Build a stronger school system through alignment

In Peter Gorman’s FETC 2021 keynote, he will share the elements of an aligned system that the highest performing school districts utilize to increase student achievement at scale.
By: | November 19, 2020
Getty Images, Klaus Vedfelt
Peter Gorman, DA Leadership Institute

Peter Gorman, DA Leadership Institute

Many school districts do great work, but in isolation, says Peter Gorman, who will deliver the closing keynote on “An Aligned System to Increase Student Achievement at Scale” at DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference. Individuals come to work but at the end of the day in the parking lot might say to a colleague “I did this today. What did you do?” In aligned school systems, each person’s work combines with the work of another person, and you wind up with a 2 + 2 = 5 scenario.

With more than 30 years of experience in education and business, including serving as Superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Gorman is now superintendent in residence for District Administration Leadership Institute and manager of its National Superintendents Academy. He’s also co-author of the 2020 book Leading a School District Requires Clarity, Context, and Candor: An Aligned System to Increase Student Achievement at Scale (LRP Publications, publisher of DA). Here’s a hint at what Gorman will present at FETC 2021, a free virtual event, on January 29 at 4:45 p.m.

DA: Alignment involves everything from the vision and mission of a school district on down to strategic plans, policies, the budget, accountability systems, evaluation systems and more. Why is it important that a school district aim for alignment?

Gorman: When you get everything in alignment, things start to be more impactful for a couple of reasons. One is that districts start to say no. Someone says, “This would be a cool thing to do,” and the answer can be “No, this doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to do.”

Everyone has gone to school and has some level of knowledge about schools. But they’re conflating experience with expert knowledge: “It would be great if schools did this, if schools did that.” We end up with so much of that, we become out of alignment. It’s like lasagna. We’ll put another layer and another layer and another layer. And when it’s done, it’s not tasty.

Not having alignment within a school system is like lasagna. 'We’ll put another layer and another layer and another layer. And when it’s done, it’s not tasty.' --Peter Gorman, @FETC 2021 keynote speaker & manager of the National Superintendents AcademyClick To Tweet

At FETC, I’ll talk about the elements of aligned systems and share how district leaders can take those elements to build stronger systems—and also to ask themselves, where does their work fit in?

As we talk about technology, it becomes an integral part of work that we are all doing and not a standalone item. All too often we see a program that just didn’t fit. It becomes an add-on.

I’ll also get into how you can try to hire people and find out if they’re in alignment. That’s the bigger piece of it.

DA: How does your use of the word alignment stand out within education?

Gorman: The word alignment is used a lot, but it’s typically not used with the word system after it. If you just say alignment, it’s as if we’re talking about a single element. It’s important we say an aligned system because it’s not just in isolation. We’re talking about multiple things that need to be in alignment.

In the average district, that’s not happening. There are elements of this but not the total piece. What most frequently happens is that people do things in a disjointed way. They come to work thinking they’re doing good work and they are, but by doing it in isolation you may have someone else doing work that undercuts what they are doing.

Take something as simple as the alignment of the budget to the strategic plan. When I look at school district budgets, very infrequently do I see that the budget is aligned by what strategic plan elements it supports.

Your strategic plan was written in alignment with beliefs and action—wouldn’t you want your dollars to then follow that way? Wouldn’t you want to evaluate people on accomplishing the goals of the strategic plan? Instead, you may be using some checklist sheet you’ve used for 25 years.

When there’s a lack of alignment it’s typically children who suffer. And we’ve had a proclivity of doing this for years in education.

It’s like that commercial, where it’s a snowy day and a guy walks out and cleans off his car. He clicks his keys to unlock his door and the car in front of him is the one that unlocks. He did good work but he’s desperately out of alignment.

DA: What role does technology play in achieving alignment, particularly in the pandemic?

Gorman: If we have learned anything from COVID, it is that some of the transition we have had to make to digital, to distance learning, to utilizing LMSs, has shown we are saying and doing something are different things. We had been saying we’d been using technology all along. We have realized in many ways that we were paying lip service to this. It was never an aligned part; it was on its own.

Technology is not a course. It’s something that integrates into every part of our lives. In aligned systems we ask, how is technology a part of the system in every element? It’s not just how it plugs in.

Our tech folks see the issue and have been frustrated. What are we going to do going forward from the time we’re in? How do we make sure we learn from what happened and it becomes integrated into a normal part of our lives instead of something special? The people who really get it will take this and it won’t be an “I told you so” moment. Instead, we’ll say, “How can we learn from this and be smarter about this?”

I’m very confident right now that schools in those places that are in-person will go digital again. How will we do a better job when we go out again? How will we handle a snow day? A hurricane? How are we transitioning and using that technology well?

That’s an example of instructional alignment but I’m talking about alignment at a district level, at a bigger level. Students will use technology in real-world ways. We have to support students, not as a special event type of thing. We need to budget for it; it will become part of our vision and mission.

DA: How do organizational structures impact the ability for technology to be aligned with everything else in a district?

Gorman: I still see places where the tech director is not a cabinet member or is not a direct report to the superintendent. How are you going to be aligned when they don’t have a seat at the table?

Technology had a difficult start; it was an add-on, and it was a supplementary position from its very roots. Whoever worked on tech did it as a supplement to help with other things. We have never put in the infrastructure to truly support what’s needed and we have paid for it dearly during the COVID crisis.

Tech directors should look for a district that has that alignment as well as that matches them personally. Your own theory of action needs to be aligned with the district’s theory of action. You also need to look for opportunities within your district to speak up and push for where alignment is not there.

The old saying is “never miss an opportunity to take advantage of a good crisis.” Use COVID as a bellwether to point mistakes out to people, to help people understand that we made this problem ourselves with the tech pieces.

COVID has re-emphasized the importance of alignment and sped up places where misalignments were occurring. The COVID relief funds were an opportunity for spending in an aligned way, not just to address the crisis of the moment but the long-term process of alignment.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA. 


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