by Dr. Louise Waters
Education innovation is beset by seemingly intransigent, although opposing, forces. The first is well known to any change agent. It is “Can’t Because.” We can’t do x, y, z because we tried it before and it didn’t work. We can’t because our children / families aren’t ready for it. We can’t because our context is unique. We can’t because our school is under-resourced. Etc. Etc. Etc.
A less obvious barrier is the true believers “Can and Must”:
Lasting innovation borrows from both. It is the “Can If” orientation described by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden in their book, A Beautiful Constraint. As I have experienced it, those with a “Can If” orientation view change as a Rubik's Cube with three dimensions: Strategic, Human, and Execution. Like the colored cubes embedded in the larger Rubik’s Cube, the components of each dimension are continually changing, providing new opportunities and constraints. All must be managed and aligned for innovation to lead to permanent institutional change.
The Strategic dimension incorporates the need - the call to action and a compelling vision to address it. Taken together these energize passion and purpose. It also includes the strategy to identify the barriers and assets already in place and the path to leveraging them. These constraints and opportunities are embedded in both the Human dimension - how to get buy-in, alignment and momentum from stakeholders - and the Execution dimension - how to make sure that each step of the strategy actually works and moves the system closer to achieving the vision.
Let me make this concrete. In the 1990s I became principal at a Bay Area Elementary School, the school two of my children had attended. One was a strong traditional learner and one struggled with severe dyslexia. Neither had been well served by the systems it had in place. The school was extremely diverse with no dominant ethnic group and situated in a working, middle-class community. The families were heavily immigrant or recent arrivals to the suburbs and were supportive but not demanding of their safe, welcoming, physically attractive school. The staff was complacent with the achievement level and with gaps attributed to language, culture, income and family structure. The likelihood that it would or could change to truly meet the needs of children like either of mine seemed low. If I came in as the knight in shining armor with all the answers for school improvement, I was going to be dismissed with Who are you to tell us how to do our job? or Yes, but our kids come from families who don’t prepare them for success! But if I entered trying to win their approval and agreeing with their complacency and prior beliefs, I would be complicit in maintaining the status quo.
However, I also came into school-site leadership after eight years as a professor of urban education and a school reform coach in low-income Black and Brown schools in nearby Oakland. I knew we could do better and the achievement gaps I had observed here were not inevitable. I had also seen how assessment and data could be used as entry points for fundamental change. And I knew from both research and practice that the traditional assessment, grading and retention system negatively impacted all students and had devastating effects on students with IEPs and low-income students of color. It was a key element of the systemic racisms embedded in American schooling. Like most aspects of systemic racism, it was taken for granted and largely invisible, simply “normal,” to people who had risen through it - here and at schools across the country.
Armed with data and the knowledge garnered from years of supporting schools in changing their outcomes by changing their assessment and grading processes, I had a vision for using this entry point to transform my new school. However, as a parent I knew the staff was highly seasoned, one of the most traditional in the district. It would be easy to trigger backlash and resistance. My goal: to move them from what would surely have been “We Can’t Because” to a more open “We Can If” that would allow us to align on a path to greater impact and equity. I knew this would mean a fundamental disruption in teaching and learning.
The strategy I began evolving then, so many years ago, I have come to term Disruptive Incrementalism. Disruptive Incrementalism is a contrarian theory of change. In accepted practice, particularly in the world of “Can and Must” believers, a visionary leader is hired and / or a long, blue-sky design process engages a large group of stakeholders to create a vision. Once leadership and vision are in place, implementation plans are created. Often implementation is delegated to a small, select staff with little transparency and engagement and often a very short timeline. Disruptive Incrementalism turns this process on its head: First build trust with outstanding execution and early wins with a good-enough, equity-oriented vision. Then collaboratively iterate, tailor to the local context, and deepen the equity vision.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Human Change
A veteran staff has seen innovations come and go, often poorly implemented, disruptive and time consuming, and seldom sustained over time. They have little reason to get on board. Trust is built through doing, not talking: getting early wins and being responsive. Here is the strategy for change in the human dimension:
In working with the staff at my school, this meant building an easy consensus that the hated elementary grading system had to change. It included a narrative K report card, an effort-based 1-2 card, and traditional letter grades at 3rd through 5th. A clear pain point. Second was shrinking the change. Initially this initiative was not about mastery grading, portfolios, the language arts program, homework, etc. It was simply designing a new K-5 report card for better alignment, greater transparency for families, and more equity across grades and classrooms. Obtaining district permission was a huge trust-building first step. Calling out equity as a piece of the initial good-enough vision set the stage to later deepen the discussion of equity. And finally, there were bright spots to build on. The kindergarten team used a variety of performance assessment tools, a number of teachers had writing portfolios, and so on. My job was to highlight these and why they worked - building internal models rather than simply holding up easily dismissed external exemplars.
