School Leaders: Solve Your Big Problems by Listening to These Three People
Editor’s Note: This article first published in 2017. But like the old adage states, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just so happens, this article is particularly relevant now.
There is a horrible secret in the world of education technology. School leaders don’t want to discuss it and EdTech companies won’t admit it. An Assistant Superintendent or VP of Sales might even hire a hit man because I’m revealing it.
OK, it’s not that serious, but it is a big problem.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but here you go: Most EdTech initiatives undertaken in K-12 public schools fail.
I don’t have hard data to back that statement up. After all, who wants to measure something no one is willing to talk about? I do have more than a decade of working with schools, talking to educators and reading the news to tell me it’s probably true.
From what I’ve observed, new initiatives either die in spectacular fashion, never getting off the ground in a meaningful way, or they linger on for a few years (maybe 2 years, but rarely more than 4) before finally succumbing to a slow and painful death.
Most are slow dying initiatives. The district selects a new product, rolls it out to students and teachers who stumble along for a few years, and they never see the expected results.
Usage is poor, teachers don’t look at data, a month is lost every year because the EdTech provider releases an update that conflicts with school computers… and the problems keep mounting. The district was hoping for a big impact and it just doesn’t happen.
These slow dying initiatives might help a few students here and there, but they often do more harm than good. They leave behind annoyed teachers, frustrated kids and administrators resigned to trying something new. The original problem hasn’t been solved, so they trudge forward to find a new solution, often repeating the same mistakes that led to the last failed initiative.
Fast dying initiatives are a little different.
They also leave behind annoyed teachers and frustrated kids. The big difference is administrators are not worrying about finding new solutions. They’re too busy scrambling to save their jobs and reputations. See this story from NPR for a good example.
I’m not out to place blame on schools or EdTech companies. In a previous post, I wrote about how schools and parents often blame the other party for low student achievement. I said the time for blaming is over, and we need to work together to find solutions. That applies to this problem as well. Schools and EdTech providers can solve the problem… if they work together.
Let’s define why it happens.
When schools buy a new technology product, whether it’s a hardware, software or subscription service (like an annual license to a curriculum product), they are trying to solve a problem. It could be high drop-out rates or 4th grade reading scores. They aren’t looking for a new product, they are looking to solve that problem.
When sales reps call on schools, they aren’t really selling a product or service. They are trying to convince the district to change the way they do something (hopefully, by using the rep’s products). Maybe they want the district to implement a web-based credit recovery program, or replace their old computer-based reading intervention for those 4th graders.
Schools want to solve a problem; Sales reps want the district to do something differently.
The issue isn’t that the two parties may have differing primary goals. The problem is that both parties want to move through the selection process either quickly or painlessly.
EdTech sales reps are almost always about speed. They want to elicit change in the district, book the order quickly, and move on to the next district. When asked, they will answer concerns like, “How are we going to fit this into our school’s schedule,” but they won’t be the one to bring it up. Raising issues will slow down the process… and that’s the last thing they want to do.
In rare instances, schools are also about speed. They may have a big problem they need fixed immediately, but more often they move slowly. That’s ok if they are being purposeful and deliberate, but usually it’s because they don’t want to expend a lot of effort. They just want to assign one or two people to the initiative, take a cursory look at one or two products, then half-heartedly roll out a solution and hope it works.
When speed or comfort is a primary motive for those involved, important steps in the process get skipped. That’s why implementations are failing.
So what can we do about it?
The tips in this post are for school administrators. That doesn’t mean EdTech companies are off the hook. We should also take a hard look at the support we are providing schools during all phases of an implementation, and not skip steps because we want to book an order quickly.
The US Department of Education is trying to help schools better evaluate new technology initiatives with their ‘Rapid Cycle Evaluations’ initiative. While they are focusing on the process, it’s just as important for you to look at the personnel making decisions in your district.
The individual or team identifying problems, and evaluating new solutions, must be comprised of members who have three core competencies. If even one of these competencies isn’t present, your implementations have a high chance for failure. You need a 'thinker,' a 'planner' and a 'doer.'
When approaching a problem, forget all about technology at the beginning. You aren’t evaluating new programs yet. Now, you’re building a team to solve a problem. Maybe EdTech is the best solution... and maybe it isn't. Focus on building a team first, then have the team worry about what you need to buy or do.
The three competencies you need on a problem-solving team:
This is a creative type who can study a problem and is willing to consider unconventional solutions. They are willing to dive deep, to truly understand the issue. Without a thinker on the team, you may end up with the 'same-old, same-old' solution you’ve been trying for years, or even worse, buy a product that doesn’t address the real problem. Sure, It might involve a new coat of paint (like a flashy new EdTech program), but it won’t address the fundamental flaws of the old methods.
This person is on the team to consider new approaches the other two core competencies may not consider. ‘Thinkers’ should be given a lot of leeway to make suggestions, even if the other team members think it’s a little crazy.
