What Have We Learned?

It’s time for a collective time out.

I’ve thrown a lot at you these last few months, and with the 25th annual Model Schools Conference fast approaching, let’s take a step back and ask, “What have we learned so far?”

Lesson #1: Culture Trumps Strategy
What are your core values? What are your goals? How will you achieve them? What do you believe about student learning and achievement?

High-performing schools have developed a crystal-clear vision of what they want to accomplish. They foster a culture that supports and encourages positive change. Until you can articulate a vision, you will too often just be spinning your wheels. Until you develop a positive culture, any strategy you employ ultimately will fail.

Our organizational structure, our entire culture, is grounded in our traditional vision of public education. We exist to prepare students for the middle class. There’s just one small problem: the middle class is disappearing.

This is a phenomenon I call “the missing middle,” and it is being dramatically accelerated by the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Simply put, this revolution is the combination of biotech, nanotech, and information technology. It is creating cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Systems.

That’s a problem. To believe it’s OK to prepare students for middle-class jobs is to believe in a future which will exits for few of them. Unless we change, many students face a life of low-skill labor and no real chance for self-sufficiency. 

Lesson #2: Change Must Be Evolutionary
You know what happens to revolutionaries, don’t you? They get pushed back, if not killed! So, change must be evolutionary.

How do you get started? Step one is to adopt the practice of zero-based budgeting. This form of budgeting forces you to justify your expenses for each new period. More importantly, it encourages continual goal- and innovation-driven thinking.

What if you began building your budget by asking, “What do we need to do right now to prepare every student in our school for successful careers and lives?”

Lesson #3: Adopt a Growth Mindset Model
Most schools today operate with a fixed mindset philosophy. Alas, nothing much changes in a fixed-mindset school.

Schools with a growth mindset philosophy operate differently—much differently. They focus on getting their students ready for the world after school. They don’t obsess about the next test, the next grade or even the next level of education.

Instead they try to envision what the world will look like in three to five years and then build back their instructional programs from that point.

Lesson #4: The Learning Criteria
The Successful Practices Network, of which I serve as chairman, developed — and the International Center for Leadership in Education uses — the Learning Criteria to help schools better evaluate their students, with the goal of creating well-rounded students ready to succeed in school – and beyond.


Most schools focus on foundation learning—knowledge a school requires all students to achieve. Sounds logical. But it’s wrong. Most schools, sadly, can’t get their students beyond foundation learning, and therefore never reach the three other levels.

Rapidly successful schools take a different approach. They focus on personal skill development first, and then move to student engagement and stretch learning.

Guess what? In this scenario, foundation learning takes care of itself!


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