The Wheatley Institution

Closing the Achievement Gap for Struggling Learners

Donald Deshler
September 17, 2009

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I'm here to share some thoughts and ideas. I was talking to a couple of people before and they asked if I was a consultant, and I said, "No, let's set the record straight." So that's what I'd like to do by sharing with you just a little story about that, because the longer I'm in this, the more I realize I'm not so sure I know what I'm doing. This is a story about a shepherd. He was herding his flock of sheep in a remote pasture when suddenly, a brand new BMW advanced out of the cloud of dust toward him. The driver, a young man in a Versace suit, Gucci shoes, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and YSL tie, leaned out the window and asked the shepherd, "If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one of them?" The shepherd looked at him and said, "Well, okay." So the yuppie parked his car and took out his IBM ThinkPad, hooked it up to his cell phone, surfed the internet, worked on some formulas, and pretty soon he printed out this ten page report on his miniaturized printer. He turned to the shepherd and said, "You have exactly 1,586 sheep." The shepherd said, "That's correct. Take one of the animals." So he watched the yuppie pick up one of the animals and put it into his car. Then the shepherd said, "If I tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me my animal back?" "Okay," said the yuppie. The shepherd looked at him and said, "Well clearly you're a consultant." The yuppie said, "That's correct. But how did you ever guess that?" "No guessing required," said the shepherd. "You turned up here, although no one asked. You want to get paid for an answer to a question I already know. And then you don't know anything about my business. Now please, give me my dog back."

When it comes to education, the challenges before us are enormous. As Richard said, I've been an educator now for forty years, this year. The longer I'm in it, the more I realize how daunting the challenge is, especially when we're talking about kids who are failing. So here's a little road map of where I'd like to take us today. First of all, a little important reminder. We, typically in education, talk about a lot of the problems. I think it's important that we put those problems into perspective, because some very good things are happening, and I'd like to put that as a backdrop. Secondly, I would like to quickly run through a couple challenges, to give a perspective to what I'd like to put on the table as some thoughts for you to consider. Thirdly, before moving to some proposed solutions, I'd like to talk about some potentially counterproductive solutions that are being proposed or are frequently turned to as a way to solve some of the problems in education. And finally, I'd like to talk about what I refer to as leverage points. Do you know what a leverage point is? It's a point where you can really move a heavy load with not too much pushing. I think it's important that we consider them in education because of the magnitude of the load we need to lift and our limited energy, time, and resources available. We have to be certain that we're applying our energy, time, and resources to the places that will get the greatest impact.

With that, by way of reminder, our center, in a nutshell, is this: we're now in our thirtieth year. Our focus is on struggling learners, why they continue to fail in school, and what it is about a) how they learn, b) how we teach them, and c) the way we organize learning in schools around the work that they do that perhaps doesn't pay the kind of dividends that we want. So that's where I'm coming from. But to set the stage and remind us of some good things that have happened, I'd like to tell you two very short stories. First of all, this is about Andrew Franz. Andrew is a person who, years ago, really struggled with learning. He was just failing in school.  He was identified as having some real problems, and he was taught some high-leverage strategies. It totally transformed his life as a learner. Totally transformed it, because his teachers taught by using methods that made a difference. He's now a pilot in the Air Force.

I'd like to tell you now, shifting from an individual student to an entire school, this is Arlyn Zack. He's principal of Muskegon High School in the state of Michigan, and his school was chronically underperforming. He looked at that, he looked at the number of kids who were dropping out, he looked at the number of kids who continued to fail to meet state standards, and he said, "We have got to change what we're doing." He pulled back and he said, "We're going to invest in what I consider to be the big stumbling block to success in academics, and that is being a good reader." There were over thirty percent of the students in his student body who could not accurately decode words. So Arlyn took that on. He first started screening all the ninth graders, taught them how to decode, and dramatically closed that gap. Then he expanded to reading comprehension. He expanded to writing. He expanded to math. His school has since been honored time and again for the number of graduates and for the high level of achievement. The point is change is happening, and there are some stellar examples of this going on in the field.

Just paraphrasing what the Wheatley Institution says as it speaks about education, and it has it right. (I am so pleased with the thrust that it is bringing to the research that it is doing in this area.) It's talking about the importance of education relative to enriching individuals, strengthening families, increasing the quality of life, enabling participation in democracy, and bridging the gap between generations. They're focusing on the right things. Those things, in many ways, have been accomplished in our country. The success story within America is, despite all the things we hear about from politicians and read on the editorial pages, remarkable things have been accomplished over 200 plus years. The democracy has been preserved.

