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Operations: it’s not sexy, but it sure is important.

I didn’t start my career in education. I spent the first four years of my career at technology start-ups. In addition to seeing an entire business cycle, I gained crucial insight into how business should be (or should not be) run. I also learned the basics of work — email, meetings, presentations, etc. So, it is with this lens that I come to education work.


Here’s what I’ve Seen in Education:


I work with many schools that are in turnaround, or redesign, or school improvement of some kind. While we work on improving curriculum and instruction, or school culture, many operations issues, including systems and structures issues, become “unearthed.”

Here is a sampling:

  • Meetings consistently run late (or over) and don’t have a clear, set, or followed agenda. This includes: many people show up late to meetings or don’t show up at all, no meeting minutes, and the worst one: people are on their cell phones, computers, or grading papers during meetings.

  • Emails are not read or responded to.

  • Systems are outdated. For example, hiring systems, email, document storage.

  • There is a general lack of project management skills, including setting and meeting deadlines. (Or even completing a basic project plan).

  • Some teachers and staff don’t know how to do the basics of technology — attaching documents, calendar invites, etc.

In most other fields, this is unacceptable. Yet, we have come to accept this at many schools.


Given that these schools are usually trying to improve things, and that many of them have been labeled as “failing,” we should not be too shocked.


I feel like we spend a lot of time in turnaround and re-design discussing teaching, learning, curriculum, instruction, and school culture. All very important, and key to change. However, there is an underlying issue that people rarely emphasize or focus on — operations, or the work culture.


It can be hard to do transformational change or shift student outcomes with poor work cultures or bad operations. How can you change when no one shows up to the meeting? How can you improve instruction when the administrator keeps changing the time/date of your observation?


SEL and Operations


Recently, there has been an emphasis on teaching social-emotional skills, and professional skills in school. (See NGLC’s MyWays, or Transcend’s Graduate Aims Database). This includes executive functioning. It also includes showing up on time, being organized, academic behaviors, and responsible decision making. It’s interesting to me that we hold students accountable for behaviors that the adults are not always demonstrating. How can we expect students to show up to class on time or to school on time, when the adults don’t show up to meetings on time?


Adults need to be demonstrating these skills so that students can learn them.


Money


This is not necessarily a financial issue. I see schools in fairly affluent districts spending 15-20K per pupil exhibiting these types of behaviors. Also, it doesn’t cost any money to run meetings effectively or to meet deadlines. To be fair, many schools, in particular, many high performing charters, see operations as a clear priority. Achievement First has a very efficient email system in which each email has a coded subject line — for example “QQ” for quick question, or “response needed,” which makes it easy to prioritize emails. When I worked at Summit Public Schools, we had a very clear meeting structure, based on a book called How to Make Meetings Work, where the agenda was sent out in advance, everyone in the meeting had clear roles and responsibilities, and time limits were followed. Many other schools have norms around meetings and emails.


Some school and district leaders claim that upgrading systems and structures is too costly, and that there is not enough time to train people on these skills. This seems like short-term thinking to me. If we invest the money in technology, systems and training up front, it should eventually save money, and more importantly, precious time.


Yeah…But….


Let me address some of the “yeah, buts.” Yes, I understand teachers, staff, and leaders are pulled in a million different directions. Yes, I understand there is limited time in the day. Yes, I understand that people sometimes feel like meetings are a waste of time, so they don’t show up or they are multitasking. However, if you can’t get the basics done, then we need to look at how people are spending their time and how we are allocating resources (people/staffing, technology, and money). When I work with people and teams, I try to diagnose what is really going on. Is it a time issue? A priority issue? A lack of skills issue? Some combination of both? Do schools not know what they don’t know? Can we teach these skills? Is this a union contract issue — my work day ends at 2pm, so therefore I don’t respond to emails after that time?


In my experience, the lack of efficient operations is some combination of the below:

  • Low expectations for staff (and adults in general)

  • Lack of training, especially for technology and “professional skills”

  • Lack of prioritization of operations

  • Acceptance and enabling of these above behaviors


Ideas for Improvement


If we expect to change and improve schools, we also need to change the culture of the workplace at schools.


I recently read this great article by the CEO of a start-up, who states that vision is much less important that discipline.


As I saw someone tweet the other day, we should ask ourselves, “is this a kid issue, an adult issue or a systems issue?”


Some ideas:

  • Think about the big picture when planning whole school design, redesign or improvement. See this framework from the Learning Accelerator.

  • Give principals better management training. Perhaps borrow some coursework from business schools.

  • Have work culture training for teachers, such as differentiated and regular tech skills workshops, regular training and modeling of work expectations, specific orientation and coaching for new teachers. Together Teacher and Together Leader have great resources on this.Give explicit SEL training to adults, particularly empathy and executive functioning: See Valor Compass Camp.

  • Staff schools with operations people: Washington, D.C. did this successfully! Specifically, have them think about operations in terms of student learning.

  • Do an audit of all roles and staff: how are people spending and prioritizing time?

  • Be thoughtful about meetings and plan them carefully.


So, yes, let’s focus on improving teaching, curriculum and instruction. We know this is the #1 thing that will improve outcomes. And yes, let’s improve school culture, and our relationships with students. We know that this is also key to student success. But, ALSO, let’s talk about the adult culture. And the work culture. And, then, let’s try to really improve schools.

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