Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Education Reform: What NOT to do as Exhibited by Florida State University.

It is no secret that many aspects of our education system are in need of reform. And certainly interested stakeholders - from Washington lawmakers to state DOEs right down to concerned parents of Anytown, USA - are doing what they feel is necessary to make academic opportunities the best they can be for students.

Bringing about any kind of major change to education structures, be it philosophical or procedural, typically requires a comprehensive introduction to a chosen system followed by a series of training sessions, feedback from experts, and lots and lots of practice. The pattern is similar whether it is small rural school in Kansas or a large urban district in New York.

Knowing that flavor-of-the-month PD or hasty knee jerk reactions to any number of events rarely result in any kind of meaningful long-term change, it seems those folks in charge of overseeing operations in a school would ensure that ample time and planning is given to rolling out something new.

So recently, when Florida State University President launched into his school's football team about recent behavior involving domestic abuse, one had to wonder if his own knee-jerk reaction would take effect and exhibit itself in real change.

Certainly it was necessary for Thrasher (and head coach Jimbo Fisher) to address the behavior of two Seminole players who in recent days were accused of punching women in the face in two separate incidents, both of which took place at bars.

To be clear, in no way am I condemning the efforts of Florida State personnel to curb the occurrences of such audacious behavior by the "student-athletes" under their charge. Of course the actions of these players, no matter how few in number they were, must be called into question and the university has no choice but to take action against them to both levy punishment against the aggressors (one has been suspended while the other was released from the team) and to ensure that similar behavior does not take place again.

On the contrary, I wish to draw a parallel between the actions and decisions of FSU and the approach that many school districts across the country take when attempting to exact change in their own respective venues.

1. Not Being Proactive

Upon receiving negative press on a nationwide level about its storied football program, Thrasher had this to say to the media:
"When you have two things like this happen and you get national attention, you have to pay attention to it."
Essentially what most people hear Thrasher say is that FSU will wait until something goes terribly wrong (from a PR standpoint??) to take notice and jump into action. Otherwise we will rely on our popularity and good football team to see us through.

Many educational institutions, sadly, opt to take the same approach. Until the right (or wrong) parents complain, or a preventable disaster takes place, or there is sufficient negative publicity, many schools will rush through their daily routines not worried about what might happen.

Just as FSU chose to look the other way as many of their underage football players were frequenting bars, a large number of school districts ignore potential pitfalls, such as a lack of updated safety procedures or outdated and ineffective curriculum.

2. Yelling and Screaming - Sometimes Figurative, Sometimes Literal 
Thrasher met with the football team recently and lit into the players about their lack of leadership and constraint with this diatribe, according to the Tallahassee Democrat:
"Are there any leaders in here?" Thrasher shouted. "Are there any leaders in here?"
In an interview with the Democrat editors, Thrasher said that initially only a handful of players responded to his charge. As he got closer them and "raised his voice," more of them joined his song and dance - out of fear, perhaps.
"Every one of them stood up," Thrasher said. "And I said, 'Are you with me? Do you understand the consequences, the concerns? Are you going to help us get through this?' And every one of them said, 'Yes sir.' "
Imagine a district wide meeting, or one with your own school staff, where someone launched into a speech about these kids being "our kids" and that "we all own these awful test scores." It may not be literal screaming (I hope) but the sentiment is that by simply browbeating others with staunch words and metaphoric fist pounding about improving this or changing that, everyone will be on board 100%.

Remember what Dale Carnegie said about this sort of forced compliance: "A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still."

3. Trite Damage Control

Apologetic buzz words were flying all around the Tallahassee campus after the general public caught wind of the incidents. Thrasher and Fisher could be heard uttering phrases such as "gravity of the situation" and "taking full responsibility" when responding to the players' actions.
"But I want them [FSU football players] while they are here to get as much as a quality education as they can," Thrasher said. "And part of that is I think is [Fisher's] responsibility. And to ensure that, we are going to work with them to make sure that happens."
Similar words are spoken across the country by school officials and leaders attempting to turn poor situations into positive outcomes. By stating that they are "working with people" or by "placing the focus on student achievement," eduspeakers try to come across as though they are covering all the bases. In fact, it often becomes nothing more than damage control with the hope that things will blow over quickly so they can get back to normal.

4. Strict Codes of Conduct for All - to Address the Actions of a Few

Soon after the incident, Fisher banned all of his players from going out to bars, as though the fix was just that simple. Never mind that underage players were visiting bars and drinking. Forget that domestic abuse can occur at any location. And set aside the idea that college kids can find trouble anywhere. It's doubtful that such "actions" will all-of-a-sudden teach his kids that they should be more responsible.

For example, how many teachers assign mountains of homework in a moment of anger and frustration hoping that the 100 math problems will somehow teach the kids to be more responsible and respectful?

To whit, FSU is currently laying out plans to "educate" its players on the ins and outs of responsibility. Such a program "would give them some additional background in consequences of actions. ... Understanding that we live in a social media world; everything you do is scrutinized," Thrasher said.

A program like this might indeed be helpful to some, but I am reminded of the time while I was playing college basketball when my coach brought in a doctor to lecture us on the dangers of loose sexual activity. As she went on and on about the awful symptoms of STDs and the kinds of long-term effects possible from promiscuity, me and a few of my teammates grew increasingly uncomfortable.

You see, I had no intentions of following the sexual path that some of my peers traveled. However, our coach felt the need to address the issue with all of us instead of just the small number who seemed to need some guidance. Truly, my time would have been better spent studying or working on my jumpshot.

How many of us have felt this way when sitting through PD or listening to a presentation on a topic that was in actuality geared towards just a few of your peers?

The actions of Florida State University have shed some light on attempts at change that end up either being ineffective or utterly failing altogether. Whether in business or education, knee-jerk reactions and backfilling damage control usually have little or no long-term effects.

Education reform of any substance will not come about via these methods either. Systematic doses of

  • Proactiveness
  • Honest and open conversations involving ALL stakeholders
  • Calculated actions instead of trite words and intentions
  • Personalized training and individualized instruction
will go miles towards exacting change in our schools that really works for the benefit of kids.

While this is easier said than done, it is the path of success that we must follow.

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