Thursday, July 13, 2017

Systems versus culture

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?


amy said...

My guess, Chris, is that at least part of the problem is that the systems are designed for something close to stasis. Let me give you an example.

About a year ago I went to talk to Steve and Kingsley about what were, to me, self-evident problems in the district to do with acceptance of the fact that it's no longer 1970 and we've got a highly diverse population along lots of axes. I wanted to hear what Steve's take on this was; he immediately suggested having a crew of people in on this meeting, which I didn't really like the sound of, because it sounded like a diffusing tactic, so I said thanks but no, you and me and Kingsley will be fine.

We had an hourlong nothingburger conversation of a type I've had with more than one administrator from more than one institution here: to whit, what can you do when we are here amongst the smalltown flaxenhaired, because why not throw them under the bus, and then an exceedingly vague "we're trying". So I got hold of that "we're trying" and we went in circles for maybe 15-20 minutes. The idea was that the teachers would get together in some sort of diversity training groups in the schools, and the more woke teachers would be leading the others to wokeness. (I'm paraphrasing.) When I asked about the kids and parents, I got something about separate groups.

So, I said, this sounds like a setup for the teachers coming around to telling each other how much progress in wokeness they're making, while perhaps actually nothing much is happening, which you can't know if the kids who live this daily aren't there for feedback. So how do the parents and kids get in on the teacher groups?

Answer: they don't. The parent/kid groups are your basic venting-management techniques at work. Thank you for your input, etc. Would you please fill out this survey. Kingsley was eager to sign me up for this, and they both invited me to the board meeting that took place just after our meeting, at which the SPP survey report on SES discrimination in the district was presented. But it was plain that the idea was to busy me with busywork, and I'm already busy, and I don't have time to be contained in that manner, thx. I've not heard of or seen any substantive improvement or conversations that indicate we really are at work on these issues in any serious manner.

We do have teachers and principals and other professional staff who are seriously interested in dragging the district into the 21st century. Why isn't this supported for real at the top? I honestly don't know. My suspicion is that on Steve's part it comes down to a few possibilities:

1. He doesn't know how; indeed doesn't really understand the problems, and they're just not the kind of thing that stick to the inside of his head. Nor is he curious about them.

2. They're not worth superintendent points or money.

3. None of his supe friends think these things are really important and it's not in the slideshows he goes to.

I mean you may have noticed that pretty much everything coming out of his office is a packet or a product you can get from somewhere else. I have not seen anything that might be called original coming from him. His job, it appears, is to find popular products, put on a suit, and look good presenting this as the next big thing in ed to a credulous board. Doesn't matter what the subject is -- teacher training, school bond pushing, school IT, security, you name it. Three generations back he'd have been at your door with an Electrolux.

I think he actually thinks some of these things are clever, too. I think he's more or less sold.

Anyway. I don't see that we'll have traction with a nothingburger, especially if it's what a board majority likes to hear. It could be there's more than that going on, but it does seem to me a parsimonious explanation.

amy said...

Oh. You asked "how to make it happen", not "why is it like this".

We really would need a different board and a different supe -- but this would be a supe who brought originality, and you bet that'd be trouble. I mean I think Steve has survived this long precisely because he isn't original. So you'd have to find ways of reckoning with the parents who really do get angry about the idea of "catering to" diversity of any kind. They're certainly out there.

My guess is that for things to go really well, you'd need a supe who got it and who picked one issue at a time for reform, was genial as hell, and engendered trust, loyalty, and affection through transparency, earnestness, and effectiveness. Special ed, fine. Sounds like a good place to start. That's not the sort of issue that gets a lot of non-SpEd parents involved unless you work at it, and once things are in place, you can do it with some relative ease. Example: the autism classroom and mainstreaming at Weber. Have there been parents who grumbled, yes. But when it's presented as part of the school culture, and any actual problems are attended to, you find general acceptance. And you may want to talk to Chris Gibson to find out how she managed that.

My guess also is that part of the issue has to do with where the lines are drawn between culture and mandates. "We are ICCSD, we do things this way" is culture; "you must attend this training session" is a mandate and lands you in the middle of contract stipulations. The more I think about it, though, the more I come back to the idea that you really need support and encouragement of cultural change at the top. If that's not there, you can make some easily-reversed marginal changes, or school-by-school changes, but I think that's probably where you stall out.

One thing might be, really, to survey the district on what's actually important to people. What are the values? What do they think ICCSD is and promotes, or ought to? And I don't mean one of those stupid CherryPicker(tm) surveys, I mean a real survey that pushes people to think a bit about what exactly they care about. And invite people to have meetings all over the district about these questions, to talk. Not just meetings at schools, but in neighborhood centers, and daycares, and Hy-Vee restaurants, and wherever people actually have time to gather, and make sure that people can participate remotely, too. It's a little dangerous, of course, to ask questions when you don't know the answers, but I think that might get us back to talking about what we're really interested in doing, when we send the kids to school.

amy said...

Oh. Mind, if you do that sort of thing with Steve etc. still in charge, all that happens is the lovely conversation gets boiled down and converted into a set of marketing clichés, Steve finds apposite products, and sells them to the board. Since the products deal only with the clichés, none of the stuff actually talked about in the conversations finds its way into use. So. I don't know how you guard against that when you've got people at the top bound and determined to do it.

Anonymous said...

This is kinda like... "Trust the process."

Yeah, right. The process is designed to lead to a particular outcome. I don't trust any process in this district. The system is carefully set up to yield an outcome desired by whoever's side is the board majority. This is how this superintendent obtains job security. Rather than being a stand up guy, looking out for the children, their parents and staff he caters everything he does to the controlling board majority.

Anonymous said...

In order to truly change their culture, the district must be willing to say, "We can and must do better". When addressing any problem, it seems that the district automatically defers to absolving themselves of guilt first and then delegating hard discussions to committees who can quietly suffocate the problems. No one ever seems to be at fault. When the seclusion enclosures were brought to light and the public became witness to their deplorable state, the district immediately jumped to simply say that no laws had been broken. Never once did they say, "We can and must do better". We are truly in trouble as a district if we simply use legality as a barometer of our commitment to social justice. Acknowledgment of the problem would have helped families heal and the board could have created real policy that would have prevented anything that that from happening again. We could have turned our Special Education Department into the best in the state! However, because no one wanted to admit that maybe something really terrible had happened (because really terrible things simply don't happen in this district - we're all good people, here), the problem remained alive as ever. Self-congratulation never solves a damned thing! I hope that bringing on some new board members will benefit ALL the children in our district. Not just the ones who are privileged.