It's leadership day again, something that is quickly becoming a CASTLE tradition. My previous leadership day posts are here and here. This year, I thought I would keep it simple and just reflect on a year's worth of statewide reform efforts here in Kentucky and some lessons learned and challenges ahead as I helped to lead this effort.
I've not posted much about it here on the blog, but for the last year I have been dedicating a TON of my time to a new reform effort in Kentucky. It's sort of hard to put a name on it, but over time we have been branding it as the Kentucky P20 Innovation Lab: A Partnership for Next Generation Learning. We have national partners, state partners, school partners, university partners, and state government partners. Amongst all the partners a sense is starting to emerge that something significant is possible in Kentucky. Not small steps, but big steps. It may seem an unlikely place, but I promise you it is about perfect. It is neither too large nor too small. It is not arrogant. It has the right leaders in place. It has support in Washington, even without Race to the Top. It has the right internal political climate. It has universities on board. It has some money. And, mostly, it has done this before so everyone can believe it is possible again.
So, in Year 1 we made amazing progress. We have the state excited about our effort and we generally have support from many necessary parties. We have identified some projects. We have won a national competition. We have funded 11 working labs. We have hired multiple staff. We have held statewide conferences and a meeting of the Governor's Taskforce. We have been the in the major state newspapers multiple times. On just about any measure, Year 1 has been a success. I am proud of my role in that effort and those accomplishments. I have worked on statewide projects before, but this the first time I am clearly a leader on a statewide reform effort so I want to share some of the lessons I learned in year 1 and some of the challenges I see coming in year 2.
- People are most important. In Austin a few months back when we were working with the Stupski and CCSSO folks they asked us to really narrow down the issues we were facing in Kentucky and potential roadblocks that we needed to address. After some tense conversation (see point 5) we really and unequivocally honed in on the fact that everything was either possible or impossible based on people. Not money, not time, not partners, not laws ... people and people by a longshot. Everything else can be negotiated with the right people.
- People need a plan. A real one, with the right other people involved. In the first 9 months or so of this P20 project, I spent almost all of my time building real plans that existing folks in the system could understand and participate in. It is an intellectual battle more than anything else to first convince people big time change is possible (don't underestimate the number of folks that have simply given up on such change) and second convince them that working together down a common path makes sense. To do this kind of very hard persuasion, you need a real plan and then you need other people to vouch for that plan. This is hard and takes time, but you must maintain patience through this phase. Meetings after meetings after meetings, most of which don't move the needle all that much. But, when a critical mass of people start to develop around a plan, they begin to vouch for it amongst themselves and jump on board.
- Big can be better. People like big ideas and naturally seem to gravitate to them. A statewide reform idea has to be big by nature or I don't think it will work. The idea has to be big enough that everyone can see themselves in it, from teachers to state leaders. Plus, the bigger the plan, the more the credit for it can be shared. We benefited greatly so far because our idea has been bigger than UK alone. Other universities can find a role in this plan and take leadership roles, even getting credit for components of it. Sure, big is harder to manage and harder to deliver, but just like gravity, the bigger the idea and plan, the more people that can naturally gravitate toward it.
- Time works against you. Just accept it, there is not going to be enough time to get even 1/4 of what you want to or think you can get done. As statewide reform unfolds, some people are going to wind up disappointed, but make sure you at least complete some projects. There has to be something to point to, even if that something does not please everybody. So, build in enough time to at least get a few projects finished.
- Tense conversations are usually good conversations. So, coming out of law school I was quite used to tense conversations. One (generally) learns how to disagree without being too disagreeable. But, educators are not at all used to tense conversations. After some of the tense conversations in the past year, the educators in the room came out thinking I was some sort of jerk. But, avoiding the tense conversations just prolongs the agony and wastes time (see point 4 above). And, after a few days or weeks, usually those same educators come up to me and thank me for addressing the real issue in a way that helped us move forward.