The goal of education in our country is to provide for every student all the way along. It's not testing in or testing out; it is to provide for all. Over the years, when you take a look at the remarkable success of our economy, our educational system has kept us competitive. We're facing unprecedented challenges right now, but we have been and continue to be very competitive. In short, there are some stellar examples of tremendous work that is happening around the country in schools. I'd just add as a footnote to that, we need to spend more time studying those who have it right and learn from them. How do they define the work that they do? How do they decide to work together, and how do they organize their work together? How do they think about problems? What is their mindset? Do they see themselves primarily as being players or pawns in the chess game? My guess is they see themselves as being players, and they feel that they are people of high efficacy who feel that they can make a difference. We need to really drill down and study those who have been successful so we can learn more from them.

So with that as a backdrop, let me turn my attention to some challenges. As a center, we're doing research in dozens of schools throughout the country, and currently we have several projects going on in some of our nation's largest urban areas. Let me just profile a couple things that are happening. For example, in Detroit, take a look at this enrollment. 1995, as you can see, is about 180,000 students. In 2011, it's projected to be 68,000 students. Now, just contemplate the chaos that exists in terms of trying to make the decisions about what schools are closed, how students are moved here and there. If you're always in a mindset of we're getting smaller, people are moving out, they're not coming in, how do we address those kinds of challenges? I was in Detroit in January, and here are some buildings in that district. It's amazing, the challenges. Twenty-five percent of the students graduate from their high schools.

To put that in perspective as to the challenges that many of the youth in our schools face, let me share with you what we have used for years at our research center. This is the way that we depict "the performance gap," or we read about it as the achievement gap. If we look at the horizontal axis along the bottom as being years in school and the vertical axis as being skills, the story goes like this. There's a student who goes through one year of school and he picks up one year of skills. He goes through three years of school and, in normal achievement, picks up three years of skills. Theoretically, that straight line represents normal achievement. The word "demands" has now joined the word "skills" on the vertical axis, and a yellow line just went on top of the blue line. The reason I'm looking at skills and demands – I think we need to do that at the same time – is this: if the student acquires skills at the projected rate, he or she then is in a position to respond to the demands of the curriculum, so it's sort of a one-on-one correspondence there.

Unfortunately, that picture doesn't exist for many of the students in our schools. As they go through a year of school, they don't pick up a year of skills; three years of school, not three years of skill. So over time we see this gap starting to develop between the skills that they have and the demands of the curriculum. Note this fascinating thing that we've discovered in the study that we did, and that is by the time the students hit about the fifth or sixth grade level, their acquisition of basic skills tends to plateau. What doesn't plateau? The demands of the curriculum, right? They continue to escalate. Can you imagine the frustration that students face in that circumstance? To let you know just what that gap means, let's take a student in the ninth grade – look at the horizontal axis at the bottom – and he's reading at the fifth grade level on the vertical axis. You can see where he finds himself on the red curve. Now, we want that student to be on grade level upon graduation so they can go out and compete and hold their own in the world. How many years of achievement must they pick up, according to this, in one year in school? Two and a half years. Normal achievement is defined as one year for a year in school. Look at how steep that slope is that we need to climb.

Let's zone out a little bit and look at 30,000 feet. Take a look at national statistics, a National Assessment of Educational Progress (often referred to as the nation's report card). Students, as they are tested, can fall into four buckets: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. Let's take a look at the statistics. In our country, below the proficiency level – that's the cut point in the middle and below – 69 percent of fourth graders are below that, as you can see. How about below basic? 27 percent of eighth graders are reading below the basic level. What does that mean? Another way of thinking about it is that only thirty percent of secondary students are proficient readers in our schools. Let's take a look at students of color. 89 percent of Hispanics and 86 percent of African Americans read below grade level. We have a huge challenge in our country to deal with this achievement.