You can identify these people in your district by noticing those who:
- LOVE research. Not necessarily hard data, but they enjoy learning about innovative solutions other schools and districts are trying.
- Are willing to dive deep on a problem. They won’t accept the simple answers and want to truly understand why you haven’t been able to solve the problem yet.
- Like to suggest new ways of doing things. Others may think they are dreamers, and it could never work that way, but they are willing to try new things.
- Often ask “Why do we do it this way?” That question shows they are thinking about new ways to fix a problem
They think in concrete terms. You need a planner on the team to ensure you have a successful roll-out.
Again, we don’t know if that’s an EdTech solution or something else at this point. For now, the planner is used to evaluate suggestions and identify roadblocks to success.
You can identify ‘planners’ by noticing members of your staff who:
Make detailed lists
Must know all steps of a process before moving forward with anything.
May appear negative at times. Others may say they identify problems and don't see the potential for success.
Are the first to recognize a problem before it occurs. They may come to you with an issue no one else has foreseen.
May move slowly. They want to consider all possible outcomes before moving forward and starting to work.
That brings us to the third core competency:
These people get things done. You need a 'doer' on the team to keep the planners and thinkers moving in the right direction.
Without a doer, your team will get bogged down studying the problem, dreaming up new solutions, or planning until the potential roadblocks look so insurmountable, they decide it’s easier not to do anything. Doers in your district are people who:
Jump in and start working on any new project…even if they don’t have a clear picture of what you are trying to accomplish. They just want to get to work.
Want to power-through and complete tasks
Are happy to start work on a project without a detailed roadmap. Their goal is finishing, even if it’s not a perfect solution.
May move too quickly. They want a solution now, may not truly understand the problem, or might not have considered potential roadblocks.
What happens when you try to solve a problem without all three core competencies?
When you have a thinker and planner, but no doer: A solution never gets implemented. The thinker may study the issue and suggest great solutions, but the planner keeps finding reasons it won’t work.
- “It doesn’t fit into the school’s schedule.”
- “The teachers won’t be willing to do that.”
- “It would put too much strain on our budget.”
- “Our hardware might not run it.”
Notice, those problems can be solved, but the ‘planner’ may never see the solutions. If there is no doer on the team, the ‘planner’ keeps identifying problems and no action takes place. When that happens, you’re stuck with business as usual.
You need a ‘doer’ to push the team forward so something actually gets accomplished.
If your district is constantly studying problems and planning new initiatives, but never really changing anything, your teams are full of thinkers and planners. If that’s the case, find a ‘doer’ and turn them loose.
Then share this quote from General Patton with the rest of the team:
A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.
When you have a planner and doer, but no thinker, you:
May not truly understand the problem
May put a new skin on the same tired solutions that haven’t worked in the past.
One example of not truly understanding the problem:
12 years ago, I was a new sales rep for a company that had a full suite of K-12 EdTech solutions. From literacy programs for preschool students, up through high school credit recovery programs… and everything in between. In a meeting with a Superintendent, he said:
“My high schools need help. Our elementary and middles do great, well above the state average on all assessments. But when the kids get to high school, they are struggling to do the coursework. It’s causing a problem with our dropout rates. I want to do something for high school credit recovery, so those kids have another path to stay in school.”
If I had to guess, this Superintendent is a planner and doer, but he might not have thought about the problem deeply. He sees an issue, high school dropout rates, and jumps in to solve that problem quickly, by putting a credit recovery program in place.
The Superintendent would have been well served to ask a ‘thinker’ to participate in the process. That person might have said,
“Wait a minute. Our elementary and middles are ‘doing great?’ Then why are our kids so unprepared for high school? Sure, we need to implement a credit recovery program, but will that fix the underlying problem? Our state assessment data may look good in elementary and middle, but maybe we should also look at how we can better prepare kids there. If we can figure that out, they won’t even need credit recovery once they get to high school.”
The ‘thinker’ could have brought some fresh ideas to the table the Superintendent had not considered.
Doubling down on failed strategies:
The last two years, I've been calling on educators to discuss parent involvement. Here is a typical scenario I keep encountering... over and over and over.
The school is concerned about family engagement, specifically, parents who are not supporting their child's education at home. The principal knows it is important and wants to help.
She has tried to support her families by holding family math and family literacy night once or twice a year.
The principal has a big problem: no one shows up to her events. If she's lucky, she gets 10-20% parent participation. That's 50-100 parents in a 500-student school...and that's the top end. Many schools are seeing 5% or less.
The principal decides to solve the problem the only way she knows how: hold more events.
She starts hosting lunch and learns, morning breakfast meetings, and increases the frequency of evening events from once a semester, to once per month. She calls in the local media to cover her events and help get the word out.
After all her planning and doing, the results don’t change. Parents still refuse to show up. Her kids continue to go home to families struggling to support their education.
If I had to guess at the principal’s core competencies, she is a ‘planner’ and ‘doer,’ but not a great ‘thinker.’ That sounds bad when you say it out loud, but I don’t mean that she can’t think.
