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Our Flavor of Education Reform

I just got home from EduCon and my head is swimming with ideas.  However, on the drive home, I saw a response to a tweet about scaling education reform and it really got me thinking.  So much Ed Reform is structural, policy oriented and “designed to scale.”  I get all of that.  It makes sense when you are trying to have an impact on any large system, least of all one as enormous and decentralized as education.  However, I find it frustrating because, for many of us, when we think more deeply about education, we experience a serious dissonance with almost any systematic strategy. I believe that education is more personal and cultural than systematic.

As I am shaping this blog post in my head, it is becoming more of a “This I believe” post.  If you will indulge me, allow me to give some background.  Eventually I will get to the project I have been working on for six years to help reform education in our own little way.

I grew up in education.  My mom is an educator, my dad was an educator.  Three of their four children studied education.  It’s in the air I breathe.  I was taught to explore and learned to appreciate failure as much as I enjoy success.  Thus, risk is abnormally comfortable to me.

I like to try different things.  I was an early adopter to one-to-one laptop programs (1999), online courses (2000), Linux and Open Source (2005).  When I see something that might work, I just do it.  I let my passions guide me, do what I think might be right and just figure it out as I go along.

I’ve picked up a few good tips along the way.  One is to surround yourself with other passionate people willing to participate.  It’s easier when you share the risk and have friends to support you when you hit the many hiccups.  The other is to communicate.  People won’t get it if you don’t share it.  Also, if you don’t share it, you don’t get the valuable benefit of their response.  I will admit, our current project was so large, at times I just put my nose to the grind and just worked.  I forgot to share.  Thus, our new website has this blog to remedy that.

Over the last 20 years, I have explored all sorts of education reforms, such as voucher programs, charter schools, virtual schools, aftercare programs, work-study programs and more. I have taught in large urban schools, Catholic schools, and both small and large Independent schools.  I have taught grades 6-12 (except 8th…just never had occasion to do so).  I currently manage the technology and libraries and a K-12 school.

I believe good education comes down to culture.  I really do.

I have seen schools with all the resources in the world and if they have a bad culture for learning, learning falls shy of potential.  However, I have seen all sorts of schools, small and large, urban and rural, public and private that have great culture and exceed the imagined potential of their students.  Some examples are Science Leadership Academy, Van Meter Community Schools and Whitfield School.

I also believe teachers are a culture of their own.

Think about it.  As a class, we are more educated than average white-collar professionals.  Many of us have opportunities to work in higher paying professions.  Almost all of us work longer hours than is expected.  We do all of this for average to below average pay.  Either we’re crazy or there is something wonderful about us.  I prefer the latter, but I’m a little biased.

Based on my beliefs, I called a few friends who worked at other schools and we tried something special.  We put together a team and six of us worked together to provide the services that one consultant would typically have done.  We did this for several reasons. First, we enjoyed working and connecting with other schools.  We also believed that current educators connect better and provide more relevance to schools than those who haven’t been in a classroom for 5 or more years.  We thought that 6 minds were better than one and, quite frankly, all of us loved our current jobs too much to leave and so it took 6 of us to do the job of one full-time consultant because we were busy with our own schools.  Thus, we created Educational Collaborators.

Our little experiment worked and, over 5 years later, we have about 80 educators in our network, we’ve worked with over 100 schools, over 600 schools have taken our Free One-to-One/BYOD Readiness Assessment and we continue to grow.

That’s not the special part, though.  I believe that what makes Educational Collaborators feel like Education Reform is the way we approach problems.  We include time to listen, learn and help schools shape an identity of who they are and what they want into every engagement, even a one-day workshop.  We want to know the values of your culture and then fit that culture to help schools grow in a way that matches their culture.

One time, we were bidding for a long-range Professional Development Contract with a school district in Illinois.  When it came our turn to present, the district asked what sessions we would offer. I said, “I don’t know, I don’t know you well enough yet.”  They seemed a little surprised by my response.

“Aren’t you the expert?” they retorted.

“Well, I have a lot of experience but I’m not a mind reader!  We haven’t established precisely what you are looking for nor have we established where your teachers are and what they need relative to your goals.  I can tell you the kinds of session we could do and I can tell you how we can find out what sessions we should do but, no, at this time, I cannot answer your question.”

Yes, I was being little cheeky but I wanted to underscore what we are not.  We are not a canned “solution” that you pull off the shelf and magically have great educational technology.  We are a team of educators, just like our clients, and we work hard alongside our clients to help them build sustainable systems of innovation that make sense for their school.  That’s going to look different for every school…even if you had the same team of Collaborators.  That’s what makes it sticky and that’s what makes it reform.

I’m proud of the amazing people I work with at Educational Collaborators and I’m proud of the work our client schools do and I am proud of the improvements I see them make.

I believe in the power of culture.  I believe that our teachers and administrators know their students and really want them to grow.  I believe we tap that power to create sustainable good and meaningful reform.  This makes me smile.

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2 Responses

Great post, Alex.

“…for many of us, when we think more deeply about education, we experience a serious dissonance with almost any systematic strategy. I believe that education is more personal and cultural than systematic.”

I have been thinking about the idea of templatizing a scalable method for technology integration in school systems for a long time now. Wouldn’t it be convenient and efficient if one of us could come up with a cookie cutter solution for technology integration in education?

The more I think about it and the more experience I gain in the field, the more implausible a systematic solution seems. To my experience, every school has its own unique culture and a unique set of variables that require a unique, carefully thought out customized solution.

In light of this, I can imagine that it would be a great comfort to any school administrator who is implementing an integrated technology program for the first time to know that he/she has the ongoing support of a senior education consultant who has been down a similar road before.

Thanks for your tireless work, Alex Inman. You are making a big difference in the lives of so many…and that makes *me* smile. :)

What a kind post, Melissa! I just came from CoSN where districts work on scale within their district and I think this is certainly more plausible than a cookie cutter solution because the district is working from the same mission and a more common set of values. I believe we have a lot to learn from one another, but that’s the point. We have so much to learn from one another. The notion of so many reforms is that they are “applied” to a target school. It is one way reform. The lack of dialogue is a major factor in the likely failure of scalable reform.

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