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Work The Problem
This post originally appeared on Education Week’s Rick Hess Straight Up blog.
When Secretary Margaret Spellings faced a particularly tricky issue that had competing and complicated concerns, she would say "work the problem." It's in the same vein of advice as Rick's discussion in Cage-Busting Leadership about how excuses love ambiguity, and why precision is helpful for problem solving. When a problem is vague or too big to define precisely, it is simply difficult to bust through the cage. I offer the following example of "working the problem" from my time at the US Department of Education, and some lessons I learned in the process.
From my earliest days at ED after the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we started getting questions from state assessment directors, advocates, parents, and teachers about how best to include students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in state assessment systems. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) had already established that all students with disabilities needed to be included in assessment systems, but it took NCLB's metrics and sanctions to start to drive changes and move towards a fair and useful system for all students.
NCLB required that all students had to be tested based on the same content and assessment standards. That was a good place to start, but there was a group of students with disabilities that needed a more tailored solution. These students, who may have limited abilities around verbal and cognitive processing, vision and hearing, or other motor capabilities, sometimes have full-time aides and ongoing medical needs. Participating in the general assessment without accommodations would have been a fruitless endeavor. An easy resolution would have been for Secretary Rod Paige to eliminate or overlook the law's requirement for those students - that would have silenced some critics and reduced the workload for many state assessment directors, teachers, and other educators. But he and other leaders around him knew that students deserved more from their schools and, the easy solution wasn't the best solution.
Initially these students were, described in the vaguest of terms - the "gray area students" or "gap kids." We needed precision and more information. Finding a solution was a long process (almost two years) so I won't cover every detail, but here are a few highlights from the process.
First, we worked with states leaders to collect data about how many and which students were most affected. We held multiple meetings with advocacy and parent organizations for students with disabilities to understand their concerns and aspirations, and talked with testing experts about how to design assessments that were meaningful. Given that the federal government has limited tools at its disposal for problem solving, the solution involved (ultimately) issuing two sets of regulations. The first set, called the "1% regulations," in reference to the student population affected, allowed states to design assessments that were better able to capture what students were learning in reading and mathematics.
When we released the "1% regulations," we were inspired as we listened to parents and students talk about what the opportunity meant for them. Over time, new regulations were designed that expanded the number of students and increased assessment options to include even more students with disabilities. But creating the regulations was the easy part. The real tough work falls on state leaders, teachers, parents, and students, who have to make this system work well. Over time, teachers began using these assessments to set higher instructional expectations and started seeing learning improve in new ways. In some instances that work has gone well, but not always. But today, more students are included in an important component of school than otherwise would have been.
Now, Rick may forever ban me from guest blogging because I have offered regulations as an example of cage-busting leadership. Sorry Rick. As you've noted, the federal government has limited tools at its disposal! But here are my takeaways for leaders in any circumstance:
- An initial step to solving a problem is to understand it more precisely. Particularly, leaders should have a good idea of exactly who the problem affects.
- The leader needs to be bold and courageous enough to use their understanding and find the right solution, not simply the easiest solution.
- The leader also benefits from involving people in developing the solution.
As I described in Monday's post, leaders who engage stakeholders in the planning process will reap the benefits in implementation. In this case, soliciting feedback in the design phase meant those who helped develop the solution were the same people who helped implement it.
We are also incorporating these lessons in our current work at the Bush Institute. We want to see high school graduation rates improve and more students prepared for success upon completion. We also want to ensure that our students are competitively globally and that schools are held accountable for results. In examining the data, one clear problem we found was that the middle school experience doesn't always prepare students well for the rigors and independence of high school. To that end, our Middle School Matters initiative is helping schools use research to implement best practices, and is building a coalition of interested groups to consider the research and policy issues.
Another example of "working the problem" emerged through our Alliance to Reform Education Leadership work. We were meeting with a network of principal preparation programs and heard from program leaders about state policies that were creating barriers to their success. My favorite example was discovering a state policy that required any alternate certification provider to have at least ten candidates in the cohort to be a recognized program. The result? The principal preparation program in our network had to scramble to find one more candidate to achieve state recognition. The policy paper we recently released (Operating in the Dark) informs policymakers and practitioners about other barriers and opportunities in state policy that impact the supply of effective school principals.
To achieve real results, we'll definitely have to use all the other pieces of advice offered in Cage-Busting Leadership. Working the problem can help leaders understand where the bars of those cages exist.
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