The next steps involved generating buy in via authentic engagement. This meant bringing those pioneer teachers together and exposing them to the relevant research and to their own classroom inquiry, building a design team focused on implementation not on vision. Each of them had a long history of pushing their own practice. Now they were working as a team encouraging each other and prototyping new grading practices, something I later came to call collaborative innovation. As they began fleshing out a new system and were provided the time and autonomy to experiment, others wanted to join - a process of demand pull.
By the end of the year, the pioneer group had the skeleton of a new report card and a plan for building the grading systems to support it. Presented at a full-faculty meeting, everyone was invited to join in extensive, paid, summer work. Those who did not choose to come committed to abiding by whatever the group had put in place, knowing that it was a pilot that would be iterated over the following year and subsequent summer. This second more inclusive stage I have come to call collaborative iteration. We can make this work if we…..Over those first two years the fluid teams - sometimes by grade and sometimes focused on content areas or specific populations like special education or English Learners, expanded their sense of accountability from their own students to all students. In later years as the report card and assessment system, and the design team, grew to include all elementary schools in the district, the sense of responsibility also expanded. Teachers began to feel responsible for all students in the district.
Disruptive Incrementalism and Execution
Attending to the human dimension of change means building trust and hope. Can staff trust that they will have a voice, that you will deliver, that there will be results? Much of the way you build trust and hope this is through how well you execute:
As I mentioned, my first big win was gaining permission to pilot a new report card in a district seen as highly centralized. The fact that I personally led the work and had visible support from top district administrators both validated and empowered teachers. The involvement of “Can’t Becausers” and “Can and Musters” meant issues of implementation were addressed all along the way. To address concerns, increase participation, reduce overwhelm and shorten timelines, different teachers prototyped different pieces of the system needed for the new report card to be successful. Some created mastery exemplars for grade-level performance in math, reading and writing. Some designed electronic lesson plan templates. Others thought through what a grade book would look like under mastery grading and how this type of report card would fit in with traditional practices like the GPA honor roll (eliminated) and parent conferences (became student led conferences). Still others worked on parent communication. Feedback from parents, students and teachers identified best practices as well as execution disconnects that could be addressed immediately before the next report card. Substantive issues were put in the parking lot for summer iteration. Problems were surfaced and addressed, champions emerged, and trust was built that nothing was set in stone.
Disruptive Incrementalism: A Strategy for Systemic Change
Many strategic guidelines are detailed above:
A word about goal and vision iteration. This is the contrarian aspect of Disruptive Incrementalism. Don’t invest time and political capital on a blue-sky vision and lofty goals - both of which will probably not be reached in the near term. Instead, start with something that has wide support and is concrete and achievable in the near term - but that is aligned to the long-term goal and vision. In doing the actual work, staff will expand their understanding of the issues and their belief that deeper change is possible. In designing a new report card you have to address what is the role of effort, of achievement, of mastery, of improvement - and how does this play out with a student far below grade level, an emerging speaker of English, etc etc. With strong facilitation, these questions drive people to the research and to classroom cycles of inquiry. If this is done in a learning, not punitive or lecturing, way and if that inquiry is public and inclusive (we called it “The Committee of Whoever Comes”), fundamental change can happen.
