Veteran school leader talks about managing change

On Board Online • October 26, 2009

By Marc Humbert
Senior Writer

Steve Edwards has run schools, taught in colleges and advised the World Bank and the United Nations. Not bad for the kid from Jamestown in western New York who remembers the feeling of despair when his fourth-grade teacher told him he was being held back.

“From then on, the other kids referred to me as the red-headed retard,” Edwards recalled to a packed conference room Oct. 17 at NYSSBA’s 90th Annual Convention in New York City.

Edwards said he was saved by a veteran teacher in his neighborhood who worked with him that summer and for several years thereafter to overcome his learning problems, which included dyslexia.

At the NYSSBA convention, Edwards spoke about what board members, school officials and teachers must do to turn around their schools and drag them – kicking and screaming, if necessary – into the 21st century.

Too often, he said, school districts spend time heaping praise on the top performers in their schools – “the kids you know are going to make it,” he said.

“I judge the success of a school district by your bottom 20 students,” he said.

In his “Creating a Sense of Urgency” seminar, Edwards repeatedly challenged board members and school officials to embrace real change.

“You can rearrange the chairs on the Titanic, but the ship is still going down,” he warned.

Edwards, who now advises school districts nationwide, said he went to one district where the agenda for change ran to 127 pages.

“How can anybody remember 127 pages?” he asked.

The plan was quickly boiled down to one page with three key goals.

Edwards also warned school officials that too much time is often spent dealing with those who are adamantly opposed to change – “the tail wagging the dog,” he called it – instead of working hard with those who support change. By doing that, those who are on the fence about change are more likely to come on board with the effort.

He also said principals need to spend time regularly visiting classrooms and arranging for teachers to leave their own classrooms to visit the classes of other teachers. Along with that, schools need to have a system that provides regular and immediate feedback to teachers.

Too often, Edwards said, “we’ve allowed teachers to be their own independent contractors.”

He also suggested that school leaders identify what particular skills and strengths individual teachers may have and then use those teachers to train others within the school. It is a low-cost method for professional development, he noted.

And, he said, schools must identify things that can be quickly jettisoned to provide the time and resources for what is really needed.

“You have schools that are still teaching keyboarding to ninth graders,” he said, noting that by then virtually every child in America already knows how to use one.

Edwards also told the audience that when they were planning for change in their schools, they should not forget to spend plenty of time talking not just to parents and teachers, but also to the students.

“Too often, we just don’t ask our students,” he noted.

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