The best education change agent: deadlines

I happened on a small story in the Times on Sunday, called ?Deadlines Get Results,? which immediately drew me in, not because deadlines are the bane of a writer's life, which they are, but because the most frustrating part of education governance is the system's resistance to getting things done, including changing.

In fact, the headline over the online version of this story is, appropriately, ?Making Change Happen, on a Deadline.? It is not some kind of generic affection for the status quo that causes entropy.? Not getting things done seems to be an affliction in the very bones of the thing. The drinking fountain that has been broken for two years.? The doors that stay locked despite pleas to open them.? The pothole at the school driveway entry that has been unfilled for more than a year?. The curriculum that remains unwritten?. The test scores that defy change?.? It is true: if you can't fix the little things, your chances of resolving the big problems are slim.

This is not a new subject in education.? See Charles Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools or Rick Hess's The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas.

But Tina Rosenberg's Times story is instructive because it is not about schools or education; it is about construction projects in underdeveloped Africa.? Could have fooled me. This line from the story sure sounded like American education:

People drag their feet. Budget approval takes forever. The bricks are stolen. The project is abandoned by new leadership. Every villager fumes: nothing gets done around here.

Rosenberg calls attention to one Nadim Matta, a management consultant and president of the Rapid Results Institute in Stamford, CT, who she says,

...likes to say that what's missing to turn poor places into rich places isn't more information, money or technology; it's motivation and confidence.

By coincidence, two days before reading this I was sitting with New Jersey's Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf, who was discussing his plans for transforming Garden State education.? ?Exhortation is not enough,? said Cerf.? ?You have to make demands.?

And demands come with deadlines.? In the case of Rapid Results, according to Rosenberg,

A trained facilitator sits down with people in a business, organization or village to decide on what to do.? They vote.? Now, if we had some money from the government or the World Bank ? say, $5,000 or perhaps $30,000 ? how could we spend it to accomplish that goal in just 100 days?? The village chooses its goal and how to get it done. The facilitator only talks about what other villages have accomplished in 100 days.

By further coincidence, I had dropped a minor bomb on our curriculum director's desk a couple of weeks ago by suggesting that we get a K-6 curriculum done for the four core subjects by the end of the year. ?I might as well have said 100 days.

?The 100 days may seem ridiculous at first,? writes Rosenberg.? ?Groups that turn to Rapid Results have usually had the repeated experience of nothing happening in three years.? ?(In my case, I had been pushing for a curriculum in the core subjects for ten years!)? The secret here is moving the project out of the realm of ?business as usual.?? In Chris Cerf's terms (watch for my Interview with Cerf in Education Next), it is about ?dismantling? the old system and creating a new one.

?The deadline,? writes Rosenberg, ?makes people do whatever it takes to meet it.?

Which reminds me of another tale from the trenches of education reform.? Several years ago, I noticed children playing on a wood pile behind one of our schools. It was construction debris and, of course, was sprinkled with rusty nails.? I marched into the principal's office ? I was on the school board! ? and told him the pile had to go.? The principal, on his way to retirement, was then feuding with the superintendent and so said, ?It's not my problem. Talk to the Super.?? My email to said super went something like this?. ?If the pile isn't gone tomorrow, it will be in your driveway the day after tomorrow.?

Presto! The pile disappeared.? I doubt that method is in the Rapid Results playbook, but the moral is the same.? Exhortation is not always enough; deadlines help.

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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