I mean she did a great job of recognizing a problem (poor parental support at home). She then planned all these new events and pulled them off flawlessly, demonstrating she can ‘do’ as well as ‘plan,’ but her solution wasn’t really any different than what she had tried in the past (in-person events no one would attend).
The principal didn’t really understand the underlying problem. Maybe her parents:
- don't want to attend events at school because they had bad experiences in the past.
- are busy working two jobs and just can’t find the time to attend any event, no matter how many are scheduled.
- have a cultural belief that education is solely the schools responsibility and they don’t need to provide support at home.
There are a lot more reasons that could be added to that list. A ‘thinker’ might conduct a parent survey to discover the real reason no one is attending. She may go out to the car rider line and ask some parents. She would dig deep to figure out why parents won't show up. But the principal didn't consult anyone, and she jumped into planning and doing mode.
One thing to watch for: People with differing core competencies may not work well together.
The principal might have some difficulty listening to a ‘thinker.' When presented with an innovative solution, our 'planner' principal might only see potential problems. She would need to fight that impulse and make sure the ‘doer’ part of her personality didn’t take a back seat.
But if she was willing to open up her team and pull in a thinker, she may hear suggested solutions she hasn’t considered.
The ‘thinker’ might remember reading this study about a parent engagement text messaging program in San Francisco. Or this one that showed parent home support increased when families were sent short, actionable emails once a week. Those solutions helped families provide better support at home, and neither one required parents to attend an event at school.
The thinker might even say, “I’ve heard of this devilishly handsome guy in Kentucky who has a program that might help. Let’s take look at that.” She might not use those exact words, but I imagine that’s how the conversation would go down.
The most dangerous combination is when you have a thinker and doer on the team, but no planner.
This leads to fast dying initiatives that end up on the front page of your local newspaper. They are expensive boondoggles that harm careers.
That might explain what happened with the failed iPad initiative in LAUSD. Someone had a great idea for a one-to-one device initiative, and they jumped immediately into ‘doing’ mode.
If you read the article, you will notice there was a ‘planner’ at the table who identified potential problems, but it seems like he was marginalized during the decision-making process.
Jaime Aquino, the district's former head of curriculum, expressed reservations about the cost, infrastructure readiness and timing of the iPad/Pearson plan.
When creating your teams, make sure each core competency has a voice. It won’t do you any good if the strongest personality gets to make all the decisions.
In the LAUSD example, it sounds like the Superintendent (our thinker and doer), dismissed the concerns of his ‘planner.’
I'm not going to be interested in looking at third-graders and saying, 'Sorry, this is the year you don't learn to read,' or to juniors and saying, 'You don't get to graduate.' So the pace needs to be quick, and we make no apologies for that.
Pull it all together so you can make good decisions:
Share the ‘thinker, planner, doer’ theory with your people and ask them to self-evaluate. What are they good at? What don’t they do well? Compare their rankings to what you know about the person.
Once you have an idea where your people stand, pick a problem you’ve had in the district for a while, select your team members and ask them to analyze it. Ensure all three core competencies are represented.
Ask the ‘thinker’ team member (or committee) to analyze the problem and identify a few potential solutions. Encourage them to dig deep and truly understand what’s causing the problem, then dream big and come up with innovative solutions.
Have your ‘planners’ evaluate all suggestions coming from the ‘thinkers.’ Tell them not to be dismissive of any solution. You just want a report on potential problems you may encounter.
Planners also need to start thinking about the steps it would take to have a successful implementation. They can start thinking about tech specs, training, scheduling, data analysis and overseeing usage. At the very least, they will want to compile a list of questions for the companies you may be considering.
Ask your ‘doers’ to coordinate and oversee the project. Have them put deadlines to the other team members (i.e. "Put together a list of three potential solutions. We need it by the first of next month”). They also need to make sure the other team members don't get bogged down. Watch for the 'planners' to fall into 'that will never work' mode. Their strong opinions can derail a project.
Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses.
In my experience, senior district leadership are almost always ‘doers.’ There’s a reason you rose to your current position. You get things done.
But you may or may not be a ‘thinker’ or ‘planner.’ Maybe you couldn’t come up with an innovative solution to a problem if your life depended on it. That’s OK, as long as you recognize it.
Maybe you can study a problem deeply, and come up with innovative solutions, but realize you need to delegate the ‘planning’ work to others. That’s OK too, if you delegate to someone who is a strong ‘planner.’ But it can be a big problem if you delegate to another ‘doer.’ When that happens, no one is watching out for potential problems.
Give equal voice to thinkers, planners and doers. It will improve your chances for success… and NPR won't have to conduct an autopsy on your decisions.
About the author
Joe Deaton is founder and President of Bluegrass Learning. He is a 'thinker' and 'doer' who get's planning help from the 'Negative Nancy's' on his team, who love to throw the cold water of reality on his brilliant ideas.
Published by permission of Bluegrass Learning, helping schools nationwide engage parents in a way that fosters learning at home.