The reality of the world is this, and Kozol said it best: "There is no censorship so perfect, so complete, as that imposed on the non-reader." Think of your life if you didn't have the capacity to read and enrich yourself with what you take in. Another point: what about those who drop out? Do you realize that today, 3,000 youth dropped out of our schools? That's just about 450,000 in a year. Just drive through any poor section of our country – it's not just the poor sections, either – but see the number hanging out on the street corners, and the look of hopelessness in their faces. Now, let's look at when students either drop out, or they find themselves at the end of an educational system that basically didn't meet their needs in a very legitimate way. I'm going to share with you a short excerpt from an NBC news program hosted by Tom Brokaw on adult literacy. It's going to briefly profile two individuals, so that's sort of the human side. Behind every statistic – 540,000 dropouts, 26 percent reading below literacy and so forth –is a personal story of heartache, fear, and uncertainty. That's where the real problem is, and oftentimes it's so easy to lose sight of that. So that's one half of the challenges that individual students face.

Let's take a look at the other side, and that is the demands that we're expected to meet in order to thrive as an economy. Two years ago, Congress commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences a report to be written. Basically, what they wanted them to do was to study to confirm whether we, as a country, indeed losing our competitive edge to China, India, and other countries. So they put together a blue ribbon panel, and this is the result of that study, "Rising above the Gathering Storm." Here are a few of the things that they concluded from that, and I share these because school leaders and legislators hear this. In response, they are saying, "We need to set the bar higher." Envision setting the bar higher for some of the students that we've been looking at. Not that it shouldn't go higher; it just magnifies the challenge. Coming from the report, did you know that twenty-five percent of the population in China with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of North America? China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't exist, using technologies that haven't been invented. Nintendo invests more than $140 million in Research and Development annually, but the U.S. Department of Education invests half that much. Intel says, "We go where the smart people are. Now our business operations are 2/3 in this country and 1/3 overseas. That ratio is going to flip in ten years."

Another book that somewhat profiles the challenge that we're facing is a fabulous read by Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, speaking about the impact of computerization on the job market. What they say is this: those who will thrive in the years ahead, in the next job market, those workers who will be most successful in an economy heavily influenced by computerization, are the ones who have two skill sets. Number one: expert thinking, to be able to innovatively solve problems. And the second is complex communications. We need to ask ourselves the question, "How are we doing on those fronts to put students into a position to compete, not just with their classmates, but on a world stage?" Just to see the impact, Levy and Murnane took all the careers in the country and looked at them on a longitudinal perspective from 1969-1999, and they categorized them into various buckets including non-routine manual, routine manual, routine cognitive, complex communication, and expert thinking. Hence, they drew the conclusion that it's expert thinking and complex communications is where the expectation and demand is. So we need to again look at what the skills are that students have, and how many students don't have the skills that are needed. On the other hand, what is the world requiring of our graduates?

With that, let's move on to the third topic, and that is what I believe are some potentially counter-productive solutions that have been put on the table and are continually being talked about. Anyone who hasn't been living in a gopher hole the past eight years or so is aware of No Child Left Behind and Average Yearly Progress, or AYP. Basically, schools are expected to meet certain benchmarks, and states individually come up with state tests and establish standards that schools need to meet as they test their students. A study was just completed by Cronin and his colleagues in which they took eighteen elementary schools, randomly selected from around the country, and they said, "Given the scores that they're getting on this test, how would they fare in various states?" Take a look at this. One of the schools out of eighteen met standards in the state of Massachusetts, whereas seventeen of the schools met standards in Wisconsin. The authors of this study called it the accountability illusion. It is right for us to be measuring how we are doing, but we have a lot of work to do to come up with improved ways to do the measurement. So that's one of the challenges that we face, because the results of these kinds of measures have been used as the stick as opposed to the carrot, in many instances, to bring about action and changes within schools. Not that change shouldn't occur, but if we're going to be doing it, let's make certain that we have the right measures and indices against which to measure progress. That's one of the things that I think we need to pay more attention to.

The second issue somewhat relates to our hope. As I've said, I've been in education for forty years, and if ever there is a byword, it is we don't have enough money, always. And this is probably going to sound as heresy to some of you, but quite frankly, I don't think resource is necessarily the biggest issue. I believe resourcefulness is, and the proper use of the resources we have. Let me tell you what I mean, in just the way the expenditure of resources is being used. Two weeks ago, the chief state school officers met with Vice President Biden and Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan. I'm on a policy group with some of the chiefs, and we were talking about this meeting. As you know, money has flown through the stimulus package, and here's what the vice president said: "For years, you all have complained (and rightfully so), that there are many unfunded mandates that the feds have put onto the states such as No Child Left Behind and IDEA. Well, we're going to take care of that. You now have the money." Then the kicker. He said, "You better come back in two years and show us results." Now, anyone who knows anything about school change knows that in two years you're not going to have the kind of data to make those kinds of assessments and statements. And we understand the reality, and we know why a two year time frame – we have a hurting economy and an election coming up and that will position it three years – these are political realities that are faced, regardless of what party is in power. But if we're going to be advocating for resources, we also need to, as educators, come to understand how those resources can best be expended. We have a responsibility and a moral obligation to advocate for the responsible expenditure of resources.

