Our district takes a lot of pride in pursuing a “systems approach” to management. Part of “systems thinking” is trying to understand and address the larger systemic forces that drive day-to-day reality in the schools. For example, if we’re concerned about incidents of racial prejudice or bias in the schools, the district shouldn’t just wait for incidents to happen and then react to them one by one; it should consider instituting professional development on the topic, incorporating it into school improvement plans and administrative performance reviews, setting explicit goals and then scheduling follow-up sessions to review progress, etc. The district’s strategic plan incorporates systematic approaches of that kind in a number of ways.
Systems thinking of that kind makes a lot of sense. But while it may be necessary, I doubt that it’s sufficient, because culture matters too. Even the most planful systems will struggle to be effective if the organization has a culture of minimizing or denying problems, reacting defensively to criticism, treating disagreement like sedition or insubordination, or viewing every problem through the lens of image and public relations.
To me, this is a major issue raised by the determinations, this year and last, that our district was not complying with special education laws. Why did our systems—the goal setting, the data collection, the accountability reviews, the “three-hundred-sixty-degree” superintendent evaluations, the staff training, etc.—fail to catch these problems, even though parents of special education students had been raising concerns for years? How is it that the problems went unaddressed until outside authorities intervened? How long would they have continued otherwise?
The issue of the district’s use of seclusion is a case in point. The task force on the issue made many good recommendations about adopting policies and practices designed to minimize the use of seclusion. Yet many people are still unsatisfied. This can manifest as an argument over whether seclusion should be completely abolished, even in last-resort situations when physical safety is at stake and physical restraint may be the only alternative. But I wonder if the root problem is about confidence in the district’s follow-through on any new set of policies and procedures.
Organizational change takes time, but “be patient—we’re instituting a new system!” will reassure people only if they have enough confidence that the organizational culture won’t stymie real change.
To build that kind of public confidence, what I wish for our district is a culture that welcomes criticism from both within and outside the institution (even when it’s not expressed perfectly); one that is receptive to public input without trying to manage or steer it toward a preferred outcome; one that values critical self-examination and a willingness to candidly admit error when it happens. (Those qualities are by no means completely absent from our district, but the district could more consistently exhibit them.) A simple, unadorned apology—including, for example, directly to kids who have been wrongly secluded—would go a long way toward rebuilding public confidence after the district has fallen short. Everyone knows that a large, human organization will never be infallible, but the response makes a difference.
How to create meaningful change in a large, bureaucratic institution—especially in its culture—is an eternal riddle. Nearing the end of my time on the school board, I don’t feel a whole lot closer to understanding the answer than I was at the beginning. (The late, great Writers’ Workshop professor Jim McPherson taught us that writing a novel might be at least as effective in changing the world as running for office could be—another take on the question of systems versus culture.) What are your thoughts on how to make it happen?