Thursday, December 06, 2007

Getting our minds around Good to Great – November 27th Gathering

We gathered on Tuesday, November 27th, to discuss the monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors: why business thinking is not the answer, by Jim Collins. We ate a delicious dinner provided potluck-style by many attendees. There were four Upper School faculty, two from Middle School, seven from Lower School, and the Lower School Principal in attendance. This made a good crowd to huddle close to the fireplace and talk.

We opened with a discussion of the story about the Cleveland Orchestra’s rise to prominence. The process included deciding that “artistic excellence” would be their lofty (audacious) goal. Then they had to define it, and find a way to measure it. Since there is no reliable way to measure something as qualitative as artistic excellence, the leaders decided that they would create measures that they could track over time and stick with them, in spite of the question of reliability. They created a chart entitled “Greatness at the Cleveland Orchestra” and set out criteria for three categories: Superior Performance, Distinctive Impact, and Lasting Endurance. Since, Collins points out, no quantitative or qualitative data is completely reliable the field is wide open to defining goals that make sense for a situation and creating one’s own criteria for measuring success. (Collins, p. 6)

Don’t Be Satisfied with “Good”

While we do not doubt that we teach at a “good” school, Collins reminds us that in his research in the business world and the social sector he found that: “No matter what you have achieved, you will always be merely good relative to what you may become…The moment you think of yourself as great, your slide toward mediocrity will have already begun.” (Collins, p. 9) Doug Heath, the Quaker educator, put it another way; he suggests that we remain “divinely discontent”.

Our Audacious Goals

This raised the question, what are the audacious goals we have for our school (and school community)? How do we define them, and what evidence could we assemble that proves we have achieved them? If we review the criteria from the Cleveland Orchestra, we could consider evaluating our school and community according to:

  • Superior Performance
  • Distinctive Impact
  • Lasting Endurance

Or what are the categories for criteria that we would choose? The following is a synopsis of the many thoughts shared by those present at our gathering:

  • Is our enduring impact our environmental focus?
  • Is it our community’s perception of Sidwell as a Quaker school, as a place where faculty stays a long time?
  • Is our measure of success based on the colleges our students get into?
  • What about what jobs our students have ten years out of Sidwell? Do they go on to be people still dedicated to service? Is that how a Quaker school measures success?
  • We could create ways to measure our “core values” as they are posted on our website: environmental stewardship, academic excellence, prizing diversity, and Quaker values. What evidence would we collect to determine if we have attained these goals?
  • Perhaps we measure our success based on the community we build among our colleagues,
  • Or perhaps we look at the families of our students and their choices,
  • Or by our own students’ self-images – are we building self-confident learners who feel good about themselves and able to be positive with each other about their successes?

Our Goals for Our Students

How do we measure success in terms of the experience our students have in our school? Is the only measure of success the list of colleges they are accepted to? This topic brought out a range of interesting views and experiences. Some of the thoughts about success for students outside of college admission included:

  • That our students come to school every day with the passion for learning that matches the faculty’s passion for teaching
  • Students are motivated by their own internal drive to learn, and are rewarded with praise for effort as well as success
  • Students have a passionate feeling that the school enhanced their own sense of who they are
  • Students come to appreciate their strengths and feel recognized for them- that they have found their unique talents are of value here
  • Students feel good about themselves (high self-esteem) as students and as people
  • Students feel supported at all levels of achievement and do not feel stigmatized for needing or receiving help – they are empowered to seek teacher support and are rewarded with the time and encouragement of the faculty
  • Students are met at their developmental levels and allowed to make mistakes, try again, and even resist in appropriate ways according to their age.

Faculty and Staff

What are the ways we could measure success for our school as a workplace? We thought of a few criteria, some of which apply to teachers, students , and staff:

  • Do students, teachers, and staff feel good about coming here every morning?
  • Do we keep questioning everything – not afraid to try something new, not afraid of change
  • Can we find the passion within the child, beginning in the earliest years and continuing throughout their school experience?
  • Do we make sure that every student feels successful in some area?
  • Do we all practice “right speech” while in the workplace (no gossip, practice kindness)?
  • If we didn’t give grades, would we know our students well enough to accurately evaluate them? How would this change the students’ experience and motivation?
  • Do we constantly seek ways to broaden our craft as teachers, not just within our specialized area, but in light of new ideas and thinking about the craft of teaching itself?

Getting the Passionate People on the Bus

In the business world, Jim Collins encourages organizations to get “the right people in the right seats on the bus”. He says the challenge in the social sector is getting the “passionate people on the bus”. In our environment there are many questions about this:

  • How does this concept fit with our Quaker mission to see the light in everyone? How do you select people and uphold this tenet?
  • Do we apply this students as well as employees? If we select for the passionate students, can we offer them the freedom to follow their passions?
  • Do we encourage all teachers to engage in regular professional development and keep the conversation about how we teach open?

More on this subject at the next meeting

After a fascinating discussion it seemed we had just begun to approach the question of how we would define success for our school. We have therefore decided to continue the discussion, based on the thoughts listed here and continued consideration of the Collins monograph. We hope to hold our next gathering in early January. We would be happy to have anyone participate through this blog in the meantime.