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« These horses are out of the barn | Main | Big projects and psychic wear and tear »

Important, but not urgent

In the very kind essay Living in Constant Fear, Miguel Guhlin reflects on my last post and the difficulty of making changes in education. Read it now. It's OK, I'll wait...

At the end of the post, Miguel suggests:

While Doug is writing about the challenges he faces, I'd like to see him write about how he created the sense of urgency to bring about the changes he's referring to. . .

I don't like being the bearer of bad tidings, Miguel, but I am rarely able to bring a sense of urgency to technology-related projects in the district. I can't think of any pedagogical changes* that have ever risen to the level of urgent in our schools - including those involving technology.

We are putting out no fires with either IWBs or GoogleApps.

In fact our district, like many, suffers from the "good standing in the way of the great" syndrome. We are good enough. We graduate enough kids, satisfy enough parents, make AYP in enough of our schools. We are prudent, traditional and safe. We neither soar to great heights nor dip to great lows. No one is in jeopardy of losing his or her job because of poor student performance.

Most of the projects I undertake would fall under Quadrant II - Important, Not Urgent in Stephen Covey's Time Management Matrix:

And the "not urgent" bit makes them difficult to accomplish. A collaborative writing tool? Interesting, but we've gone for years without one. Engagement with an interactive program on the white board? Nice gimmick, I suspect.

I sense little "urgency" in any facet of public education:

  • No one is rewarded or punished because of test scores or other measures. Nobody's salary is based on student achievement. (When this is suggested, educators howl. And given the kind of metrics popularly used to determine student achievement, there is justification for concern.)
  • There is little local educational competition to pull students (and their funding dollars) away from public schools. Most parents cling to neighborhood schools regardless of overall performance. Students en masse have not moved to online classes.
  • It will be years and years before our graduates discover they may not have the skills they need for a changed world. And by then, K-12 will have post-secondary to blame for this.
  • Old computers, old programs, blocked websites, inadequate networks, computer illiterate teachers, and traditional teaching methods are just not a major concern for school administrators. Hey, lecture/textbook/seatwork was good enough for me as a kid...

About the only "urgent" thing in most schools is getting rid of those damn trouble makers who advocate for change - or make the rest of staff look bad when the kids are engaged and enjoying learning.

Sorry, Miguel. This turned out a little more cynical than I wanted. But don't count on "urgency" as a mover in educational change. I suspect were a kid's hair on fire, for most educators it would take at least a couple studies, a few Education Week op-eds, and maybe a Ning discussion or two before they are firmly convinced that while something needs to be done, there is no consensus on just what it ought to be...

* Administrative changes, usually brought about by state or national testing/reporting mandates, are often urgent. This is why I've long argued for state/national requirements ala NCLB for information/technology literacy.

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Reader Comments (15)


It would be helpful to specify that there is no urgency in schools which don't serve a majority of students in poverty. There are two completely different segregated systems in this country, one is hella urgent.

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman

I think it was Deming who said that survival isn't mandatory. I belong to a "learning community" that, once or twice a year, rents a guru--we tell the smart person that we will come to them and they generally lower the fee. Our learners then make their way to a venue and we talk with the smart person. This last weekend I spent time with Jon Saphier and Tony Wagner. I must tell you that I agree with you and your cynicism after hearing Wagner's point of view. In my view, if Americans don't get up and see the new day coming and create a learning system appropriate for the coming world and our children, we are headed for being unemployed and second rate. I do not understand or accept our dullness as a people--I don't know why so many sleep peacefully. I found myself, last week, wondering if it is possible to grow old without growing cynical. So far the answer for me is apparently, no.

Thanks for your thoughtful response to Miguel.

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSkip Olsen

I want to echo Tom's thoughts. In working in an inner city school, I think that the educational problem that needs the most urgent attention is the illiteracy of so many of our students who live in poverty. I work daily with teen-aged children who can neither read nor write-----and I wonder daily about what will happen to them and the millions of others for whom a world of inquiry-based learning with Web 2.0 tools is beyond their grasp. As one of my colleagues often notes, "Just giving them the technology is not the answer; they HAVE to know how to read before they can take the next steps."

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCurrie Renwick

As a parent activist and business woman who advocates for educational investment in our community I find it interesting to hear the viewpoints stated in these posts. I concur with Doug the people in general are ultimately "convinced that while something needs to be done, there is no consensus on just what it ought to be...". In my experience as a consumer of "education" and advocate for education, this is where local leadership steps in and strategically evaluates where the confluence of forces exist to effectuate change. Step outside your immediate world and look for people who are talking about their concerns about the workforce not being globally competitive, engage them in a real world dialogue of how with their help in your microcosm of the educational system they can help make something happen, with time and success it can be replicated. As the saying goes, we're so focused on the trees that we miss the forest --there's a forest of parents and business people whose expectations of the results of education are not being met, they must be sought out and relationships developed to forge that confluence of forces that compel change.

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGloria Romero Roses

Have to agree with others who have said that there is a lot more "urgency" at the "what am I doing for these kids right this minute" level than at the "wow, this is a great shift in pedagogy!" level.

November 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Hi Tom and Currie,

I agree that there SHOULD be a real sense of urgency about such schools. But my question IS there as sense of urgency evident by the staff actually in those schools?

What is urgency making to do differently???


Hi Gloria,

I agree with everything you say in theory. What do these abstract concepts actually look like in practice? Can you give an example of this happening?

Thanks for writing,


Hi Jen,

I am not as convinced as you about urgency on the part of staff. I see people teaching the same old way without seeing any need to change regardless of outcome.


November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Howdy! I reflected some more below:

Thanks for the conversation!

