It’s a new year, a time when many of us resolve to be healthier and happier. This typically involves making changes, like becoming more physically active, giving up smoking, or learning how to be a more effective parent. Then, despite our goals and plans, we inevitably encounter the very human experience of the divided self. We may believe, even know, that change will produce more of what we want, but we find ourselves unable to break away from limiting habits of thinking, relating, and behaving.
Education leaders throughout the Northwest and nationwide are wrestling with a systems version of this age-old tension between what is and what needs to be. We know postsecondary education and training are prerequisites for young adults to secure a foothold in today’s economy and global society. Yet, our education systems—which were never designed to prepare all students for success in college and career—face a largely inherited and stubborn set of social, cultural, and financial barriers that challenge positive change.
Until recently, efforts to resolve this knowing/doing conundrum have come from the neck up, using considerable brain power to frame dimensions of the issue, define terms, and conceptualize a forward-moving path. Thinking is certainly not a bad place to start, especially if the nature of the problem is complex (as this one is), and the thought process does not become its own goal. Fortunately, the issue has engaged insightful, creative scholars who have partnered with policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders within and outside of education. Their research has produced a compelling case for change, and models, metrics, and demonstrations that lay an important foundation for larger scale action.
But thinking is not enough. Ideas and tools don’t change systems: people do. There is much to be learned from those who have stepped out to lead large-scale change. Read Leading for Equity for an inspiring account of how leaders and educators in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland raised overall student achievement and narrowed gaps between white and minority students through systemic implementation of college and career readiness standards and differentiated supports. Keep an eye out for more from San Jose Unified School District where leaders are scaling up their College Readiness Indicator System (CRIS), using a remarkable process that links district and school leaders in routine cycles of inquiry and improvement.
What is striking about these and other pioneering districts is how deeply engaged system leaders are in the change process—intellectually, emotionally, and even physically. It turns out that a big part of the work involves mobilizing communities within and outside the school system. That means lots of meetings and courageous conversations about the hard issues of race, class, and inequality with folks who don’t see eye to eye. Often, the fear of losing something people hold dear—such as power, status, resources, identity, and community—gets in the way of improvement efforts.
But, this is what it takes to transform complex human systems—aligning minds, hearts, and daily actions toward a common purpose and staying fully engaged until new, more productive patterns take root. Wise and sustainable development in education draws on the principles that drive the 4-H youth development movement. By integrating head, heart, and hands to create healthy school systems that serve all our children well, we can build a more secure and happier future for us all.
What is one action you can take today to support a young person’s advancement toward postsecondary education and career readiness and success?