Red Herrings

“Continuous improvement” has been a “thing” for much longer than it has been a “thing.” Leaders and workers, including school leaders and teachers, have spent generations trying to make the systems they use for economic, political, and cultural purposes more efficient and more effective. Today, I spend time with school leaders who act as if they are the first to recognize that we should count our success against what we did previously. Actions that lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness should be continued and become the basis for further improvements. Those actions that decrease efficiency or effectiveness should be abandoned or steps taken to change them so they are improvements.

This is a version of leadership that we should encourage. We expect leaders to improve their organizations.

The unfortunate reality is that many leaders are distracted from necessary improvements by things that are sometimes called red herrings. Red herrings exist where a leader focuses on relevant aspects of the task at hand. The result is that leaders spend resources directing members of the organization to spend resources performing actions that will have no effect on the desired outcomes.

We see theses every day in education.

I recently observed a meeting at which a new curriculum director was introducing a new curriculum mapping initiative. The teachers at the meeting spent 30 minutes taking about the templates they were directed to use. They were trying to decide how these differed from those completed under the leadership of the previous curriculum coordinator. The teachers questioned why they needed to add the same information on multiple documents. They tried to decide where on the forms they were supposed to add the outcomes they had spent so much time and energy defining two years earlier. They saw the new maps as being reshuffling of what already existed, and they were to add new aspects of their curriculum that we ill-defined.

Now, I understand the purpose of curriculum documents. I have written many over 30 years. I have led initiatives to redefine them. I have used some that were helpful… manny more that were not helpful. The one thing I concluded without question in this case was the curriculum templates were a red herring.

Teaching is about relationships between students and teachers. It is also about the experiences teachers plan and students’ participation in the planned experiences. While curriculum documents are a part of those plans, they can often be red herrings.  The teachers I observed expressed a real need to think about their students. (One class they were teaching happens to be “one of those classes” in which a disproportional numbers of students have academic, social, and other issues that drain the energy of their teachers. Please understand I ham not complaining about those classes.) I could tell the teacher desperately wanted to brainstorm improvements they could make to their classrooms, schedules, and lessons so the students could be more successful.

When I asked the curriculum coordinator about what I observed, he maintained with great authority, “once we document the curriculum, the ways we can help our needy students will become clear.”

In my mind, I responded, “No. No it will not.”