With strong facilitation, the measurable, systemic, equity goals can be teased out and called out and understanding builds. Over 7 years we built a district-wide K-5 developmental, standards-based report card utilizing authentic assessment and supporting an academic program that aimed to meet every student where they were. A critical element was a comprehensive formative data system for all schools. A wrap-around extended day program with multi-layer tutoring provided intervention and included 4 primary language academies to build primary language literacy. By the end of the first year, teachers were able to articulate a clear, measurable goal: All children would grow at least one year in reading, writing and math and students below grade level would grow at least a year and a half. After tracking data for three years an additional goal emerged for students entering the school with no English proficiency: grade-level achievement after four years. While few staff would have believed this possible at the beginning, most came to see that if data showed a significant number of students could meet these markers, it should be possible for all. That same data system, one which codified and tracked formative data, allowed for the close monitoring of these goals. In fact, individual data for each of the 900 students lined the wall of the faculty conference room for ready use in staff meetings. These goals and this comprehensive vision, especially when they became district wide, could have sparked rebellion and been shot down before change got started. Approached with collaboration, iteration and demand pull - the processes of Disruptive Incrementalism, changes few would have foreseen did happen.
Two final corollaries of Disruptive Incrementalism are important to note if the goal of education reform is systemic change that sustains over time. These are:
Education change strategy seems to swing from researched-based fidelity to creative autonomy and back again. Disruptive Incrementalism has the opportunity to bridge these predictable poles. Neither autonomy nor fidelity are good in-and-of themselves. Rather they are means to an end. You cannot have equitable access and outcomes across teachers and classrooms, or across schools, without common standards along with consistent expectations and practices that allow alignment. The lack of these is an underpinning of systemic racism that allows the best teachers, practices, and programs to go to the students with the strongest advocates and most privilege. Consistency is also necessary for teachers to collaborate. If teachers cannot share data or curriculum, they have little concrete to collaborate about and little reason to identify best practices.
At the same time a system that is lock step does not allow teachers and schools to contextualize for specific communities and students. It also does not allow them to bring their own passion and tap into the passion and creativity of their students. Impact and equity need both. In the report card project, common standards, rubrics and exemplars supported consistency and high expectations but allowed teachers the latitude to build, borrow or iterate their content. For instance, the development of schoolwide, K-5, student-led conferences equitably supported student agency and grading transparency. However, the exact structure and artifacts of a given teacher’s SLCs invited creativity.
By starting small, under promising and over delivering, and calling the full range of school voices into the iterative design process, the so-called report card work attracted little attention beyond the boundaries of the school. The number of advocates increased, coming to include parents and students themselves. And their understanding deepened. By the time more fundamental changes were part of the vision, what could have been major issues, like the end of letter grades and the honor roll, brought inquiries not protests. And the trust that had been built meant that when true problems arose, like the incompatibility of the district’s online grade book and the new report card, teachers became problem solvers not saboteurs. The practice of summer collaborative iteration was in place and, though frustrated, teachers were willing to do work arounds until then. The spread to other schools was viral - teacher to teacher with pioneers from other campuses asking to join the summer work. The actual district-wide move to a new report card was uneventful. No concerns rose to the level of a complaint to the Board, let alone a public outcry. And the district-wide extended day program was celebrated.
This, then, is Disruptive Incrementalism. It has an end goal of disruptive, systemic change. However, the process is incremental, building the understanding of complex change, trust in implementation, and buy in from a range of stakeholders. It takes into account the three faces of change: strategic, human, and execution. And it leverages the cautions of the “Can’t Becausers” and the passions of the “Can and Musters” to move systems. I returned to my school 10 years, two principals and many teachers later. A new teacher gave me a tour pointing out school highlights, not knowing my role in any of them. Most were products of the “report card” work now institutionalized. 20 years later my granddaughter moved into the district to start kindergarten. The comprehensive extended day program, designed to support meeting students where they are, was still a touted feature of every elementary school in the district. I do not know how many of the deeper shifts have lasted, becoming invisible as they, too, just became part of “Who we are and how we do things.” That, too. is Disruptive Incrementalism, where invisibility and longevity may be the ultimate markers of success.