The next potentially counter-productive solution that has been put on the table. Go around to many of the poorly achieving schools in this country, especially those in urban environments, and you will find that there are anywhere from five to ten and sometimes twenty or more initiatives going on in those schools. The more the school hurts, the more there are chefs in the kitchen, trying to fix it. It is overwhelming for those who are teaching and leading in those kinds of schools. No one means ill, but we need to stand back and ask if we are indeed being productive as we go into these kinds of circumstances in the hopes of doing well. Conner puts it into good perspective: "As the number of changes multiplies, and as the time demands increase, people approach a dysfunction threshold, a point where they lose the capacity to implement changes." Have you ever been in a situation like that? Where you're just in a point of paralysis because there are so many initiatives, so many things expected of you, and oftentimes the response is, "Hold it. I'll just out wait this one." So if we're going to move in and intervene – and these sights need intervention – we need to be very thoughtful and respectful of those who are there in terms of what load we are placing on them.

Another potentially counter-productive solution that I've experienced in much of the work that we have done is the fact that many of our solutions are basically living on the surface, and they're avoiding the core. I don't think there's anyone better at describing what the core of education is than Dick Elmore from Harvard. Our center has done a fair amount of work with him, and I appreciate the way he focuses on this. Here are a couple things he had to say: "Innovations that require large changes in the core of educational practice seldom penetrate more than a small fraction of U.S. schools and classrooms, and seldom last for very long when they do." He goes on to ask what the core of educational practice is. Here's how Elmore describes it: it is what and how critical knowledge is taught and assessed, the relationship among teachers and how they do their work together, and how teachers relate to students and parents. In essence, that's the core: the teaching, the hard, messy stuff of schools. He goes on to say, "Much of what passes for 'change' in U.S. schooling is not really about changing the core. Innovations often embody vague intentions of changing the core through modifications that are weakly related, or not related at all, to the core." He concludes with this: "Most schools are, in fact, constantly changing." Read the newspapers. Go to any school board meeting. We're moving from junior highs to middle schools; we're going from regular schedules to block schedules. All those things aren't the core. They're easy to define, they're easy to vote on, and it makes everyone feel good that they're changing. The messy stuff, the tough stuff, the place where change really occurs for the low achievers of the world, is in the classroom. It's with the instruction that's being delivered, and leaders and policy makers often choose to ignore that. Elmore continues, "Within this vortex of change, however, the core of educational practice remains relatively static."

Now a couple things about some leverage points. The reason for this on leverage points, just a personal experience that we had at our center. In the work that we do, we do research on various ways to improve teaching for kids and learning for kids, and we come up with a host of instructional manuals, and we make these available for teachers. Not long ago, we visited a classroom and found some of our manuals holding up a plant on the teacher's desk. That was not a good day at the office when we saw that. Another is a colleague of ours did some work in Canada, and after he finished this staff development on some of our instructional practices, he gave them each a postcard and said, "After you do some things and get going, I want you to write me back." Every day he'd go to the mailbox to pick up the mail. He didn't get anything. The kind of things that we were learning as we did that work initially was that you just can't throw money at the problem. Here's the money that, as of 2006, is being spent on staff development and professional change in schools. There were five urban districts ranging in size from 47,000-85,000 students, the total expenditures was $19 million, the percent of their budget was 3.6. This was $19 million per district. So money is being invested, but we need to ask how it's being invested. Is it the spray and pray approach? You know, pop in, pop off, and pop out. Our research studies tell us that we get about a four percent implementation and sustainability rate when that is the case. So that has led us to stand back and recalibrate, to ask, "How can we do that better? How can we better support teachers and administrators on the front lines?" Because obviously, what we were doing was not the right way to go about it.

One of the books that has had some influence on us in recent months has been this book called The Influencer. If you haven't read it, I'd recommend it. It's written by the same authors who wrote the book Crucial Conversations. Basically, in this book, what they're studying is various changes in initiatives around the world. Changes within business organizations, within governments, within educational organizations. And in essence, what they conclude is this: the complexity of organizations is so overwhelming that we cannot intervene everywhere. But what we should try to seek to understand is, what are some "vital behaviors"? That is, if we focus in an unrelenting way on some critical vital behaviors that give good return for the amount invested, it's the best way to move the needle.

