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Challenging Mental Models to Move Districts from “Good” to “Great”

Challenging Mental Models to Move Districts from “Good” to “Great”

A former superintendent shares his model for creating a school environment that serves all students.

By Greg Firn

Stepping back from of my current role as chief operating officer at RoboKind LLC to my former career as a superintendent of schools with 35 years in public education, I’d like to offer a few thoughts and insights pertaining to access, compliance, and equity.

Full disclosure: I do have an ulterior motive. Underpinning my thoughts and insights is a call to action. It is time for those who are leaders and those who aspire to lead to step up and embrace what is right, true, and good for each learner.

Moving from pithy and often trite statements to practical action requires more than words. It requires a fundamental shift in our thinking before any shifts in behavior. The problem is that we seldom challenge or question our thinking.

The power of mental models—those pictures and processes we carry around with us that help us make sense of things—can sometimes work against us. When Jim Collins in his salient work Good to Great posited that the “enemy of good is great,” conscientious educators considered the implications for their classrooms, schools, and school systems. Yet, how many took the action necessary to create and sustain “great” schools? I think several did, but why not all? Moreover, how much of the envisioned change really happened? Sadly, very little. Why?  

It wasn’t money or resources. It wasn’t policymakers or leadership. It wasn’t the teachers. Not to oversimplify, it was and continues to be the mental models that reside below the surface.

The Shift Begins with Mental Models

Until we challenge our mental models, we will again look back at the calls for innovation and see only isolated pockets of success, not improvement at scale. Unpacking and confronting these mental models is neither simple nor easy. They are deep-rooted and, in most cases, have become institutionalized. Though many have been proven false or antiquated, they have become so normalized in our thinking and practice that any attempt to expose them, let alone change them, engenders resistance and conflict.

So what?

Change is hard. Transformation is harder! It can, however, be realized. Integrity, character, and bluntly, spinal anatomy are the first steps to creating and sustaining authentic change. The core of your values about teaching and learning will be challenged. Your convictions about the worth, potential, and significance of each learner will be tested! Many, if not most, challenges are camouflage for the prevailing mental model that underpin the practices and programs that most need to be reformed.   

When I was a superintendent, I served in a rural, poor, minority-majority county school system that at the time was one of the lowest-performing school systems in the state. I asked our organization how many of us wanted each of our learners to be successful. The answer was a resounding and unanimous yes. I then asked, “How many of you believe that each learner can and will be successful?” Their silence was deafening.

Our organization knew that the “right” response was wanting all learners to be successful, but when it came to actually believing they could, all sorts of mental models presented reasons why they couldn’t: poverty, home environment, lack of motivation, the bell curve, to name just four. We spent several months painfully unpacking these and more, culminating in a community-wide “reset” of our mission to “All means all.” We focused on one question: “If we were accused of being organization where ‘all means all,’ what evidence would our students, staff, learner guardians, business, faith, and civic community present to convict us of such a crime?” We needed to transform the what and the how of our thinking before taking steps to address our actions and behaviors.

The Dartboard Model of Educational Change

To ensure a level of ownership without pointing fingers, we began group and community conversations about our dissatisfaction with current or past performance. Taking care not to make it personal, we began the arduous task of determining which of these dissatisfactions was within our control and which was not. Interestingly enough, most of the frustration was with decisions and conditions over which we had little or no control, such as state-level mandates for testing and accountability or the fact that many of our students lived in poverty.

Once we identified our dissatisfaction, we moved to identifying our vision of what could, should, and would be. Creating a vision is not that difficult when you know what isn’t working. The challenge is when you associate the vision with values. What are the values—or, in this context, the mental models—that frame the vision?  

Picture a dartboard with a bull’s-eye in the center with inner and outer rings.  Most change initiatives focus on the outer rings of an organization: structures such as instructional day, bell schedules, and grade configurations. These are important, but at the end of the day really don’t drive enduring change to a school or school system.

The next layer I call “practices and processes.” These include instructional practices such as project-based learning, differentiated instruction, or learning by design. The rings closest to the bull’s-eye are the professional and corporate beliefs and values of our organization. Without fleshing out these institutional beliefs, a shift in practices and processes will be superficial at best.

The really, really hard work of creating and actualizing a vision is making it resonate with others’ personal values and beliefs so that they have a level of ownership and personal commitment that empowers them to address structures, practices, and programs that have not met their expectations.

From Compliance to Commitment

With deference to the publisher of this magazine, “compliance” is not the concept I would choose as a school leader. If I were king for a day, I would replace the word “compliance” with “commitment.” Compliance is externally imposed and doesn’t engender ownership, whereas commitment requires a decision and therefore a deeper level of personal responsibility to meet or exceed. Commitment is empowering and suggests a “do whatever it takes” attitude whereas compliance is conforming to a minimum standard.

Returning to Collins, let me posit three constraints that undermine authentic discussions and necessary actions regarding compliance, access, and equity.  They are:

  1. Compliance is the enemy of commitment;   
  2. Opportunity is the enemy of access; and
  3. Equality is the enemy of equity.

The best example I can think of with respect to how adversarial compliance is to commitment is from the military. There is an expectation that when an order is given, it will be fulfilled. However, the success of an order requires in large part a sense of ownership of the order by the subordinate. When the order is “owned” or “internalized,” it becomes theirs not, someone else’s. The order then becomes personal and therefore much more likely to be carried out with fidelity.

We need commitment, not just compliance, to the work we must do to ensure that all learners have the highest standard of teaching and learning.

Opportunity has become the enemy of access. Absent intentionality, defined purpose, or structured planning, opportunity is by chance or coincidence. Access requires opportunity. Yet, if opportunities are not clearly defined, then access is akin to emperor with no clothes. It’s not real.

We have long confused equity with equality. The bane of our existence is sameness. We have a storied and arguably controversial past of fighting for and recognizing equal rights, equal standing, etc. Yet, we have failed to understand, appreciate, or take the necessary steps to build the requisite capacities to ensure access, opportunity, compliance, and commitment work in concert, not in conflict with one another.  

Equality works against equity in the sense that there are situations and circumstances that warrant, different resources, different strategies, and different timelines. In practice, pursuing equity is not about compromising standards, expectations, or outcomes. Rather, it is recognizing and taking action to dedicate resources to address the different needs of each learner. The practice of customizing or individualizing resources to the needs of each learner is in direct opposition to the mental model of sameness.

Connecting the Dots

School and school system leaders need to champion access, commitment, and equity for each of their learners. To do so requires a careful examination of their own mental models that may interfere with authentic, transparent, and sincere actions in their organization. Confronting mental models is not easy, but it is necessary. If mental models, especially as they pertain to access, commitment, and equity, go unexamined, we will not move forward. In fact, we will become a footnote in the history of American education that reads, “The more things changed, the more they remained the same.”

Dr. Greg Firn is the COO of RoboKind and a retired superintendent. Follow him on Twitter @BestOfClass.