Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Courage To Act

I'm glad to see the minutes of the Hillsboro School District Curriculum Committee are now being published. But, as often happens with such things, I think some of the most interesting sub-discussions were not captured, though the details in the minutes are perfectly accurate.

Thinking about the items that led to extended discussion at the meeting, I'm struck by a common theme that seemed to run through a few:
  • One of the main duties of the committee is to review in advance any course proposal from an individual school, after review by another layer of internal committees, to ensure that new courses offered can be immediately implemented implemented district-wide.
  • There is a need for new texts that implement the common core standards, which will be tested on starting this spring-- but no compliant textbooks have been identified and adopted.
  • Many nearby districts have systems that allow parents to view their children's grades online-- but Hillsboro has been delayed for over a year in implementing such a system, with promises that it will come as part of a major upcoming IT overhaul.
It looks to me like in each of these cases, we may be suffering due to the district being of cumbersome size (it is the 4th largest in Oregon), and too many decisions being controlled from the top level. When a decision must be made for the entire district, it's only natural that there is lots of extra review and fear to avoid the possibility of doing it wrong. This is a common problem in industry as well-- large organizations create an inherent fear of failure in every action, and tend to inhibit the courage needed to proceed with good ideas.

But in the corporate world, many good solutions have been identified for this problem: look, for example, at the “Lean” philosophy being used by many large organizations.   One of the key teachings there is to try new ideas on a small scale, and then spread the learning wider when successful. So, for example, to address the issues discussed above, why can't we do the following?:
  • When a new course is proposed, allow an individual school to implement it for one year on a trial basis upon approval by the local dept head & principal. Use the experience and results to decide whether to make it an ongoing offering and spread throughout the district.
  • Allow individual schools to provisionally adopt a textbook for a small set of classes, working with the textbook company to provide a small set of its books at low cost on a trial basis.
  • Allow individual schools to use secure open-source networking solutions (or low-cost secure messaging software) to implement grade-sharing systems at the individual level.

Does every educational activity in the district really need to be approved through the central administration? Or could HSD become more nimble and successful by viewing itself as a collection of individual schools, and providing more freedom to each one to try new ideas?

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