There are three points of leverage, or "vital behaviors," that I'd like to highlight. The first, if we want to be more successful in our work in improving education, is to understand the difficulty and the cost of change. I want to give you a little test. How many words per year do fifth graders read who read at the fiftieth percentile? The answer is 900,000. That's one baseline point; let's take a look at a different group of kids. How many words per year do fifth graders read who read at the tenth percentile? The answer is 60,000. Now, 60,000 times what gives you 900,000? Fifteen. In other words, those at the fiftieth percentile are reading fifteen times as much. Now, what about a student at the ninetieth percentile? That student is reading over four million words a year. The reason that I give you this data for the first leverage point is this: these students are in many classrooms around this country sitting shoulder to shoulder to shoulder in the same classroom. As a teacher, that is an overwhelming instructional challenge. So those of us who are involved in change need to understand that and be respectful of the magnitude of the challenge that's being faced, and not to come in with solutions that don't match or take into account that complexity.

One of our sons, Reid, works with organizations on change, and our center has been influenced quite a bit by his work. He does some work in education, but more in business, industry and government. The reason I'm showing you this model of change that he and his colleagues have been using is this: it's to underscore what they have learned and what others in the educational arena have learned about how difficult, and what's in play if we want to change what's happening. You'll notice the upper set of arrows is labeled Organization Change. The lower set of arrows is Individual Transitions. So if we want to change what's happening in an organization, we need to understand what the dynamics that are in play there and that organizations are made up of individuals. What are the changes that individuals need to go through? So let's just play out the upper set of arrows, which are passion, readiness, mobilization, and implementation. Do you see all the things that need to be considered and factored into account if we want to implement change within an organization? Consider a school that has ten to twenty initiatives of people who are trying to improve what's happening there. Now, what about the individual transitions? If we're going to ask someone to do something new, we're going to ask them to stop doing what they're doing. When we ask someone, who's invested an enormous amount professionally in learning a certain practice, to move away from that, we're talking about dealing with loss, letting go, saying goodbye, and dealing with disruptions. Those things can have a profound impact on the overall morale of an individual and a group.

Another aspect of the improvement process is this, and this is a graph put together by Richard Elmore also. Basically what that's saying when we're starting a new innovation, it takes a while to get going, hence it's relatively flat. But once we've built up some momentum, we can then really start to see some growth with a new innovation. But what happens then? We tend to hit a wall, and we tend to level off. So what can happen is every time we level off, those are critical times when there's a tendency to shuttle, or get away from that innovation, and move somewhere else. But over time, if we stick with something that a good decision was made about in the beginning, we can indeed make progress. Note what Heifetz says, and this is critical about this whole business of change and understanding its difficulties. He says, "The single most common source of leadership failure we've been able to identify…is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems."

What's a technical problem? A technical problem is if we brought one of our manuals that's sitting under the potted plant in and say, "Here's a new way to teach reading. Here are the six steps to do it." For you learning that, that's a technical problem. That's relatively easy. The adaptive problem is what? It's changing roles; it's starting to collaborate with someone different; it's the human stuff of work, the adaptive things. That's what's difficult. So looking at that on a graph going from technical to cultural, if we consider the technical issues being such things on the left, the cultural and much more difficult on the right, it sort of goes like this. We start out with the technical, the things that are easier. That's learning the work. Then we move to using the work to change the culture, when more people start to use it, the conversation within schools start to change. Over time, the tenor of that organization changes, and then the culture changes and we can let the culture drive the work. But this inter play between the technical and the adaptive or the cultural is a critical one to bear in mind.

A classic study that I strongly urge you to see if you have not had a chance to is one by Rosenholtz in which she studied a broad array of districts trying to understand what makes certain districts successful and others fail, or certain schools successful and others fail. Basically, she ended up putting the schools that she studied into two buckets: a "moving school" bucket and a "stuck school" bucket. What characterizes moving schools as those who are continually getting better is this: as a staff, they come together, and they set goals. They are not just setting goals and writing them on the wall and forgetting them, but they are meaningful goals. And they're overwhelming. Significant goals tend to be the stretch kind of goals. They know that they can't reach it themselves, so they start to collaborate. And when they collaborate, they teach one another. As they teach one another, their competence goes up. Student achievement goes up. Teacher motivation goes up. That's what contributes to a moving school. A stuck school is just the opposite: no goals, no collaboration, everyone is for themselves, and so forth. To create a moving school is difficult, and it doesn't happen overnight. So the first point of leverage of change is to be respectful of the complexity of this.

