Collective Ambition and School Reform

Happy New Year! After a busy stretch of Race to the Top reform efforts, it’s good to have some down time this holiday break to recharge the batteries and clear the head. I hope everyone carved a little time out of their schedules to rejuvenate and ready themselves for what’s promising to be a wild 2012.

While decompressing, I ran across an article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review by Douglas Ready and Emily Truelove on The Power of Collective Ambition (I also read a fiction book to truly “decompress”). Ready and Truelove are business leadership practices experts, and I wondered if their premise of Collective Ambition in the business world holds true in the non-profit field of public education. After all, schools don’t produce widgets, and though heading towards greater use of data to inform practice, a school’s bottom line is much less empirical than in business where revenues, earnings, and margins are directly and neatly tied to inputs.

Collective Ambition as defined by the authors has seven elements: Purpose, Vision, Targets and milestones, Strategic and operational priorities, Brand promise, Core values, and Leader behaviors. Sounds a lot like strategic action planning, SMART goals, and complex change protocols—something many successful schools already do. Ready and Truelove believe the “glue” which holds the seven elements together is collaboration, and the “grease”, disciplined action. The “glue” and “grease” of effective schools are similar, but the analogies get less congruent when drilling deeper.

Of the seven elements, purpose and brand promise seem inconsistently delineated in schools. It’s fair to say schools are designed to graduate young adults ready to participate and contribute to a democratic way of life. However, the brand product each school guarantees its community is being reshaped by RTTT, fiscal constraints, and growing international competition; and metrics used to define success are from outside forces beyond the community. Amidst the background chatter, what is a school’s purpose? Who defines student success, and how does parental responsibility and community support impact the Collective Ambition equation?

The Power of Collective Ambition is an excellent article, and if district leaders and staff take the seven elements to heart and follow them with fidelity, student achievement will increase.  However, I’m not so sure most schools are presently structured to cultivate a sense of Collective Ambition. High stakes testing and school accountability, vilification of public education, and sometimes unyielding labor relations can muddle our sense of purpose and collaboration.

When you get right down to it, the vast majority of us in education are ambitiously here for the children. We came in to this profession to make a positive difference in the lives of every child, and for that, our ambition is unlimited. With sound leadership, reflective practice, and the seven elements in mind, schools can and must use the power of collective ambition to propel change initiatives forward. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

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