From Dougal's Desk - What do you Mean by "System Design?"

June 5, 2017 • Volume #2: On Leadership

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By Jason Dougal

In the closing of my first installment, I made reference to the need for a redesign of districts and schools to achieve a goal they were previously not designed to accomplish: equipping all students, no matter their background, with the competencies needed to be successful in a very competitive global environment. If you agree with my characterization of the goal, the logical next question is: “What do you mean by a ‘redesign?’” At NISL, we often use the phrase “system design.” And we have a very specific concept in mind when we use that phrase. The conception we have is derived from the lessons learned from the top-performing education jurisdictions over almost 30 years of study by Marc Tucker and our colleagues at The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) and The Center on International Education Benchmarking (CIEB) directed by Betsy Brown Ruzzi.

NCEE, CIEB and NISL are not separate entities. They make up one whole organization. Just as a well-functioning system needs each of its pieces to work in concert with the others, so, too, does a well-functioning organization. The research and policy advice that NCEE and CIEB are known for all around the world create the framework for how NISL’s offerings are designed; and NISL has, for all practical purposes, become the implementation arm of NCEE. The pieces of the organization work together in a systemic way because they were designed, by the leaders of NCEE, CIEB and NISL to do just that. It is that type of “system design” leadership we are trying to instill in the leaders of schools and districts. To that end, both the content of the curriculum and framework for leadership of NISL’s offerings, and even the design of the organization itself, can be traced back to the research of the strategies used by the top-performing countries.

If you are even a casual reader of Marc Tucker’s blog you know that there is a consistent theme that he and others have stressed about high-performing jurisdictions: what accounts for their success is not a collection of policies and practices, but rather a tightly knit, coherent system of policies and practices—a system the parts and pieces of which work in close harmony with each other. Systems like this do not just spontaneously or randomly appear. They have to be designed. Which means they need a designer. As the NCEE team, including CIEB and NISL, was thinking about the future of NISL’s mission, we realized that a central feature of the NISL curriculum would have to be a thread that helped school leaders think of themselves not just as leaders and managers but as designers of high-performance systems.

What I have found in my work with superintendents and principals across the United States is that “system design” is a phrase fraught with potential ambiguity. When I introduce the phrase “system design” to school and district leaders, it is almost always met with knowing nods and smiles that let me know that the group is fully with me. While it is nice to have that type of warm reception and consensus around the room, there is often less unanimity than it seems. The problem, I have found, is that each person often thinks they are agreeing with something very different from what I mean, or even what the person sitting next to them is agreeing with. What we have is apparent, if enthusiastic, agreement but no true meeting of the minds.

This agreement, such as it is, stems from the shared belief that the current education system is not, and never was, designed to achieve the goal I outlined above. But just because you are not prepared to defend the status quo does not mean you have the same conception as we do of what a system design solution entails. Most educators I talk to think of systemic solutions as BIG, while programmatic solutions are puny. I can almost hear them saying: “Our problems in education today cannot be solved with puny solutions. We need big solutions! So, we are all in agreement that systemic reform is the order of the day!” But systemic is not synonymous with big (and programmatic is not synonymous with small). Programmatic solutions fail not because they are not big enough but because they are not aligned well enough with the rest of the system. You can provide teachers with hours and hours of “professional learning community” time, but if there are no incentives for them to improve their craft it is unlikely that PLC time will actually yield better classroom instruction and learning.

What we, at NCEE and NISL, mean by systemic is that all of the processes, procedures, incentives, supports, etc. (i.e., all of the aspects of your system that influence behavior and outcomes) are intentionally aligned to yield the outcome you want. When you design all the sub-systems in your district to work this way and design each of those sub-systems to align with and support all the others, then you have a true “system design.”

But this can all feel very abstract and theoretical. To illustrate what we mean, I would like to focus on high-quality teachers and teaching – one of the three major sub-systems captured in The National Center on Education and the Economy’s 9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System, which is a distillation of almost 30 years of international benchmarking research done by NISL’s parent organization focused on the top-performing jurisdictions in education around the world.

We have all heard the rhetoric over and over that we want an excellent teacher in every classroom, but that is never going to be anything more than a slogan if we do not intentionally design our systems to get that outcome. This is already happening in some of the highest-performing jurisdictions in the world. Some of us at NISL have been lucky enough to accompany our NCEE colleagues to visit these high-performers and have even met with some of the people who designed those systems and the people who work within them. They face the same challenges we do, so why the dramatic difference in the results? The answer is not found in a schedule of targeted professional development workshops or a list of required advanced degrees. The simple answer is that they have designed their systems of incentives and supports explicitly for the purpose of producing and supporting high-quality and constantly improving teachers. To explain how they have done this, I first want to describe the system of teacher support in these jurisdictions in three broad phases and conclude with a quick story about a recent experience I had here in the United States.

The first phase is recruitment. When most school leaders think about recruitment, they focus on the hiring of currently certified teachers into their schools. Said another way, they focus on getting the highest quality candidates out of their current pool rather than focusing on improving the quality of the pool. Getting high-quality teachers at scale begins with recruitment into the profession – more precisely, recruitment into our schools of education. Principals and superintendents can, and do, have a huge impact on who applies to schools of education. Teacher preparation institutions in South Korea, Singapore, Finland and other high-performing jurisdictions are selecting from the top of their high school graduating cohorts. This is often dismissed as a product of cultures that venerate teachers and teaching as a profession. But why do they have that culture? Perhaps it is because everyone who has ever stepped foot inside one of their schools sees a work environment in which each teacher is treated as a professional and whose expertise, developed over years of study and honing of their craft, is on display for everyone to see on a daily basis.