The second leverage point is to seek to understand dissonance between practitioners and change agents. I've referred to some of this along the way; those from the outside coming in with all the answers and so forth. A colleague of mine, Jim Night, has just published an article in the Kappan in which he outlines some points that we've been working on in our center, and I'd just like to highlight this series of questions that we should be asking about seeing if we're on the same page with those with whom we're working. Number 1: are the teaching practices that we're recommending powerful? That is, does the practice do more work with less effort for the practitioner? How it affects them is the first measure they look at. Is there compelling evidence that should make them drop what they're doing and move to something else? Are the unique needs of students, teachers, and schools matched? There aren't one-size-fits-all solutions, so when you come in with a solution, are those things being considered? Is sufficient instructional coaching provided for these powerful teaching practices?

When it talks about instructional coaching, let me just share this with you so you can see the power of coaching. If we have just presented information to a group of educators, here are the effects that we get in terms of information learned, how much they learn skills, and the effect size, which is very small. If we couple presenting with modeling for them the new teaching procedure, look at what happens. Now if we couple presenting, modeling, and giving them the opportunity to practice with meaningful feedback, look what happens. Now if we add to those, instructional coaching, look at that. So if we want to move someone to another point, we need to provide the necessary support.

The next question is, are the teaching practices easy to implement? So the first is, are they powerful, the second is, are they easy. This is a critical issue. Do we consider the pressures of the lives of teachers? Because if we don't, the research we've done -- $178 million worth at this point – tells us to put it under the potted plants. What barriers can be removed for the teachers? We need to do everything we can to make adoption an easy factor. And are we providing ample demonstrations with sufficient specificity? And the teachers will be asking, "Is it worth it?" and "Can I do it?" Those are the big questions that are going to be in their minds.

Third, are they experienced? That is, experience trumps talk every time. If we don't give them the hands on experience and we just talk to them, forget about it. Talk is cheap; verbal persuasion rarely works. The literature on school change is abundant in that area.

The last point that I'm going to hit is the following: are teachers treated with respect? Is their expertise tapped? Do they perceive that their sense of how good, competent, or talented they are is under attack? Whether it is or not, what do they perceive?  That's the key issue. Is "language of ongoing regard" used? In other words, just the way we interact. Do we say, "I regard you highly"? And are they allowed to make sense of what's happening?

To conclude, I am going to show you two quotes. One from Spillane and his colleagues at Northwestern, who talk about the power of sense-making, and the second from Maris from back in the mid-70s about respecting others and giving them an opportunity to weigh in. First of all, Spillane on understanding the role of sense-making says, "Successful implementation of complex policies necessitates substantial changes in peoples' schemas. Most conventional theories of change fail to take into account the complexity of human sense-making.…Sense-making is not a simple decoding of the policy message, in general, the process of comprehension is an active process of interpretation that draws on the individual's rich knowledge base of understandings, beliefs, and attitudes." It is what is at our core in terms of beliefs and attitudes that really will drive how much we will embrace something. So we may be bobbing out head up and down saying, "Yes, I believe, yes I'll do it." But inside, we're saying, "No way, Jose."

Here's what Maris says that's related to that and the respect with which we treat others and allow others to weigh in on the change process. "No matter how reasonable the proposed changes may seem, leaders must still allow the impulse of rejection to play itself out. When those who have power to manipulate changes act as if they have only to explain, and when their explanations are not at once accepted, shrug off opposition as ignorance or prejudice, they express a profound contempt for the meaning of lives other than their own. For the reformers have already assimilated these changes to their purposes, and worked out a reformulation which makes sense to them perhaps through months of analysis and debate. If they deny others the chance to do the same, they treat them as puppets dangling by the threads of their own conceptions."

I will come back to where I began. There are stellar examples of inspiring work that is being done in schools. Those who are doing it on the front lines understand we need to learn from them. Those who work with them and cultivate the change process with them can teach us a great deal as well. The size of the performance gap, the number of kids whose lives are being dramatically touched as a result of a lack of achievement, deserve everything we can give to come up with those kinds of solutions.

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