Setting Anchor in a Sea of Change

It’s been an intellectually busy two weeks that included a trip to D.C. with members of our New York State Education Department for a Community of Practice Convening on Building Leadership for Rigorous Institution, and a two-day Race to the Top Network Team Institute on Principal Evaluation. The content and discussions were exhilarating, and the churn of change striking. Sandwiched between the two events was a fishing trip that gave me an unexpected perspective on school reform.

My brother had invited me and my friend for a sea bass fishing trip off Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Peter co-owns a nice 34′ Bertrand, and it’s a good boat that handles the seas well when plowing forward (it rocks like crazy at zero knots, however).  We fished on an artificial reef comprised of concrete objects, sculptures, old train cars, ships and barges. Sea bass and other ocean life inhabit the reef and add diversity to an otherwise barren portion of ocean bottom. Dangling fishing lines with weights upon a reef is a challenge, but setting and later retrieving anchor is downright impossible.

If one considers a reef and its oceanic inhabitants as a system undergoing change (ie. school districts, building, classrooms) and the anchor as reform elements (ie. Common Core Instructional Shifts, Instructional Leadership, and Assessments), then how should one best set anchor without destroying both the system and reform elements? In other words, how can we preserve the sanctity of the reef and its inhabitants (the system) while holding anchor (integrity of the reform elements)? Is such a scenario even possible during serious reform? Hmmmm. Those were the thoughts rushing through my mind as I straddled the bow rail readying to drop anchor in angry seas.

My brother is becoming a seasoned captain, and he’s learned a good number of lessons over the years. Instead of anchoring on the reef, Peter took us 100′ ahead of the reef before directing me to drop anchor. The anchor fell quickly when released, and within a minute hit bottom. Rather than tie up, we let line out which allowed the wind to push the boat over the reef. Once on the reef, the line was secured and the anchor held. In effect, we secured the anchor away from structure and eased our way onto the reef. We didn’t annihilate the system undergoing change (reef and inhabitants), and we held steadfast the elements of reform (the anchor).

Do we ease into serious reform in public education, or do we plumb the depths of systems with aplomb? Change is so complicated! Change stokes fears and worries in those it falls upon. Is there a way to bring about change with sanctity and integrity? Is there a way to ease into change and still bring about the reforms sought? I like to think so. Ultimately, it comes to the knowledgeable and skilled actions of the captain and his or her crew.

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