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by Mike Schmoker
Table of Contents
As odd as it sounds, simple, well-known strategies and structures drive improvement in any organization (Pfeffer & Sutton, 2000). In education, this means that the general underperformance of schools can be directly attributed to a failure to implement three simple, well-known elements: a common curriculum, sound lessons, and authentic literacy. We love to talk about these elements. But we have never fully clarified them or obsessed over their implementation. And we haven't done enough to clarify the astonishing impact these three elements would have if they were even reasonably well implemented.
As Allan Odden writes, our failure to improve schools in the last few decades isn't because we lack funding or don't know how to improve schools. What we lack is the "will and persistence" to implement what we already know (Odden, 2009, p. 22). Or as Collins writes, the key to success is not innovation; it is "simplicity and diligence" applied with fierce devotion to our highest priorities (Collins, 2001b, p. 104).
Let's begin with a general description of what should be our highest priorities, which we will continue to clarify in Chapters 2 and 3 (and for the subject areas in Chapters 4 to 7). I will often use terms like "decent," "sound," and "reasonably good" when referring to these elements. This is to stress that they are so potent they do not need to be implemented perfectly or with any special skill. Their profound impact will come largely from all teachers applying them consistently and reasonably well. Then, as teachers continue to work in teams to practice and refine their implementation, even better results will ensue. We can count on this.
Here are the three elements that we should approach with "simplicity and diligence," until they are satisfactorily understood and implemented in every subject area.
It is worth emphasizing here that implementation of the above elements will benefit immeasurably when teachers work in teams—that is, in true "professional learning communities" where curriculum and lessons are continuously developed, tested, and refined on the basis of assessment results (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2006; Schmoker, 2006).
Believe this or don't: These three elements, if even reasonably well-executed, would have more impact than all other initiatives combined. In the great majority of our schools, they will do more than any other combination of efforts to ensure that record numbers of students learn and are prepared for college, careers, and citizenship. A content-rich curriculum, sound lessons, and authentic literacy would wholly redefine what public schools can accomplish with children of every socioeconomic stratum. Because of this, their satisfactory implementation should be our most urgent, jealously guarded priority—the ongoing focus of every team meeting, every professional development session, every faculty and central office meeting, every monitoring and reporting effort. Until these elements are reasonably well implemented, it makes little sense to adopt or learn new programs, technology, or any other innovations. To be fair, any innovation is fair game once these elements are implemented if— but only if—that innovation does not in any way dilute or distract us from these always-vulnerable priorities.
Does this sound too "simplistic"? Can such simplicity really be the elusive key to better schools? To get some perspective, let's step outside our own profession for a moment.
Consider a football team that loses about half of its games, year after year. (There is some autobiography here; I coached football for a short time.) Each week, the coaches scour the Internet to find new, complex plays and offensive schemes. This confuses the players, who never mastered the last set of plays. All the while, the coaches never fully note something very boring but important: the performance of their offensive line. If they paid attention to what every coach knows, they would notice that their offensive linemen have never sufficiently mastered the fundamentals of effective blocking, like footwork and body position. If even reasonably well executed, these fundamentals make a tremendous—literally, "game-changing"—difference. And so the solution to this team's mediocre performance is really very simple: The coaches need to stop confusing the team with new plays and start focusing strenuously on the most mundane, but hugely effective, blocking techniques until they are implemented successfully. The palpable results—measured in successful plays, first downs, points scored, and games won—would be immediate and dramatic.
Now imagine a hospital where infection rates are high. (This is a true story.) At this hospital, all doctors know the five basic procedures that inhibit infection. These procedures, according to one doctor, "are no-brainers; they have been known and taught for years." But alas, doctors don't consistently implement them, even as they continue to attend various trainings in complex, cutting-edge practices and procedures. In fact, the doctors (like the football coaches) aren't fully cognizant that these simple, well-known procedures are directly linked to results (i.e., mortality infection rates). The solution to this hospital's problem is simple, not complex: A checklist is generated, and its importance is made crystal clear to doctors. In addition, the faithful use of the checklist is monitored to ensure that all doctors implement it properly and consistently. The result? Infections immediately plummet from 11 percent to 0 percent! In two years, these stunningly simple procedures prevent eight deaths and save the hospital approximately $2 million in lawsuits. All this without any complex, high-tech, or cutting-edge solution (Henig, 2009).
