Risk and Decision Making

Bear with me, this post might meander a bit.  I’ve spent the last couple of days in Texas, talking about school turnaround with state and district education leaders.  Major kudos to Region 13 here for putting on a very successful turnaround conference.  It’s been at times exciting and disappointing, though … there are some leaders who seem more than willing to try exciting, new things that benefit kids, while others are reluctant to even think about using new school improvement dollars for promising practices.

Then I watched President Obama’s speech about Afghanistan last night, and a couple of things struck me.  First, I think there are probably some real congruences between counterinsurgency and school turnaround, but I’ll save that extended discussion for when I’ve fleshed out the details with my friend who’s a COIN legal adviser to the military.  He’ll probably tell me I’m being crazy.

More importantly, what I was witnessing in that speech was a public official making a hard decision that wasn’t necessarily popular and didn’t have high odds for unmitigated success.  Sending a bunch of new troops to Afghanistan might mean stabilizing the national government there and building the capacity of local security forces.  But it might not.  The important thing is, the status quo was unsustainable and unforgivable, and something had to be done.

So is the case with failing schools.  The decisions we have to make are hard, they’re probably not going to be popular, and the reality is that some – if not many – of our efforts will fail.  And that’s OKAY (see my National Journal post on failure and innovation).

One of the big problems that we need to think about is the fact that school officials – both elected and appointed – are rarely held accountable for ongoing systemic failure, but they’re sure to be held accountable for making tough decisions that don’t work out.  I’m all for accountability, but we need to be consistent.  We can’t fire the superintendent who tried a dramatic but ultimately unsuccessful school change strategy, while allowing problems to fester unmolested in our chronically lowest performing schools.

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