4 ‘jobs’ that shape COVID-era school decisions

Unprecedented times mean pre-pandemic school data may not be as helpful guide
By: | October 28, 2020
(GettyImages/Klaus Vedfelt)

While navigating the uncertainties of the COVID-era may be keeping superintendents and their teams up at night, a think tank that studies disruption is offering some guidance on decision-making.

Unprecedented times mean pre-pandemic school data may not be as informative in helping leaders meet the challenges of equity, online learning, and health and safety.

In place of data, theory can offer some perspective on the various way forward leaders are plotting for their districts, according to a new report, “Successful Decision-Making During Uncertainty: Four pathways for school system leaders,” from the Harvard University-based Clayton Christensen Institute.

According to this study, there are four modes of decision-making: Overhaul, build consensus, update and influence.

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Here at look at each of the approaches, or “jobs” as they are called in the report:

Job 1: Overhaul—In this phase, a sense of crisis requires leaders to make urgent changes to keep students on track.

During COVID, “overhaul” has meant finding new ways to deliver instruction, such as partnering with community organizations to set up remote learning hubs.

During emergencies, “overhaul” may be the ideal response. But bold actions that alter a district’s established way of doing things can provoke anxiety and pushback.

And a district may fall into further crisis if decisive actions do not lead to clear and quick success.

Leaders planning such actions should consider carefully whether their circumstances truly constitute a crisis.

Job 2. Build consensus: This job usually arises not during a crisis but when steady, incremental progress is the goal.

Leaders aiming to build consensus may, for example, distribute community surveys before taking more decisive action.

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Consensus-builders tend to follow established policies to maintain support and to avoid organizational friction.

Their decisions, therefore, “tend to be marginal improvements on the status quo,” the report says.

If these steps don’t produce results, problems can reach crisis level and force leaders into the overhaul phase.

Job 3. Update: Leaders at this stage seek to solve urgent problems by updating resources and often use a consensus-building approach to make these changes.

During COVID-19, this has entailed delivering devices to students, deploying school buses as Wi-Fi hotspots, training teachers to use Zoom and installing hand sanitation stations in schools.

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The update approach is most successful when resources are truly the problem. However, updates can lead districts astray if the real issues are ineffective “practices, processes or priorities.”

Job 4. Influence: District leaders at this stage believe they are ahead of other districts and seek to have a broader impact on the education field.

Leaders in this mindset, though they may be experiencing the success of high test scores and college acceptance rates, also need to remain aware of “struggling students on the margins,” the report warns.