If we educators can't see ourselves and our schools in these two examples, I fear for us. They are both analogous to our failure in schools, where the simple elements of common curriculum, effective lessons, and the most ordinary but authentic kinds of literacy practices are well known but almost never clarified, reinforced, or monitored. As a result, they are rarely implemented (Schmoker, 2006). And that, friends, is the simple reason we haven't made enormous strides toward better schooling in this age of reform.
Our failure to be clear and focused prevails even as we continue, year after year, to attend conferences, workshops, and book studies; adopt complex programs and initiatives; divide students into groups based on their respective "learning styles"; and "integrate technology" into our instruction—all while denying students a coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and meaningful opportunities to read and write.
As a matter of record,
Studies confirm that these conditions prevail in the overwhelming majority of our classrooms (Pianta, Belsky, Houts, & Morrison, 2007; Allington, Lezotte, Berliner, Rosenholtz, and others in Schmoker, 2006).
Clearly, the simple elements of effective schooling outlined here should be our highest priorities—implemented first, before we adopt any other initiative. Perhaps we should require a warning label like this one on all notices of upcoming workshops, trainings, conferences, or book studies:
WARNING: If you or your staff do not already implement a reasonably sound, common curriculum that covers an adequate amount of subject-area content; that is taught with the use of the most essential, well-known elements of effective lessons; and that includes ample amounts of meaningful reading and writing, then please don't sign up for this. This training will have no effect on learning in your classroom or school. Master the fundamentals first. Then, if you still need this workshop (and you might not), we look forward to seeing you. Have a nice day.
Priority is a function of simplicity, and it dictates that we only focus on a few things at a time—namely, on those elements that are most likely to help us achieve our goals. Our priorities are plainly out of whack. The following three books can help us further understand the importance of simplicity, clarity, and priority.
Jim Collins reveres simplicity; he uses the word countless times in his book Good to Great (2001a). Collins found that "the essence of profound insight" into organizational improvement "is simplicity" (2001a, p. 91). That's why, as many know, he reveres hedgehogs, which do one thing well (roll into a ball to protect themselves), as opposed to foxes, which plan and plot and scheme as they "pursue many ends at the same time." Foxes aren't simple; they are "scattered and diffused, moving on many levels" (p. 91). That's why they fail. By contrast, hedgehogs, with their simple, singular focus, succeed because they commit entirely and exclusively to "what is essential and ignore the rest" (Collins, 2001a, p. 91).
On some level, schools know "what is essential." But we don't clarify or reinforce our priorities as often or as passionately as we should. It is very hard for us to "ignore the rest," the endless bombardment of new programs or innovations that look so good but distract us from those few, powerful actions and structures that are the soul of good schooling.
There is an iron law at work here: We will never master or implement what is most important for kids if we continue to pursue multiple new initiatives before we implement our highest-priority strategies and structures. Collins had schools in mind when he wrote that effective social-sector organizations suffer from an addiction to doing many things instead of just a few. To succeed, he notes, we must "attain piercing clarity about how to produce the best long-term results, and then exercise the relentless discipline to say, ‘No thank you’ to opportunities that fail the hedgehog test" (2005, p. 17).
Simplicity, clarity, and priority are intimately linked. For an organization to maintain a focus on its highest priorities, it must simplify and repeatedly clarify them so that everyone in the organization knows implicitly what to do and what not to do.