The Story of Transforming a School System
By Gina Meinertz
Globally, educators are seeing a need to change school systems. We believe in the possibilities of equity, all students achieving, and all students graduating ready to contribute to the common good, but we also know there are barriers standing in the way of those beliefs. The hard work to transform our system will not only mean we will need to identify the barriers but that we will also need to find solutions that include more voices and better outcomes.
Spring Grove Public Schools is on a journey to transform a traditional public school into a culturally relevant learning space that ensures every child confidently uses their passions and strengths to find purpose. To do this work, a team of teachers, students, parents, leaders, and board members created a vision of the 21st Century One Room Schoolhouse with pillars of self-paced curriculum, project-based learning, flexible learning spaces, and real-world learning opportunities.
Here are some thoughts on how a more traditional system can transform into a student-centered learning environment.
Transforming Traditional Roles and Feedback Loops
Hidden Voices: Designing A System for All
Spring Grove consistently uses design teams so students, parents, and educators collaborate to envision, prototype, and research the best next steps for our school. We use a series of improvement cycle protocols, including empathy interviews, to hear all voices. When we collect this information, the order of the collection is integral. Unlike most systems, feedback starts with our students so that the adults listen to the voices of the youth before sharing their own perspectives. This ensures the traditional power holders are listening before speaking. We also have a practice of looking at our data from a series of lenses. We start with common themes, and then take a second look purposely searching for hidden voices with concepts from equity design principals intertwined. If we are missing any stakeholders or groups, we seek out empathy interviews with these individuals. If we are hearing passionate or loud voices, we may use the “5 Whys” technique to find and respond to the root cause.
Flexibility: The Students and Families Shape Their Own Success
We know our school system will forever be changing and transforming. This is because Spring Grove offers opportunities and choices to students, parents, and staff members. This relationship of communication and trust has allowed us to continue our healthy transitions, even during a pandemic.
Here are a variety of ways we have been able to use the shifts and stressors of the pandemic to further our advancements in culturally, relevant student-centered learning.
Transformational Leadership: A Shift In How We Support Our Vision
Maybe because of the size of our system or maybe because of creative thinking, Rachel Udsuen, our Superintendent, has created a Transformational Leader position that combines Transformational Coaching with Leadership (this is the position I hold). The primary goal is to break down barriers holding back the vision of culturally relevant, student-centered learning by working with teachers, students, parents, community members, and other staff individually, in small groups, within the community, within the county, and within the state. Another role of this position is to listen with empathy, dig for voices that may have been missed, and support everyone interested to achieve desired outcomes. Lastly, the role includes analyzing systems, writing and revising policies, and supporting the system to represent the voices and perspectives of multiple stakeholder groups.
Our goal was to create a setting to support the passions, interests, and individual professional development needs of all adults, so that the adults could in turn implement deeper learning, whole child development and personalized learning experiences for students. As a coach, I personally use experience mapping to storyline the growth and needs of our system as we transform. As a leader, I work with my team using human-centered design and Studor Education to visually transform feedback loops and research into practice in a transparent way.
Impacting Community and Place
Place-based Learning in Outdoor Classrooms: An increase in Inquiry & Engagement
Our educators wanted to find ways for our students to feel safe and engaged in learning during a pandemic, which led us to outdoor learning. We reached out to some friends in Norway at Hoppensprett. They shared how they started outdoor classrooms with details about how they would instruct, eat, and learn outdoors. This inspiration helped us as we designed three outdoor classrooms in the elementary, a middle school partnership with a city park, and additional outings for many students to prairies, woods, and wetlands.
Outdoor Classrooms have been such a success from the perspective of our students, teachers, parents, and community members. Students ask more questions, observe with more detail, focus better, and make more connections between learning and life. Projects of learning include but are not limited to the following learning themes:
The city has supported our efforts by renovating three shelters to create spaces of flexibility where windows can be closed and opened to protect students from the wind and other elements. Our Communications Company gifted the internet to our outdoor shelters. Teachers invite guest speakers frequently to share their experiences and expertise to engage students with authentic and relevant learning. These students will end their year by creating a new outdoor natural reading space for all students in the school. They are organizing funding, designing a log to be transformed into a bench, and planning a native plant garden to surround their reading bench. In years beyond, they plan to increase the native plant populations around the entire school grounds and city.