But we do not have to look overseas to imagine what recruitment of high-quality candidates looks like and the role the eventual employers play in making the profession attractive. Consider the recruitment system in medicine or the law right here in the United States. Medical and law schools can establish high standards for entry because the incentives to become doctors and lawyers are strong. Droves of top students from around the world apply to U.S. medical and law schools every single year.  Those students work hard just for a chance at admission and then work harder once accepted. They do this because there is the potential at the end for a prestigious job that compensates them well, gives them a chance to work with colleagues who are similarly driven towards excellence in an environment that respects their professionalism, and gives them repeated opportunities to improve their expertise in their craft. And while district and school leaders may not be in a position to dramatically increase the compensation teachers receive in the immediate future, they are in a position to exert significant influence over all of the other factors listed above. Compensation is certainly important, but it is hardly the only factor teachers consider, or even the most important factor. In fact, the primary reasons most frequently cited by former teachers for leaving the profession are the working environment and the leadership in their building rather than low compensation. So, while it might not seem obvious that school and district leaders have an impact on the recruitment of highly capable students into teaching, the evidence suggests the work environments that these leaders create might actually have the most influence on who decides to apply to such schools.

The second phase of a high-quality system of teacher support is preparation. And while this happens primarily in schools of education, school and district leaders need to realize just how much influence they can exert over what is taught in teacher preparation institutions—and how those institutions teach it. They are the primary – sometimes sole – employers of the local school of education’s graduates. If superintendents and principals stopped hiring poorly prepared teacher candidates, the graduates of these schools of education would have no prospects for a job in the area. Even the credible threat of not hiring such candidates should be enough to give K-12 leaders a seat at the table in determining the curriculum and clinical experiences offered in their local teacher preparation institutions. And this is not some theoretical, economics-based argument. Multiple school districts and a local school of education in Pennsylvania have formed a partnership to accomplish precisely what I am describing here and to replicate the effect of what we see in the highest-performing jurisdictions around the world. But they are doing so in a way that is designed to work in their own context. My space is limited here, but I will share more details about this partnership in a future installment.

The third and final phase can be broken into two parts. Those two parts are the induction of new teachers and the ongoing support for veteran teachers’ professional learning. These are two sides of the same coin rather than two distinct phases. The reason why will become apparent as I recount an experience I had recently at the annual American Association of School Administrators conference. I was a participant in a dinner conversation hosted by Education Week in which approximately 20 district leaders were discussing their most significant challenges in improving student achievement. I heard over and over again how new teachers in these various districts were not prepared and not getting the support they needed. Almost as often, I heard that there was no pipeline for leadership positions in the district and that these superintendents were struggling to keep their best teachers in the classroom or even in the district. These are not two different challenges but rather two ends of the same challenge, which is to say the solution to one challenge is also the solution to the other. The shared problem of both challenges is, in its essence, a system design problem.

Here is what I mean by that. If you want to give your most novice and struggling teachers the support they need, you should look to your best teachers as the source for that support. If you want to build a pipeline of future leaders in your district and continue to give your best teachers an opportunity to grow as leaders, then give them opportunities to lead their peers. If you design your system of teacher support using your most accomplished teachers to support your most inexperienced and struggling teachers, you can solve two problems at once. First, your new and struggling teachers get the support they need from a group of people (expert teachers) who have more practical expertise and are closer to the work of the novice teachers who need this support. And, at the same time, you are building a cadre of future leaders among your best teachers by giving them the leadership opportunities they need to develop those skills.

If these master teachers lead groups of less experienced and less effective teachers in addressing genuine problems of practice, then this teacher support will be indivisible from the job itself—because this work is their job. For example, if these teams of teachers, led by an expert teacher, work together to develop a strategy to ensure that every student is reading on grade level by the end of third grade or to build a vertically aligned set of curricular frameworks for math from kindergarten to 12tth grade throughout the district, then you cannot separate the professional development from the work itself. Professional development is what happens as a result of the work in these teacher-led groups. This is not professional development in the workshop model, nor is it collaboration for the sake of collaboration. No, this is truly job-embedded professional learning that is integral to their work. What is essential to the system as a whole is that this professional learning also creates a professional work environment; one that helps recruit high-performing students to enter the field and take on the rigorous preparation that is necessary for the job.

It is not just recruitment or initial preparation or induction or ongoing professional learning on the job that will produce high-quality teachers and teaching, rather it is all of these phases, designed to work together in concert, that leads to an excellent teacher in front of every classroom. This is the essence, by way of a very small example, of what our organization means by “system design” as a strategy for dramatically improving results for students. And this is only one, albeit very important, sub-system of the larger state or district education system. Full system redesign will force leaders to inspect every facet of their system to determine if it aligns with all the other pieces and is aimed at the right target. But just as the old joke about how you eat an elephant—one bite at a time—tells us, you cannot expect to completely redesign your entire system overnight. If you chunk it out in smaller bites and tackle certain sub-systems first, you will find that it will become easier to align the rest of your system as you go. Superintendents in multiple states are leading the way to show that this type of system design work can be done here in the United States, and NISL is helping them get there.