From the archives: How do you know if it's working?

I wrote this one for Leadership + Design’s newsletter, The Monthly Recharge, last June. This is still a practice I actively cultivate in my work, so I thought I’d toss it back up here.

How Do You Know If It's Working?

Like any field, there are some truths about education that hold fast, no matter the school, population, or model. We know that teachers have the biggest impact on student success. We know that family involvement contributes to academic success. We know that educational inequity perpetuates social, racial, and economic inequality in our society . As a result, there are some best practices that we use that we know work: using modeling when teaching a new skill; hiring teachers whose values match those of your school; using culturally relevant materials in classrooms. As educators, we are determined to do our best to respond to the fact that each student is a unique individual, and learns best when provided with resources and strategies adapted to her individual needs. 

What we tend to forget, however, is that schools are unique, too. Each school is like an organism, operating a little differently because of the people that comprise it, and requiring constant nurturing and adaptation to survive. It's not enough to just continue doing; for each school to thrive, it must identify what resources and ideas are working as well as seek new approaches that can help that school achieve its strategic goals.

One of the principles I use in my consulting practice is to ask before doing. As any school leader knows, consultants love to drop fully-baked "strategies" or "solutions" on a school's doorstep, give the proverbial thumbs-up, and walk away. These pre-made solutions completely ignore the school's organizational structure, values, and needs, and are, as a result, pretty useless. I begin all my projects with some version of an audit, where I ask a lot of questions so that we can collaboratively define the right problem to solve together.

In that vein, I'm not going to tell you specifically which educational resources or ideas to keep, and which to toss (here, I consider "educational resources" to be anything from processes to procedures to physical tools to philosophies to ideas for your school). That depends entirely on your school. I will, however, share a list of guiding questions. When you look at your metaphorical school leader "toolkit" to determine which resources or ideas to use and which to lose, these questions are the first step in assessing their usefulness and relevance.

1. How bought in is your team? There is no better assessment tool for the worth of a resource than the people who use it. Talk to your team. When and how do they use the resource, if at all? When does it work for them? When does it frustrate them?


2. Why is it there in the first place? I can't tell you how many clients I've worked with who, when pressed to explain why they use a certain tool or pursue a certain idea, finally arrive it "because someone said we should." Resources should be used because they work for you, not because some consultant (self-referential humor) or boss from long ago decided it was a good idea. If you don't know why you use it, get rid of it.

 3. How does it help you reach your organization's goals? There should be a clear link between what the resource does for you, and how that service gets you closer to your strategic goals. How do you know it's working? How do you measure its success? How will its use measurably move you towards that end goal? If you can't answer these questions, consider revamping or replacing what you've got.

 4. Does it map to a priority goal? This one is simple: if not, de-prioritize it.

 5.  Is it relevant to your community? What works for one school, will not necessarily work for yours. Each community is unique in its assets, needs, and resources. Whom do you serve? Does this resource serve them?

This weekend, I found myself thinking about the benefits of old versus new while watching the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. The program consisted of two newly choreographed pieces and culminated in their famous 1960 piece, "Revelations." I began thinking about how these pieces worked together. Surely, a modern dance company known for innovation would put a premium on new work. But there was something about keeping "Revelations" that made the newer work even more resonant, that connected the company's history to its innovations and found that hard-to-reach balance between old and new. 


If Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is an organism, "Revelations" is its vital organ. Here is an organization that knows which resources to keep, and when to develop new ones. As you move forward with your strategic plans and review your resources, ask yourself: what is your school's vital organ?

Monday Musing: institutions vs. communities

Monday Musing: The power of joy