Facing Hard Facts and Tough Decisions: How School Leaders Make Evidence-Based Management Decisions
As I looked at the calendar and considered what I wanted to write about in this blog, I started to reflect on my last few months of work-related travel and my conversations with school leaders throughout the country. I also thought about the countless conversations about education that I’ve had with people in airports and on airplanes. My favorite conversations focused on teachers: what it is really like to be a teacher and how teachers spend their summers—taking classes, teaching summer school, working a second job, etc.; not the months of time off or vacation that most people envision. Many of the conversations highlighted possible school solutions and making a difference for students.
These insightful and thought-provoking conversations reminded me of the book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, a book that provides an important reminder that school leaders are responsible for making decisions that impact the students and teachers within the schools that they serve. These decisions must be based on research, data, and evidence and applied based on what works in a particular district, with that district’s particular students and teachers, and the resources available to them. Many schools and organizations rush to implement an idea or program that worked elsewhere without stopping to consider if this idea or program will address their own school’s specific needs. Decisions are made based on statements such as “I feel,” “I think,” or “I like,” instead of “I know,” or “I can prove. Here is the data.” It is one thing for us to know better, but something else entirely to do better. Otherwise, we live the definition of insanity.
“Instead of being interested in what is new, we ought to be interested in what is true,” (p. 29) or Pfeffer’s Law, is my favorite quote from the book. We know that this process is a journey driven by data, goals, outcomes, and results. Students and staff deserve a system of evidence-based management, not the continued pursuit of the “silver bullet” or “magic solution” that will “fix” our educational woes. Professional development solutions should be:
- Based on data gathered during multiple classroom observations
- Tied explicitly to the strategic goals of the school/district
- Be ongoing and differentiated
- Connected with job-embedded coaching and meaningful practice opportunities with reflective feedback
These solutions should also include a plan for monitoring and accountability. We should use evidence to determine both the professional development and coaching solutions needed along with the right process or partner to help get there.
The following key points from the book resonated with me:
- People make the difference. Hire the right people and create the culture and conditions that make them want to stay. Pfeffer and Sutton quote the work of author Jim Collins in Good to Great, where he emphasizes the importance of “getting the right people on the bus” (p. 86). In states where there is a shortage of teachers, districts need to recruit and hire the right people and then build their capacity within a culture for learning.
- Strong systems are important. The authors contend that a better place with strong systems can make better people. Every organization has superstars, but to fully utilize them and build others, you need strong systems. We all see pockets of excellence in schools and organizations, but to expand those pockets into schools and organizations of excellence requires effective and efficient systems along with great talent.
”Adopt an attitude of wisdom. Be confident enough to act on the best knowledge you have, humble enough to doubt what you know, and wise enough to face the hard facts when new and better evidence comes along” (p. 53) is another of my favorite quotes from the book. These hard facts can include evidence of declining student achievement, new standards or curriculum, personnel issues, budget cuts, and more. Instructional leaders must find and use the best evidence (multiple data sources based on outcomes and results), create a growth mindset to develop talent in both students and teachers, and become reflective about leadership practices.
There will always be hard facts to face, but instructional leaders define themselves by how they deal with those facts.