line segments

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education, in San Francisco. It was a good meeting for many reasons, but one image in particular has stuck with me:

01 ball at top

Foundation president Anthony Bryk used it to illustrate the kind of patience required for turning hunches into genuine changes at scale, in either behavior or culture. If you want the ball at the top – the end state you’re going for – then the temptation at first is to just put it there. But usually what happens is people reject it as alien, and the ball gets a quick and easy nudge downhill.

What you discover is that really you need to start small, at the bottom. Then as you build support you get other people’s help moving the ball upward, and they even change and improve it along the way. Work like that, and by the time you get to the top there’s no way it’s falling back down.

02 ball in motion

That rang true for many in his audience, who live this stuff. But it also cast a harsh light on our context: we seldom get that much time. In my version of his diagram, that long red hill might last a decade.

In my experience coordinating a string of state universities, the impetus for change has come in one of three flavors:

  • you get a grant (three years to spend it, tops)
  • someone passes a law (to be fully implemented in eighteen months or less)
  • the state economy changes (quick: which half of your programs do you eliminate? or quick: spend $50 million in unexpected revenue before it’s swept!)

This world doesn’t lend itself to the patient rolling of balls.

So then what’s the well-meaning wonk to do? Cause Tony’s right: use that grant or tax windfall to drop a big ball on a hill, and it will not stay there. But walking away from a short-term opportunity is bad management, and in the case of legislation and the economy, not even an option.

I’ve decided the answer is to think of the hill as a sequence of line segments. One segment might be a grant, the next one a law, or the boss’s whim, and so on:

03 segments

The object of the game – maybe the only one – is to know where you are along the hill, and then to take each short term exigency as a chance to edge higher.

As I’ve been picturing that, it’s occurred to me that it’s also not a bad metaphor for the individual lifespan, in the context my friend Alice Perez calls the “long experience of the human family.”

04 lifespan

Really, that’s all we get.


5 thoughts on “line segments

  1. For most of my working life as a teacher, administrators have always told me that I needed to get the support of my colleagues if I wanted to see change take place. For example, when I started teaching fourth grade in the mid-1980s, I was hired at my first job in part because the principal viewed me as something of an expert in writing instruction. I tried to get my colleagues to support innovation so we could push the ball up the slope together, and it moved ever so slightly if only at my school. After a few years of ever-so-glacial movement I saw the light: Getting support for improvement from other teachers would work a little, but as long as the teachers were evaluated based on scores on a standardized test of editing skills, the powerful downward pressure on the ball simply swamped us all. Twenty-five years later, when I was teaching graduate students, who were the next generation of young elementary school teachers, about composition theory, I was dismayed to find that their understanding of writing instruction was about the same as that of my colleagues from the past. There had been no air in the ball at all.

    I could elaborate with a ton of examples from my experiences as a middle school English teacher, as a community college instructor, and most recently as a university professor. The details of the ball would change (writing, portfolios, critical reading, critical thinking, you name it), but the constant would be the powerful downward pressure from those people whose incentive was not to change anything, but to keep things on track according to policies and executive orders. The big ticket energy came from those policies and orders, which were put in place not to change anything, but to keep things on track. The system keeps doing the same thing because its job is to stay on track, to crank out those backpacks you had on your conveyor belt, Ken, in a recent post. Organizational learning is in education a survival mechanism, not a fountain of improvement. Keeping the conveyor belt moving efficiently is the prime motivator.

    So instead of seeing the ball move up the slope and stay there long enough for more support to emerge to nudge it up a little higher, my working life is testament to a series of ball movements up and back, up and back–more accurately, sideways and back, sideways and back. I swear the status quo in education is the same today as it was when I started thirty some years ago. I still see learners of all ages scurrying around for points on an exam, squinting their eyes to make out what this person keeping the gradebook wants from them, searching for extra credit wherever it can be found.

    Occasionally, as Ken says, the pendulum swings, the earth shakes, and things rattle–pictures crash from the walls, dishes break, maybe the chimney falls down. But in a short time things are back to where they were before until the next quake. (Btw, this is exactly what is happening with the Common Core in K-12. Do you know it is now illegal in California to compare student scores on the “new” assessments with those from the old START system in any official way–those same scores on editing tests from the 1980s that held back innovation then are now illegal to even consider?)

    When the force moving a ball up a hill is countered by an even stronger force pushing it back, the result is at best inertia. Pretty soon the air gets squeezed out of the ball. It makes sense for administrators to advise would-be reformers to garner support from their colleagues before trying to make any big change. They know the strategy is ineffective and therefore does not challenge the status quo. They know it is a surefire way to keep things on track according to policies and executive orders. Those administrators know about those backpacks and conveyor belts.

    Seymour Sarason, the scholar who wrote about the predictable failure of educational reform, has been quoted as saying: “Productive learning is the learning process which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more.” For productive organizational learning to happen, we need to get rid of the “find support for your ideas” strategy. Such learning has to be, well, organized, and organization can happen only when those at the bottom pushing the ball up the slope are themselves supported by those at the top. And a lot lot lot more attention has to be paid to reliable evidence regarding exactly what ball should get the push.

  2. Duh! I’m embarrassed to admit through a couple of weeks’ thinking about this, the Sisyphus connection never dawned on me. (Maybe Bryk even said it during his speech and I missed it.) This comment hits a bull’s eye, John, and even squares well with Terry’s experiences, described in the comment after yours. Thanks for taking a look and posting.

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