Place/Based Learning: Experience Drives Learning
Traditionally, all students in seventh grade and above in Spring Grove functioned with a similar eight-period day schedule. The pandemic brought us to create a middle school pod. The teachers started teaming to create interdisciplinary units of study focused on real-world problems, self-reliance, and collaboration.
The students partnered with the City of Spring Grove to research, plan, and design a park with more native plants and natural spaces. Students learned from an environmental educator about biodiversity, habitat, and prairie plants. Using this knowledge as well as their aesthetic preferences, students designed maps and presentations to share their ideas of how to improve the park with the grant funding. Students shared this with the Mayor and Parks and Recreation committee. They will receive feedback before ordering the plants. The City and students plan to continue this project into the spring so the students can learn about soil preparation and testing, planting conditions, and will in the end complete the project alongside community members.
by Jean Prokott
The book cover was a black and white pixelated picture of Mr. Hoffman with long California hair, holding a surfboard at his side. Three staples were smashed into its left margin. It held my very first publication: a poem titled “Scatological” that was written in rhyming couplets, one of which ended with the phrase “for you a just a crayon.”
The poem was legit the worst.
And bless Mr. Hoffman for pretending it was good. He was my AP Literature teacher in 1999, and the book was creatively called Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999. Everyone had a poem in this book—and we each had our very own copy of the book—our class collection of poetry.
I’d like to be humble, but I thought my poem was the best, and I’d convinced the whole class to get on board with this sentiment. Mr. Hoffman used to make transparencies of my essays (remember transparencies? in my first year of teaching, I melted a hot number of those in the photocopier) and projected them to the class with all the best sentences underlined. I don’t think anyone cared much, except for frenemy Sarah, who also sometimes had essays projected, so the dust settled at Jean’s the best writer in the class except for when Sarah is.
I loved every single thing about writing, and Mr. Hoffman played a substantial role in that. It was only to thirty small-town kids, but he published my work. High school years were a hot mess for me, and I am grateful he offered me overhead projector light.
My nickname in high school was “English Teacher,” and even though I tried to Jocasta myself out of this prophecy, it happened that twenty years later I, too, was smashing staples into the left margins of poetry my American Literature students had written as a contemporary response to Transcendentalism. Each student, just like in my 1999 version, had their very own poem on their very own page.
If my students knew what kind of garbage I wrote in 1999, there is no way they’d trust me to be their English teacher. I cannot explain how exponentially better my students are ahead of my personal curve. Those sophomore poems are pretty damn good. People need to see.
That is, this is not a story about surfboards and scat, but rather a reflection on what it means for kids to get their work out there.
Building Confidence: forming a foundation trust for students to share on
Convincing my high school students to publish doesn’t mean in a formal sense. For some, it means sharing their personal writing (not the “peer review” of a literary analysis, but a poem, personal narrative, or short story) with a large group of classmates, and that’s enough. It takes a lot of confidence for a kid to pass around thirty copies of his poem to students who just-so-happened-to-also-take-the-class. In my classroom, this act alone is publication. It allows us to start in a place we will never get rejected.
The creative writing workshop is the groundwork of confidence, and I’ve found this works best when the class observes the one-one-one I have with a student after their workshop. It allows me to model a “confidence/constructive” dialogue. Usually, I will tell them what I love, tell them what’s “muddy” and needs some work, and then throw out a “but what if you tried this! when you revise?” because it helps them understand the effort is worth it—their teacher is stoked about their work. On the really good days, after we wrap things up, I hear one kid say to another your poem was amazing after they’re in the hallway, and I do a villain laugh: ha ha, got you to care, suckers!
Not every workshop is perfect, I make a lot of mistakes, but this is a good first step. Students who truly embrace this first publication are the ones who meet with me about more formal opportunities.
