A few years down the track of Communities of Learning, many of us have certainly done some learning, and often it has been done the hard way; by our mistakes. That is not an efficient way to learn but is sometimes inevitable when there is no clear and proven design to adhere to, and when the context of each Kāhui Ako is so different. So, what are some of the problems that have occurred and what (in my opinion) are some of the ‘solutions’?
Much that is problematic can be laid at the feet of original design elements that were out of the control of the schools themselves. By this I refer to two key problems: the first was the (then) Minister’s direction that achievement challenges had to allude to multiple academic challenges. This resulted in early documents being very broad in nature. This lack of clarity in initial thinking about ‘the priority problem to solve’ has led to many of the early Kāhui Ako having very complex improvement plans with multiple strands. As a result, many have found themselves in ‘activity traps’ where there is a lot happening (e.g., meetings; numerous committees; a lot of professional development activities), but little focus on student outcomes.
It did not take Kāhui Ako long to realise that they had ‘jumped through the hoop’ of getting approved but that their achievement challenge was never going to be achievable as it stood, and that they had to hone their implementation plans back to a few, clear priorities. Bravo! ‘Improvement 101’, whether it is at the school or Kāhui Ako level, requires that you prioritise by narrowing your focus.
The second problem I refer to can be laid at the feet of the original staffing design. The cross-school lead positions were set up to develop new leadership in schools but as a result, many people in current leadership positions were excluded (e.g., deputies) from involvement in the Kāhui Ako plans. These new positions are frequently better paid than permanent senior leadership positions. In many cases, this has caused a disconnect between traditional in-school leadership roles and the new cross-school roles. As a result, a lack of trust is sometimes evident between these key leadership personnel. Yet, school and community improvement are the business of all leaders and without trust, little improvement is likely (Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010).
Educational leadership is a team game and real communities of learning do not exist until the work is being done at the grass root level; i.e., by the traditional school leaders and the teachers. This problem can be overcome by ensuring that cross-school and traditional leadership positions are brought together regularly. They need to work as a team. So, whether it is by having a steering group for the implementation plan that includes traditional senior leaders along with cross-school leaders, or by regular meetings of cross-school and traditional school leaders, this disconnect in the leadership models of individual schools and the Kāhui Ako must be addressed. There will not be improvement at the Kāhui Ako level unless traditional school leaders are part of the solution.
A third and in my view, the most important ‘trap for beginners’, is thinking that student outcomes are something that will improve ‘in a few years’ time’ because of what you are doing now. This is the perennial improvement problem of our schooling system; a lack of self-efficacy that short-term results in student outcomes can be gained and the unwarranted belief that something will improve ‘down the track’. Given the complexity of working with multiple schools and organisations, it is natural in the first instance that there may be a period of working on teacher and leader outcomes, to create a common language and understanding of what changes are needed to get shifts in student outcomes.
Ultimately, however, this work in Kāhui Ako is about student outcomes and they cannot wait. Our results in New Zealand have been on a downward slide for some time (as attested by international assessments such as PISA and PIRLS). This will not be halted by blaming poverty, parents or governments. It will only be halted by a more rigorous and scientific approach to leading improvement. Central to that approach is having some short-term learner-centred outcomes at the heart of your annual implementation plans that are regularly checked. These results provide reassurance of your effectiveness or provide an early alert to your ineffectiveness, thus providing a chance for you to re-examine what you are doing or how you are doing the improvement work (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015).
If you want to hear more about ‘making music from the mess’ (i.e., get clarity and focus), come along to our free breakfast for Kāhui Ako leaders and principals in Auckland: Details below. Restricted to 35 people. To register click here.
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Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A., & LeMahieu, P. G. (2015). Learning to improve: How America's schools can get better at getting better. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.
Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.