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Real Success With The Common Core Will Require Some Failure

February 18, 2013

Change is hard. Anyone who has ever thought up a New Year’s Resolution knows it. Real, meaningful change requires constant attention, support structures, resources and a genuine desire to achieve results. Looking at school reform, it often has all of those elements, and yet lasting change remains elusive.

The solution? Failure.

In order to succeed at change, failure is not only inevitable; it’s necessary. Any successful change makes room for mistakes. To expect perfect execution from the inception of change dooms it to true, catastrophic failure. Imagine expecting a child to write only final drafts. It’s preposterous. So why do we expect schools to implement complex changes as if the final, perfect phase is the only one that matters? Failure is the part of the process.

Unfortunately, it is the fear failure that also stymies entire systems. Let’s face it; failure is scary. It can be paralyzing. We forget that it is our mistakes that we learn from. Competency, even mediocrity, erases our understanding of how our missteps shaped our eventual successes.

Yet, we have to remember the power failure of because it is the path to success for us, and, most importantly our students.

The Common Core State Standards, currently being implemented in 46 states, are rigorous and address the lack of college readiness among graduating seniors. While many curriculum companies and districts are trying to figure out what materials to use, teachers are faced with the creating all the pedagogical and instructional shifts that will support students in this new reality. The Common Core will require transformative change -- the type of change that many believe cannot be accomplished.

But it can.

It has been researched and codified. The problem arises when the results people expect are not immediately forthcoming. So we abandon the effort and move on to the next “big idea.” All people in the system from administrators to teachers to students and their parents become cynical, yanked from one idea to the next. Worse, our students suffer as results remain elusive.

 We must realize that everyone who tries something new is bound to fail. Learning from that failure is the catalyst of change that will lead to success.

I have been in my current district for ten years, and started each school year with a new program-wide focus. Marzano, Montonya Harmon, Three-Phase Lesson Design, Understanding by Design, Princeton Review, Skillful Teacher, Teach Like a Champion, Capturing Kids Hearts, the Long Beach Model. Every book, every researcher, every model is full of great ideas. That legendary stuff that inspires us to go forward into a new year of teaching. Then, sometime around November everything seems stagnant and teaching goes on much like it did the year before.

We know that the hallmark of success is the ability to transplant what works. Like an organ transplant, successful models need an ideal environment to thrive. Since ideal environments are in short supply, it is incumbent on us as stewards of our schools to create them. It is trying and failing that creates these environments.

Why? Because it’s not just the program, it’s the people that matter. Implementing change isn’t the same as execution. Implementing is a large-scale transmission of information that focuses on getting a set of ideas into the brains of the classroom teachers. Then, it leaves it in the hands of individuals with different levels of capacity to execute what’s been given.

When this method doesn’t work, there’s no way to repair it, because failure is not an option, it’s becomes dangerous, and personal. Therefore it stays private. Instead of using failure as a moment to grow, it becomes something to hide behind platitudes. It remains easier to stick to what was done in the past, even if it is no longer working.

As these new rigorous standards move from adoption to application in schools excitement often turns to fear. It brings the personal and professional risks associated with failure to the fore. Change feels different this time. We are all in new territory. There is recognition that risk, and therefore failure, can be worthwhile.

As strange as it may sound, the real muscle behind transformative change is failure. What separates systems that succeed and systems that sink are the way in which they deal with setbacks. Instructional leadership requires administrators to create a safe environment for teacher’s to take pedagogical risk and to fail.  The real power of failure is that it allows us to shape the messy process of implementation into something precise and effective by using the most important tool for transformation: each other. By reflecting on our mistakes, discussing them with colleagues and finding solutions together, we can make real change that matters for our students and our schools.

Failure in educational practice is common, but kept secret. For example, imagine a teacher who is trained in a new classroom control theory. When they try it, it backfires, so they retreat to what they know. Or, in another scenario, they are in a school-wide professional development training where a new lesson-planning model is introduced. They return to their classroom and give it a whirl. It’s time consuming, difficult and doesn’t seem to yield a difference with kids in the classroom. Again, it’s easy to fall back on what they already do.

This is also the type of failure that can really fire change, if it can be made public without fear of recrimination. Imagine these same scenarios in which the teacher is empowered to share their struggle and failure with colleagues. Instead of being greeted with censure they are greeted with shared understanding of struggles, communal problem-solving and a refined approach. Reflection makes failure the engine of change.

And if we really are going to uncover the power of our mistakes, we need time every day for professional development. Right now time for reflection and refinement lives in those moments when teachers have time: the beginning and end of the school year. The immediacy of the moment is lost.

In order for our system to make the necessary instructional shifts to the Common Core, we must create a culture which rewards pedagogical risk taking and removes the stigma from failure. We must realize that everyone who tries something new is bound to fail. Learning from that failure is the catalyst of change that will lead to success.

The truth is everyone makes mistakes, but the best teachers never make the same ones twice.


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