But priorities are fragile and high-maintenance. Without frequent, repeated clarification, we start to drift from them. The priorities inevitably start to mean different things to different people. If priorities aren't incessantly simplified and clarified, they are always at the mercy of the next new thing, our natural forgetfulness, and a failure to protect the best (often old, already-known) practices from the encroachment of new, but less effective, practices or programs.
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton are the authors of The Knowing-Doing Gap. According to them, leaders resist simplicity; they are often irrationally enamored with novelty and complexity, which prevents them from focusing on and implementing their core priorities (2000, p. 33). The result is stagnation or decline. "Complexity," the authors warn, "interferes with turning knowledge into action" (p. 55). Unfortunately, many leaders have a natural prejudice against "old ideas and simple prescriptions"—even though, if implemented, these old, simple ideas are the key to better results (p. 53). Many leaders would rather launch new initiatives, regardless of their effectiveness. Why? Because it distracts them from the harder work of seeing to it that their highest, simplest priorities are implemented— "actually done" (p. 54).
In contrast, successful organizations aren't enamored with novelty, technology, or complexity; they know that "success depends largely on implementing what is already known" (p. 14, my emphasis). They know that "simple prescriptions" conveyed with "clarity and simplicity" are the hallmarks of effective action and leadership (p. 55). At the successful companies profiled in Pfeffer and Sutton's book, "implementation of simple knowledge" was the main driver of improvement (p. 15).
It is critical that schools learn the lesson that "best practice" in effective organizations is rarely new practice. On the contrary, the most effective actions are "well-known practices, with the extra dimension that they [are] reinforced and carried out reliably" (p. 14).
The implementation of coherent curriculum; effective lessons; and abundant amounts of purposeful reading, writing, and talking should be our highest priorities. Are they currently "reinforced and carried out reliably" in most schools? Not even close, according to every credible study going back to the 1970s (Schmoker, 2006). We would rather innovate than follow up to ensure that our priorities are implemented.
To ensure that our best practices and structures are truly and efficiently implemented, we must make constant, unwavering efforts to clarify, reinforce, and reward their implementation by teams and teachers. This brings us to the fascinating findings of Marcus Buckingham.
Marcus Buckingham's work is the perfect complement to The Knowing-Doing Gap. Buckingham reinforces the importance of simplicity—the principle that we accomplish more when we focus on less. In The One Thing You Need to Know, he reports that organizations must carefully determine their highest priorities, their focus— even if it is only "one thing." Having done so, organizations should then expend enormous amounts of organizational energy clarifying and simplifying those priorities—and resist any pursuit that could detract from them.
After analyzing survey data, Buckingham found that employees crave simplicity and clarity; they want to know precisely what they can do to be most effective—and then not be distracted from that. Their highest priorities—the "core"—must be clarified incessantly. "Clarity," writes Buckingham, "is the antidote to anxiety … if you do nothing else as a leader, be clear" (2005, p. 146). Commenting on his interviews with employees in multiple organizations, he writes that "everywhere, the wish was the same: ‘Get me to the core’" (p. 3). That is, relentlessly clarify and communicate to us what actions will make us most effective. Then, don't throw new initiatives at us that divert us from the core. Protect us, as Becky DuFour writes in her excellent review of Buckingham's book, from new initiatives that wash upon school employees "in waves" (2007, p. 69).
To protect the core, leaders must work diligently to "filter" what comes into the organization—the ceaseless assault of new programs and trainings that seduce employees away from the core—in our case, from actually monitoring and implementing sound curriculum, effective instruction, and authentic literacy. Effective organizations "sift through the clutter" (Buckingham, 2005, p. 188) and don't allow it to divert employees from their highest priorities. They "apply disproportionate pressure in a few selected areas." This "lopsided focus" fuels people's productivity, creativity, and morale (p. 26). Less is more.
Leaders must be seen as clarifiers, focusers, "keepers of the core" who incessantly "cut through the clutter … to distinguish between what is merely important and what is imperative … those few things you must never forget" (p. 26, my emphasis). But to ensure the implementation of our priorities, we must monitor that implementation. As Buckingham writes, "The old truisms tell us that ‘what gets measured gets managed’ and ‘you get what you inspect’ and they survive as truisms because they are manifestly true" (p. 176).
