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It’s the System that Feeds Culture & Innovation

It’s the System that Feeds Culture & Innovation

I’m not sure which word gets used more by educational leaders today – innovation or culture?  These are certainly our “buzz words” as we discuss and grapple with the 21st century schooling model. But, there’s another word that I’d like to see and hear more often as we talk about teaching and learning today – SYSTEM. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that innovation and culture aren’t important in our work because I believe that they are; however, what I am suggesting is that the system is more important and isn’t getting the attention it deserves in today’s educational dialogue.  In any organization, without a system for how and what you do – the process and the strategy – the need for innovation and culture is moot.

Systems thinking guru William Edwards Deming defined a system as a “network of interdependent components that work together.”  He also said, “Taking a systems approach results in management viewing the organization in terms of many internal and external interrelated connections and interactions, as opposed to discrete and independent departments or processes.” (The W. Edwards Deming Institute;

So, what does this mean for school districts?  It means that, whether the district has two or two hundred schools, each must see itself as part of a bigger system.  And each must be lock step with the other in process and strategy to make the system work better and achieve more.

Buy, why system first before innovation, culture or any other “big idea”?  Well, quite simply, we can’t have the others before system.  Deming famously used the analogy of the great orchestra to explain a system – the idea that, what matters most and what listeners judge, is how the individual musicians support each other and work together to create beautiful music.  The results of the orchestra are better because each member of the orchestra (the system) shares the same goal (beautiful music), wants the same outcome (great reviews from audiences) and works strategically, intentionally and purposefully to get there.

It shouldn’t be any different in a school district.  The first grade teacher in one school shouldn’t be creating a completely different experience for his classroom than the first grade teacher across the hallway or in another school.  Junior high school teachers shouldn’t be assessing students in ways completely different from the elementary school teachers.  The high school staff shouldn’t be ignoring the data and metrics being collected and analyzed by the junior high school staff.  

You get the point.  We share the same goal (create a comprehensive, engaging experience for all students) and want the same outcome (successful graduates ready to thrive in the next phase of their lives).  And the best way to get there is for each member of the school district to recognize that he or she is an interdependent component of a larger system.  Not doing so is bad for learners, and as Deming made so clear, will only hinder the overall performance of the system and make it more difficult to get the desired outcome.

Here are some questions to consider to assess how well a school district is functioning as a system:

  • Is there a common lens for what good instruction looks like in the school district?  Has research-based pedagogy been identified and is there an expectation that it’s being used in all school district classrooms?
  • Does the school district have a strategic plan and a shared understanding amongst staff of where it is heading as a system?
  • Is there a continuous improvement plan or action plan in place that guides the work of the school district on an annual basis?  Is everyone in the system familiar with the plan and held accountable for implementing the plan?
  • What are the metrics that matter in the school district?  Is there a district data team in place to review and discuss these metrics regularly?
  • Are there opportunities for vertical collaboration?  Are there intentional, purposeful conversations between elementary, junior high/middle school and high school teachers?

There’s a phrase I often hear: Culture eats strategy for lunch. 

True.  But, without a strategy – a system and a process—in place first, culture will starve to death!

Steven Estepp is the superintendent of the Mariemont City School District in Cincinnati, Ohio.