Friday, April 16, 2010

Relationships Crucial to Student Success

In presentations, I often talk about relationships. The example I use was provided by my wife. On Valentine’s Day in 2007 she gave me a book – Change or Die. That usually gets a few laughs from the audience. However, the book really did validate a guiding principle that I have always tried to utilize in any position. Let me tell you more.

In the book, Alan Deutschman talks about heart bypass patients. In study after study, heart bypass patients are told that they must change their diet, exercise and stress levels or they will most certainly die. In study after study, the patients make these changes at the beginning, but within four years, only one out of nine bypass patients have actually continued with the needed changes. I always ask the audience -- if we cannot get heart bypass patients to change knowing that they will most certainly die, then how can we get educators and parents to change to help more children reach success?

Deutschman provides numerous examples of change that did stick. The number-one guiding principle for these successful change initiatives was relationship building. The phrase I always used in my work was that “kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In other words, relationship-building with students, parents, teachers and others is the guiding principle for change. Until you build trust through honest and open communication, you will not be able to change a classroom, school, district or state education system.

A BIG concern of mine is what the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) competition is doing for relationship-building in some states. Tennessee and Delaware were awarded funds in Phase 1, and they were recognized for the strong support they had from all stakeholders. Both states had done good work in building a strong plan and building strong relationships. Kentucky also was one of the higher-scoring states for building relationships and having strong support, but we lacked a plan for charter schools, and our teacher/principal evaluation section needed improvement.

As we move forward in Phase 2 applications, I am seeing major breakdowns in relationships across the nation. Teachers in Florida recently staged a walkout over merit pay legislation that supposedly was intended to help RTTT. Colorado unions and union leaders in numerous states are very concerned about RTTT applications, and many are choosing not to participate or support. Principals and district superintendents across the nation are concerned about low-performing schools’ turnaround strategies and requirements. In other words, relationships are being strained all over the nation.

In Kentucky, I am very much concerned about placing too much strain on relationships. While we will continue to discuss charter schools and teacher/principal evaluation, we must continue to maintain and build relationships with all of our partners. What good would $175 million do if we are unable to implement the strategies in schools across ALL of Kentucky because our partners no longer trust or support the efforts?

However, the core of maintaining relationships should be a focus on the success of children. I want to maintain relationships and create change and innovation. The only way to balance these two is by focusing first on what the change and innovation will mean for the success of children. My promise to all is that we will focus first and foremost on the children, and if the adult needs run in opposition to the needs of children, then that adult relationship may need some additional work and communication.

The next few weeks will be intense, and there will be lots of opportunities for failure and success. Stay tuned!

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