Trust the Process

Today’s post is the third in a four-part series on transforming the data culture at the Gloucester Twp. School District.  Tim Trow, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, writes for the SJDLP.  


“Trust the process! Clap, clap, clap. Trust the process! Clap, clap, clap.”

The chants showered down through the rafters as the Philadelphia 76ers won their first game of the 2016-17 season.  This after several moribund seasons in which the team often traded away perfectly good players– “assets” for the future– for potentially greater assets. They lost games in historic proportion all in the name of General Manager Sam Hinkie’s “process.”  So, while the 76ers were a year away from seeing the fruit of the now-fired Hinkie’s “process,” I smiled as I sat and listened to the fans chanting loudly, as they watched one win after so many losses.

I apologize to the readers who are not sports fans for this connection to the world of sports management, where advanced statistical metrics in nearly every area of team building have resulted in significant changes for how the games are played and how players are chosen and measured.  How does this connect to the world of educational leadership, where we don’t just cast “imperfect” students aside in exchange for those who better fit our statistical models? I would argue that while there are differences in application, there are also significant connections and similarities to making data based change in any arena of life, including education.

In my previous two blogs in this series, I laid out how my district is going about building a data culture and establishing small victories along the way.  The challenge is to maintain a focus on the things that matter. Failure often comes when we lose sight of the goal or lose faith in our plan. That can happen very easily as education changes rarely yield large and immediate impact and also compete with so many distractions and competing priorities.  Changing thought patterns and actions takes many repetitions over long periods of time.  We fail to gain incremental and sustained progress when we stop reinforcing the desired change and move on to the next change.  We do not see the process through.

This is where I would say that our district finds itself currently.  I shared in the previous blogs some of our successes both in practice and in product that were brought about in large part from our data work.  I can also think of about a dozen other competing initiatives across grade levels and departments that, even as they fit perfectly into the model, threaten to distract us from the work.  I, as the leader of the data work, face down fears like what do I do if we do not see another year of standardized test score improvement like we did last year? Will that undermine our progress and the message?  Will the process be damaged? Will administrators and staff feel as though their efforts are not rewarded and just slip into patterns that involve just going through the motions with casual use of data?

As data leaders our job is to do just that: lead.  

Change research is clear as to the process. Use multiple sources of data to identify areas of need. Utilize observations and the body of scientific research to identify the root cause and solutions to the area of need.  Apply the proposed remedy or change. Monitor the quality of implementation and the impact of the change along the way. At strategic points, review the data and modify the plan based upon the data and other observed issues in implementation and scientific research.  Following this cycle, or process, will lead to meaningful and sustained change and success.

It sounds easy.  All of us espouse belief in this process and have used it throughout our training in undergraduate and graduate programs.  The problem? Rarely, do we begin the second cycle of the process. All too often, we are diligent in identifying a problem, researching it and applying a solution.  I can think of many initiatives over the years where this has happened and an initiative begins with significant fanfare only to lose momentum and languish in a slow death because it was not monitored and revised.

So, as our district moves into year three of our data initiative, I am “Trusting the Process” by watering it in a few simple ways.  We have and will celebrate our successes through frequent acknowledgement of administrators and PLC groups utilizing our tools and monitoring progress. We will also formally review progress toward goals set last summer, review key beliefs and research content learned and modify/set new goals for the upcoming year.  Each administrator and teacher will be challenged to reflect and strengthen their use of data and apply it to the specific initiatives in which they participate.

I wish I had something a little flashier to share, but the process really is not flashy.  It is simple, yet so hard to follow. If we as educators are to become all we aspire to be as professionals and practitioners, we must “Trust the Process” to successfully continue this cycle of sustained, incremental growth.

In part four, I will explore the idea of never giving up, as “trusting the process” is never over.  Another key factor in creating a data culture in the world of education.

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