It's this simple: If we want better schools, we have to monitor the implementation of our highest priorities. Schoolchildren will continue to wait until we monitor and ensure that our priorities are being implemented.
Let's now look at how these simple truisms play out in some of the organizations Buckingham describes.
Carefully Protected Focus at Best Buy. Research revealed that the success of Best Buy's sales force hinged on one simple thing— the ability of salespeople to master and then confidently explain the different features of the products they sold. That's it. That is their number-one, carefully protected focus. Since making this discovery, they have said "no, thank you" to anything that might interfere with this priority. In an industry where new products are constantly flooding the market, Best Buy made a bold decision: They reduced their product line by 50 percent so that salespeople could fully master their core inventory. Best Buy knows that to preserve the core, it must discard an existing product every time it adds a new one. This is the secret to the company's soaring success (p. 155).
Apple Computer and One Thing. Similarly, Apple Computer has been invited to embark on numerous new initiatives and partnerships. But Steve Jobs has strenuously resisted heavy lobbying from those within and outside of the company and stayed true to one thing: "figuring out how to invent cool technology but making it wonderfully easy to use." Jobs is as proud, he said, "of the things we have not done as I am of the ones we have done" (p. 165).
Borax: Safety at the Core. To get an even closer glimpse of the practical actions that allow companies to stay true to their priorities, let's look at Buckingham's description of how Borax ensured that its core practices were, in Pfeffer and Sutton's (2000) words, incessantly "reinforced and carried out reliably" (p. 14). The Borax mine is north of Edwards Air Force Base in California. The company's in-house research revealed that its simple core was safety: If it could keep its employees safe from on-the-job accidents, then morale, efficiency, and profitability would take care of themselves. And they did—on every metric (Buckingham, 2005, pp. 167–174).
Borax knew that the key to protecting the core focus was communication. Leaders constantly reminded, trained, and told stories to make sure that people understood the outsize importance of safety procedures. At Borax, every meeting began with an anecdote about how injuries were averted by employees. Safety procedures and effective practices were clarified and demonstrated. Leaders displayed and celebrated measurable benchmarks, like the number of days without an accident, and progress toward monthly and annual accident-reduction goals. All of these actions helped employees see that their efforts to stay safe afforded them both financial security and good health. And profits soared commensurately.
Like the other companies in Buckingham's book, Borax succeeded because they reinforced their priority through constant clarification and communication, including what Buckingham regards as the single most powerful way to motivate productive action: recognition and celebration.
In schools, leaders should collect and share analogous data on how many classrooms consistently exhibit common curriculum, sound lessons, and authentic literacy. We should celebrate gains in any of these areas as we guide and advise teachers at faculty meetings. And we should celebrate gains made each grading period on common assessments that themselves reflect the level of implementation of these three areas. (For detailed procedures and rationale for such leadership practices, see Results Now, Chapters 9 and 10 [Schmoker, 2006]).
What can we expect when a single teacher or a whole school focuses only on its simplest priorities—its core? The following two brief cases should allow anyone to see the possibilities.
Some might remember a teacher I described in my book Results Now (Schmoker, 2006). His teaching consisted of the oldest, best-known curriculum and teaching practices, and was rich in authentic literacy practices. His only technology tool was an overhead projector. I observed him a few times during his first year at the lowest-achieving high school in our community. Watching him, I had an epiphany: All he did was actually teach a sound English curriculum, rich in reading and writing, using ordinary, structurally sound lessons (those which incorporate the same basic elements we've known for half a century). I will elaborate on these in later chapters, but in essence, he taught whole-class lessons focused on a clear learning objective in short instructional "chunks" or segments, punctuated by multiple cycles of guided practice and formative assessment ("checks for understanding"). And he did this every day. He was neither particularly charismatic nor theatrical. He was what any teacher or team can be, if liberated from the new programs and initiatives we force on teachers every year. Interestingly, none of his teaching in any way reflected any recent innovations or programs whatsoever.
