James Barrett for NC Superintendent

The Leadership Needed to Bring Positive Change

The Leadership Needed to Bring Positive Change

I continue to hear from students, parents, teachers, and community members how important changing our testing culture has to be under the next state superintendent.  We have a system today that, under the guise of measuring our schools, mainly reflects the impacts of poverty on the lives of North Carolina’s children.  That system just stresses out students and teachers, creates a narrative of failure for the public, discourages great educators from wanting to work at stigmatized schools, and benefits only the folks who want to privatize the common good of public education.


Based on my years of following this issue from the school board, I have a strong plan for how to dramatically improve the testing culture, so that we focus on what’s truly needed to educate all students, without the stress and stigmatization.  You can read more about that at https://barrettforschools.com/how-do-we-solve-too-much-testing/


But here I want to talk about how we bring the change we need. The current state superintendent fails over and over not because he doesn’t know we need change, nor because he lacks teaching experience. It’s because he has no idea how to bring systemic change.  His lack of leadership experience has been his stumbling block over and over again. We cannot afford four more years of a superintendent who isn’t ready for leadership across a complicated system on Day 1 and instead needs on-the-job training.


I usually describe my day job as working in IT. But my role is actually “business transformation.”  How does that background relate to my ability to bring great, positive change for our schools?


The “business” part of my work means that I work with thousands of stakeholders across the business, and my primary focus is to deliver results for the business.  The “transformation” part is about change–driving positive changes in how we do business.  Those changes can come through process or technology.  But they always need to be measurable, and successfully implemented across a wide user community, and tested, and well received. I get extra brownie points for innovative ways to do things, and I love that part of my job.


Of course, I’m not suggesting schools should be run just like a business. But so much of what we do to make significant business change is exactly what we should do in bringing changes students and teachers need to respect and support their learning and careers.


How do we actually make this happen? We first bring together everyone who will be affected by the change–including users, customers, the financial pros, and management–to define the issue we’re tackling.


Then we brainstorm solutions and get buy-in, develop the changes needed, get user feedback on what’s been done so far, and iterate — over and over again if needed.


Delivering positive changes in an iterative manner means we keep aligning what we provide with sometimes hard-to-know business needs. And it means we can redirect our efforts quickly when business conditions shift, because we are constantly in communication about what’s changing.


So before we deploy a change to thousands of users and customers, we make sure we’ve delivered real value to at least our test group.


That’s how I think about organizational change management both at work and on the school board: It puts “customers” first, which in education means students, teachers, and parents. It doesn’t presuppose that any one person knows all the answers from a limited set of experiences, but uses my long experience as an education “consumer,” activist, and elected official as a basis for understanding deeply what students, teachers, and parents tell us they need.


For the state superintendent, the scale may different, but because of my experience, I know what to look out for so North Carolinians won’t have to suffer another stupid, non-valuable idea from Raleigh. Four years of that has been more than enough. It’s time to restore the Department of Public Instruction and education in North Carolina to deliver a strong education for every child.


This is what hiring your next state superintendent with leadership experience means:  Under my job-tested and public-service-tested leadership, the students and teachers of North Carolina can look forward to change, confident that it will be positive change, that they will have a powerful voice in the efforts, and that everything will be done thoughtfully even when done with urgency.


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