THE BLOG
10/04/2013 11:05 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

College and Career Readiness -- Part Two

Engaging in Adaptive Leadership

I recently wrote about turning the "College and Career Ready Mantra" into reality for all students. Our ability to achieve this audacious goal is dependent on our capacity as educators to:

  • Adopt and model a growth mindset
  • Engage in adaptive leadership
  • Build and sustain learning organizations
We have adopted an adaptive leadership framework for our work with administrators and teachers. This model characterizes challenges leaders will face as either technical or adaptive. "Technical problems require learning new skills and can be extremely complex, but the knowledge required to solve the problem already exists," explains Jim May, school development coach with New Tech Network who leads the Leadership Development program. In contrast:

When individuals and organizations confront an adaptive challenge, they face a dilemma where the capacity to solve it does not presently exist. Adaptive challenges require that we generate the knowledge to solve the problem while working on it.

College and career readiness clearly represents an adaptive challenge. We're all working on it, but no one has figured out how to reliably achieve this outcome for all students. The work of addressing adaptive challenges necessitates frequent and extensive communications where we engage in tough conversations about teaching, learning, students and outcomes. "For this reason, adaptive leadership -- the practice of mobilizing people to tackle adaptive challenges and thrive -- is essential for the journey towards college and career readiness," says Jim.

True college and career readiness requires that we create knowledge and solutions that do not presently exist. Schools need to become places capable of generating knowledge -- not merely disseminating it. "They must become learning organizations," says Jim.

In 2009, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky published "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership." They detailed the need for adaptation in a constantly shifting environment. To thrive, the authors maintain leaders must constantly assess and address challenges in today's landscape. I suggest that this is especially true for leaders in education where information, content and knowledge is multiplying at unprecedented rates.

George Boland, superintendent for Idaho Falls School District #91, is a district leader I admire greatly. He practices adaptive leadership both within his district and also with his community stakeholders. Facing a changing student population and shrinking budgets, George realized that if he wanted to affect change on a deep level, he needed to respond with adaptive, rather than technical, solutions. He recognized that to prepare students to graduate college and be career ready would require:

  • fundamental changes demanding strong vision
  • willingness to commit to a new strategy
  • a deep analysis of how effective district funds were in delivering student outcomes -- so that program and staffing changes could be identified for investing in doing things differently for students

George empowers and relies on principals and teachers to help spread innovation. He works closely with his school board, principals, teachers and community members to involve them in understanding the drivers for change and a transparent process for decision-making. By acting as an adaptive leader George has instilled in his staff and community a shared sense of responsibility for the district strategy.

Jim May recently conducted a professional development session that addressed adaptive leadership at the school level. Titled, "Does Your School Know How to Learn," Jim discussed many potential obstacles facing a school leader. He facilitated an exploration with administrators and teachers to analyze a problem, identify it as a technical or adaptive challenge and then develop ways to "teach" their school staff to engage in meaningful learning.

What a novel concept: transforming schools from Old World dissemination factories to fluid, flexible centers of learning for adults and students. The question is whether we can invest the necessary training and coaching to help teachers and principals move into these dramatically different roles. If we want to help make a high school diploma mean something again, I can think of no better place to focus our investments.

The last article in this three-part series on College and Career Readiness will focus on "Building and Sustaining Learning Organizations." As with the first part that dealt with adopting and modeling a growth mindset and today's posting about engaging in adaptive leadership -- these three key systems changes combine to be key foundational elements to achieving college and career readiness for all students.

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