The result? The success rate in his classes alone was so high that his entire school made the largest writing gains of any high school in the state (from 59 percent to 85 percent passing the high school exit exam). More startling still, his school outperformed the other two schools in the city, despite their overwhelming demographic advantages. His simple, effective teaching and curriculum obliterated the socioeconomic factor.
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to teach at a middle school where both curriculum and instructional priorities were made crystal clear. They were clarified in the interview process and reinforced at every faculty and department meeting. For those of us teaching English, priorities included the expectation that students would regularly write and revise two to three substantive papers per grading period. Moreover, priorities were reinforced and clarified at every faculty and department meeting. All professional development was internal, organized by department heads. No popular fads or programs or innovations were pursued or implemented.
Instructional leadership in the building was simple, and it strictly reinforced our priorities. Every faculty and department meeting reinforced the elements of effective teaching we had all learned. The principal monitored the implementation of the curriculum and the elements of effective instruction by conducting one or two brief classroom walkthroughs each month. She also met briefly with teachers quarterly to discuss end-of-quarter evidence of student performance (e.g., grade book data, the number of books read and papers written). If the data from these conferences or observations revealed a concern, the teachers would be asked to observe and meet with others in the school who taught the common curriculum effectively; the teachers were then expected to teach in the same fashion. If they preferred not to, they would not be back the following year.
As a result of this stunningly simple model of leadership, every teacher in that school actually taught the curriculum and actually provided
sound lessons, almost every day, in line with what we all know about effective instruction. Of course, some did these things better than others—but all did them. There was no test prep whatsoever, but test scores at this school were among the very highest in the state. Of even more importance, I would estimate that all students in that school read and wrote four to five times as much as students in typical schools. Every student was truly being prepared for college.
Simpler still: In the district where this school was situated, teacher advancement was based on demonstrated proficiency in all of the above. There were no annual initiatives or "strategic plans" to get in the way of our simple core: a year-to-year insistence on sound curriculum, sound instruction, and authentic literacy. The district made this model crystal clear to principals—and reinforced it accordingly.
That is simple, powerful leadership, and essentially similar to what we know about Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, known for its stunning success with professional learning communities. Even so, the similarities are striking. Stevenson began its celebrated journey with a focus on only two things:
Stevenson stayed focused on these things for five years, resisting any temptation to add or adopt new programs. All professional development during this period was internal—most of it occurring in the team meetings (which are the best form of staff development). In addition, leaders at Stevenson routinely recognized and celebrated measurable success and progress on common assessments at every meeting.
That is leadership.
A simple, emphatic insistence on common curriculum, sound lessons, and authentic literacy ought to be our common goal—the standard for our profession at the classroom, school, and district level.
Schools need to focus exclusively on these same, simple priorities for years—or until virtually every student can be assured of reasonably good curriculum and instruction in every course, every year, regardless of which teacher they are assigned.
For this to happen, we need to be sure that what we want from our schools is precisely what we communicate—simply, clearly, and persistently.
If, in this new century, we wish to prepare unprecedented numbers of students for college and careers, regardless of demographic factors, the ball is in our court: We simply need to be as obsessive about our "core" as Best Buy and Borax and the schools discussed in this chapter are about theirs. We need, as Jim Collins tells us, to define our priorities with "piercing clarity" and then say "no, thank you" to anything that would divert us from successfully implementing them.
In the next two chapters, I will clarify the fairly simple—and mostly traditional—conceptions of what I believe should be our highest priorities: the reasonably effective implementation of good curriculum, effective instruction, and authentic literacy. I hope that, once I describe what the conceptions are and the profound and immediate impact they will have, you will agree that it is foolish to pursue any other initiatives until these are satisfactorily implemented.
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