Monthly Archives: November 2013

Rules, also known as conventions

Most rules are simply conventions.

It’s a hard fact to understand.  Maybe it was my Roman Catholic upbringing, but when I first grasped it—probably during high school but maybe as late as college—I was surprised.  I thought: You mean we fallible humans agree on these conventions, and we all accept the consequences for breaking them of our own free will?  You mean not all rules are like the Ten Commandments, or Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion?

Over time, it has come to make sense, but I still occasionally lapse into the assumption that rules are immutable and fixed.

I snapped out of it again this weekend, when I was driving south on the FDR Drive and approaching the Brooklyn Bridge exit.

While growing up in Staten Island and commuting to Manhattan for school for six years and in the many years since, I’ve driven—or was driven by my dad or an express bus—over that stretch hundreds of times. The Brooklyn Bridge has always been a bottleneck.  With two or all three lanes of traffic heading into the exit, but with only one lane in which to exit, the choice has frequently been to cut ahead of the other cars by exiting illegally from the middle lane.  Of course, that maneuver only serves to exacerbate the problem by slowing down the cars that are following the rule and exiting from the right lane.

This year, the Department of Transportation did an ingenious thing.  It gave in to the cheaters—now there are two lanes from which one can legally exit.  Overnight, what was against the rules became part of the rules:

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How does this apply to schools and to education reforms?  Policymakers need to be flexible and have an open mind.  Practitioners need to be patient, try out reforms and give measured, careful feedback to influence future changes.  The so-called experts need to learn from the practitioners, see what works and adopt it to the extent possible.

At our school, I’ve seen this notion play out in a dramatic way this year.  This year, as in every year, we have introduced a number of initiatives meant to improve instruction through the use of data.  One example is a new assessment tool called the DRA Monitoring System (this is a different tool than, but complementary to, the DRA system that we have used for almost 10 years).   Another is a new set of expectations for grading, scoring and discussing unit-end assessments.

In both cases, teachers had strong and in some cases visceral reactions to the expectations, mostly centered on timelines but also around the clarity of expectations.  Our leadership team worked assiduously to fill in gaps in what was expected and was adamant that we would not make any changes to the initiatives in the first couple of months.  Naturally many teachers were frustrated but gave the new approach the old college try.  We knew that making changes right away would only increase the confusion that comes along with any initiative, and ultimately lead to more frustration down the line.

After a couple of months of trying out these systems, we have responded by adopting some of the changes recommended by teachers, and while the systems are not perfect (and probably never will be), they are now more achievable and flexible.  And I have no doubt they will continue to improve.  Like using the center lane to exit from the FDR Drive, what was not allowed yesterday is part of the expectation today.

It’s important that the members of our leadership team have seen themselves as learners along with the teachers.  We are not perfect experts who have all the answers, but professionals who have the benefit of experience and have been trusted with the responsibility to determine the boundaries of conventions we all have to follow.

What’s needed for successful initiatives?  Among other things (notably the conditions for success and able, prepared teams), clear expectations, vocal constituents and open-minded policymakers.  And all parties must understand that conventions have to be followed consistently to be effective, and they must see that, after a period in which patience is required of all sides, the rules can change, that they aren’t immutable—unless of course, they fall into the realm of the ethical or the scientific!

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