natural world. As Warner clearly understood, there is a subtle ecology we all must maintain, and our public leaders are the primary stewards of that human ecosystem. Words matter, in other words, since it is the words of our officials that shape the possibility of our collective action – or alienation.

“What we do anywhere matters,” Warner wrote long ago, “but especially here. Mesas and mountains, rivers and trees, winds and rains are as sensitive to the actions and thoughts of humans as we are to their forces. They take into themselves what we give off, and give it out again.”