- Branding is critical. My nemesis on campus here is UK PR and we butt heads most frequently over branding issues. Branding is as much political as anything else because it is a statement of ownership - and people feel like they need to own things or at least feel comfortable with their 5 second analysis of who owns it. I don't exclude myself from this feeling as I have consistently fought for independent branding from UK, which, of course, annoys UK PR. Just be aware that branding is going to catch you off guard in the amount of time, thought and effort you need to put in it.
- Want to know what's going on ... build a website. I'm convinced that there is not a healthier process for organizations, especially start up organizations, than building a website. The categories, the colors, the clarity ... it's all there. You have to know who you are before you can tell others who you are. I'm not happy with the current P20 website (or our story), so for the last few months I have been working on a new website (and a new story). For instance, initially I used yellow based colors with a smattering of blue. But, this gave an impression that P20 was too distinct from the COE, which uses a distint style of blue. So, we switched and learned something about ourselves in the process. This will happen a lot as you build your movement's website.
- Sacrifice and Bravery (and Stupidity). Every time you want to do something different and keep your job, it is going to involve risk. Something is going to have to be sacrificed and to do so it is going to take bravery on the part of the reformer. For me, this has translated to neglecting traditional tenure requirements. Now, I'm not a total idiot so I am planning to clear the tenure bar, be it traditional or not. But, rest assured, my levels of traditional productivity could be much higher. This neglect might cost me money and it might eventually cost me my job. But, it is a risk I am willing to take. And, you must be to. At least 1 person has to roll the dice. Some people are going to call you stupid under their breath and in rumors ... that's when you know you are in the right zone. When people tell you that you are stupid to your face ... pull back a little. But, either way, they are going to be right and what you are doing is going to be stupid by traditional measures. Just remember, those measures are measures of value ... you bring value to the table and you will be fine (whether or not it is in your current position).
- You got to believe. If you don't, no one else will. That cannot be overstated.
Big Challenges Ahead:
- Translating talk to tasks. We have talked a lot this first year, but it has only been the last couple months we translated any of that to actual tasks that we are working on. The time for talking is not over, we are still going to need to do plenty of that, but tasks need to take a much larger percentage of our time.
- New value models. For a big reform to work, it will have to change the economic system at some point. This includes both the economic systems surrounding money itself, as well as the value systems placed on people and their work. For us at the COE, we need to change not just the monetary economic model, but also the tenure and promotion model. Yeah, that is a doozy alright, but this canot be done without it.
- More people. In year #1 I would say the P20 organization grew something around 1000%. We went from about 2 people dedicated to this project to now a little over 20, with several of those being full time. To work, we are going to need to see that kind of growth rate continue for the next couple years, but the problem with percentages is that the higher the number, the harder it is to sustain similar levels of growth. As in, the only way to sustain such growth is for the new people to bring in new people. While I and a few others worked hard this first year to get that kind of percent increase, a centralized recruitment effort is simply not feasible going forward. We must find a way to decentralize this effort.
- Putting tech. to work. To accomplish some of these big challenges, technology is going to have to do some of the heavy lifting. This is education, we can't simply pay our way to change. So, we are investing heavily in tech. development in the hope that we can compensate for some of those resource shortages with our technology tools.
- Buying time. Promises have been made, partners have been wooed, and the expectations have been set. We can fulfill a lot of those promises and reach a lot of those expectations, but now we need some time. We are going to have to keep people interested while working feverishly on deliverables. But, it will take some time, so one big task is to get the time we need from as many parties as possible. We have a couple of small victories that should hit in the next month or two, but the big victories are still at least a year or two away.
- Patience and Dedication. That's the critical combo, in my opinion. It is easy to say, but very tough to execute. There are going to be plenty of distractions and plenty of opportunities for frustration. We have to keep our eye on the ball.
I am sure there are a host of other tips and challenges I could have addressed, but those are some that come to mind. This kind of statewide reform work is hard work, but I am convinced it is possible - and, I am also convinced that the time is right to try. I'm tired of talking about the need for reform - I feel it is my generation's task to actually do it ... or, frankly, die trying. I'm willing to lead on this ... will you join me?