I don’t require kids to publish as part of my curriculum (I think some kids might be a bit too fragile for rejection). However, I do show everyone how to do it. And I’m successful at healthily harassing kids to send out their work. When there’s a flier for a contest, I tape it to the dry erase board and draw 40 arrows pointing to it, when there’s a student who needs an extra nudge, I’ll photocopy the flier and drop it on her desk.
Each year, Rochester holds a Martin Luther King, Jr. poetry contest for K-12, and I have had a few students win or place in that prize. I put the flier on the board with the arrows and mild threats to submit, but one year I went to each student and told them which of their poems could win the whole thing. Only some submitted, and I think a few did just to shut me up. And when the “fine, just leave me alone Ms. Prokott'' kid won, it was truly a gift to say, well, Garrett, I flippin' told you. You have to give me half the prize money.
The best way I nudge students is with secondary dialogue on their drafts, such as you need to publish this immediately, let’s talk about how to get things out there! Or on my sophomores’ personal narratives and poetry: please, please sign up for creative writing next year!
Many teachers, all of my colleagues, do this. And again, this is not to be a trick—I genuinely want the students to do these things, and I take it a little personally when they don’t.
Submitting for Publication: steps for students to get their words in print
This is a note I posted in Google Classroom before I talked about publishing with my seniors:
When it comes to formally publishing work, I take students through the process of using Submittable, which is a free website that most professional publications use. Luckily, it’s easy for them to sign up: they just need an email address. I recommend their personal one so they may access post-graduation.
My school doesn’t have a literary magazine or a newspaper, but schools with those could hold contests in a similar way; this year, our yearbook has a poetry competition and winners will be published. But in my realm, beyond Submittable, opportunities sometimes fall into my lap. My colleagues put any mail they get for creative writing contests in my e-or-mailbox; a friend will let me know of a contest at his university; an editor will send an email to high school teachers informing them of a contest; a parent will send a note.
The opportunities above led to my students publishing online and in print over the last few years. The editor of Up North Lit emailed me about their high school contest, and I convinced some students to send poems. One of my students won the contest and had three poems published, and another had a poem published. It is worth noting that I submitted to the adult contest and got a big fat rejection.
There are opportunities hiding in the community, too. Students have published Op-Eds in the local paper, students have organized or attended poetry slams. Two of my seniors were locally published because a parent emailed that she was looking for young, female, writers of color for Rochester Women Magazine. I knew a few students perfect for the break, so I gave them her information, and they published two beautiful pieces last spring. The day the magazine came out, they sprinted up the stairs, handed me a glossy copy, and told me exactly which page to turn to.
Providing a Sense of Place: being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability
Distance learning has afforded many weird opportunities, but one I intend to keep is that I have started to write letters to my students. Last year, I wrote my class of 2020 a three-page singled-spaced monster letter that included a personal anecdote about a car driving into a gas pump. I wrote my sophomores a letter about the George Floyd murder to amplify the importance of rhetoric and of Raisin in the Sun. Instead of a syllabus this fall, I wrote a letter (a “letterbus” [student eye roll]) to introduce myself. I wrote my seniors a letter in response to the Amanda Gorman inaugural poem.
I don’t know if they read these letters—it might truly be a TL;DR situation—but the ones that do, I hope, know that their teacher loves to write herself, which very much matters.
Here’s how I see my role:
It’s remarkably cheesy, but Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999 is one of my most important publications. I’m a bit of a pessimist—adamantly critical of toxic (and sometimes regular) positivity—but it’s one of the stories people might post on Facebook during National Teacher Appreciation Week regarding the “teacher that changed them.” (I intend to send Mr. Hoffman a copy of my poetry chapbook, The Birthday Effect, once it comes out this month, no note or anything, just to show him what’s up—something I have looked forward to for a long time. Also, why do I feel vindictive about it? That’ll show that jerk to believe in me!)
Teachers know we don’t know the long-term impacts of the nudges and notes we leave on our students’ writing. My students don’t know a lot of my praise comes from the jealousy that they are such better writers than I ever could have been in high school. It’s just not that hard to get excited about their work. I throw a few tools at them, smash a stapler, and they take it from there.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.