November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel Guhlin

In urban schools, things have been urgent for so long a lot of people have moved on to a sort of administrative PTSD.

November 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTom Hoffman

Is "urgency" the most important part of change? When teachers hear "urgency" over and over and over, is that the way to convince them to change? It sounds like educators have bought into Kotter's 8 steps of change model (which starts with urgency) instead of a more systemic, whole culture, less frenetic mode of continuous learning and improvement, such as that suggested by Fullan in The Six Secrets of Change. I suggest that instead of getting frustrated with teachers who don't see the "urgency", we should review thehistory of educational change and put ourselves in their shoes - see it from their perspective.

I, for one, am not convinced that "urgency" is the way to convince teachers of change, in any educational setting - urban or otherwise....

November 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJanine Lim

Hi Skip,

I've asked myself the same question regarding aging and cynicism. Unless one deliberately adopts a Pollyanna mind-set, I don't know how anyone who thinks at all can avoid it!

As Lily Tomlin said: No matter how cynical I become, it's never enough to keep up!

All the best,


November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Janine,

Looks like you given this some thought.

Do you have any concrete examples of "a more systemic, whole culture, less frenetic mode of continuous learning and improvement" and thoughts on why that worked?



November 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson


I've been reading both Kotter and Fullan on change, and I like Fullan's work better. It makes more sense to me and has more depth and acknowledgment of complexity than Kotter's work does. Fullan has been working in education and business change for quite a while; while Kotter is only coming from the business perspective. Fullan has recently been involved in large scale reform in Ontario and England; and his study of educational change is international - including the US, and Singapore.

A quick review of their big ideas may help your readers see the difference:

Kotter's 8 steps are:
1. Create Urgency
2. Form a Powerful Coalition
3. Create a Vision for Change
4. Communicate the Vision
5. Remove Obstacles
6. Create Short-term Wins
7. Build on the Change
8. Anchor the Changes in Corporate Culture

My beef with this is mainly the urgency part. How much can teachers hear "urgency" and fear (i.e. all the jobs are going to China) before they just shut down overwhelmed?
It also seems so linear.... there is constant change in education... so do we have to constantly create urgency and run through the steps?
Compared to Fullan's work, Kotter's eight steps seem so simplistic to me.... too simplistic for the complex educational environment...

Compare that to Fullan's Six Secrets to Change:
Love Your Employees
Connect Peers with Purpose
Capacity Building Prevails
Learning Is the Work
Transparency Rules
Systems Learn

See the heavy focus on learning? Isn't that what we really want - life-long learning and constant improvement? vs. urgent change?

Fullan's other book that I like is Leadership and Sustainability....
We don't really want merely change - we want sustainability, don't we?
1. Public service with moral purpose.
2. Commitment to changing context at all levels.
3. Lateral capacity building through networks
4. Intelligent accountability and vertical relationships.
5. Deep learning.
6. Dual commitment to short-term and long-term results.
7. Cyclical energizing.
8. The long lever of leadership.

I like this set partly because of #7; the realization that people get tired; that we need breaks; time to rest and reflect before going at it again. It's not as "frenetic" as "creating urgency."

Hopefully that gives a better view of my thinking - I do recommend reading those two books of Fullan's! There are in depth examples in both books that are concrete and show how it worked....


November 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJanine Lim

Thanks, Janine. Fullan appeals to me more as well. I'll be looking for his work.

All the best,


November 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug,

Hope you had a terrific Thanksgiving.

My personal experience in working on the school overcrowding issue in Miami Dade County is a microcosm of what I’ve stated: a couple of teachers at the middle school reached out to a couple of parents that were asking questions about how overcrowded the school seemed to be after their children had been slightly injured in the stairwells. Instead of hiding behind administration, these teachers spoke openly and honestly to the parents, who in turn took a deliberate and non-confrontational, non-adversarial approach to understanding the issues at the local school level, within the feeder pattern and beyond into the overall district. Fast forward, the parents recruited allies within several other groups and forged a coalition that brought awareness and understanding to the issue (i.e. not as simple as boundary changes where everyone in the feeder pattern and region was overcrowded) which in turn activated conviction on the part of the administration and ultimately commitment from the School Board to make the tough choices to capital investment to reduce overcrowding in the short, mid and long term. The results? Within the feeder pattern itself: 1 ½ years there was precedent setting lease improvement to a vacant K-Mart that temporarily relocated 6th graders and diluted a middle school that had been at its peak over 2500 students at a school built for 1400 later; this stayed in place for 2 years while reliever schools where built in 2 instances (including two K-8) and expansions in two other instances. Within the District, four years later, overcrowding is a non-issue and the climate at these schools is vastly different as administrators and educators now can focus on educating and not herding/refereeing due to unacceptable physical conditions.

So from a model perspective, its about building the relationships that tap into the public will to make change happen. Just this morning I listed to a couple of podcasts of the Lumina Foundation (check it out here

I think they described their catalytic initiative of Public Will Building in a pretty concise way:

1) Build Awareness

2) Foster understanding

3) Harness Conviction

4) Act with commitment

By virtue of these teachers approaching parents, it set a course for these 4 steps to be energized. Granted, there are bumps along the way, but with conviction and commitment, change can happen!

Hope this anecdote helps to crystallize the concepts to tangible application!


Gloria Romero Roses
Nexus_Consulting, LLC
Helping people engage change at its nexus

Thanks, Gloria, for responding to my challenge. It wasn't personal, but I find plenty of people who offer wonderful theories about change and schools without a shred of experience to back them up. Great example of "change done well."


December 12, 2009 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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