Are we investing in our human infrastructure or just new buildings?

In the movie the Field of Dreams the main character is inspired to build a baseball field in a cornfield. As the story goes, some of the greatest players to ever live “return” to play the game they love. The farmer who plowed his field and made a baseball field was a lucky dude; he built it, the greatest in baseball showed up. But when we build things in real life, even our dream schools — simply building something great is half the battle.

In the United States taxpayers spend roughly 49 billion dollars on new schools each year. Whether we agree with that expenditure or not isn’t the question. The question is this: are we putting as much into the cumulative human infrastructure as we are the physical?

A quick look at the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrates the following expenditures nationally. The one the stands out: we spend 95% less on developing teachers as we do on the total cost of instruction.

Over the past decade there has been a focused effort to create schools that are more flexible, relevant, and student focused. We have seen researchers and grant funding and foundations seek ways to develop schools that (while attending to accountability) create experiences for our students that promote deep learning. Throughout all of this push and dreaming and work (very hard work) we have placed much of our attention on the environment where our students learn. Educators and tax payers acknowledge (through their funding of the construction of new schools) that the 1,000+ hours that our students spend in classrooms should take place in spaces that are not only safe, but conducive to learning as we know it today. These words from Lisa Gonzalez and Charles Young speak to this effort of redesign:

But here’s the thing. If we construct and design our schools differently will our teachers teach differently? If we construct and design our schools differently will our students have more agency and be empowered to own their learning in ways that are meaningful to them as diverse individuals? The research would suggest that new teaching and empowered learning will not happen without professional development of teachers AND leaders. This type of change in human infrastructure can take years to achieve. As new construction and design is happening, so too must the education and re-inculturation of our educators and leaders.

That shouldn’t shock anyone; after all just because you build it, does not mean that they will come and teach or lead differently.

There is another group that needs some development as well and that group is parents/families. No matter how much effort educational systems put into retraining teachers and redesigning schools there will not be fully implemented, fully supported, or fully realized improvement until parents and families understand the changes that are being made. To do this we have to recognize the difference between parent involvement and parent education.

Parental involvement is a combination of commitment and active participation on the part of the parent to the school and to the student.

Parent education can be defined as any training, program, or other intervention that helps parents acquire knowledge, understanding, and skill to improve their ability to understand how educational organizations respond to growing understanding of how children learn.

There are some innovative models for parent education that are taking hold throughout the country. In these cases parents are running along side educators and leaders in understanding why schools are changing the way they educate our youth. The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement may have captured the essence of the argument best with these words:

So what can we do to ensure that if we build it they will come (teachers, parents, kids… all coming together)?

  • Make sure you have a clearly articulated vision, if you keep changing course or initiating competing priorities your stakeholders will be confused. Know your north star and follow it.
  • Put as much money as possible into teacher professional development, if you aren’t spending money on developing your teachers you need to find creative ways to do that. In Finland teachers spend 25% of their time outside of the classroom learning; at least try to make learning time for teachers matter.
  • Think about using professional development funds differently so that teachers can select learning opportunities for themselves. When teachers choose their own path to change its often times more effective. Don’t battle their beliefs, start where they are at and pull them into your now.
  • Invite parents to everything. Equal access to learning is key; if our communities fear conversations it will not improve if we keep everyone working and living in silos of learning. Who cares if only a few show up, the point is — they were invited.
  • Make parent education part of the norm and expectation. Don’t just invite them into school, invite them into the process allowing educators and leaders to serve as leaders and content experts.
  • Keep building, keep redesigning. Focus on telling your story of WHY you are doing those things. If the story you are communicating to your stakeholders is about what you are doing, and not why you are doing it that is a problem. Fix it.
  • Set a minimum threshold of expectations for teachers and parents. Teachers should know what is expected of them. Parents should have the same. Never forget the lessons of Patricia Bolanos (trail blazing principal) who expected parents to show up and if they didn’t she worked at finding out why. Believe in the power of your parents. Believe in the capacity of your teachers; they want to know what expectations are — make sure they are clear.

Design it, build it, support it, teach it, explain it, back it up, stick with it (and if you pivot explain why). Do all of that and they will come (and chances are they will never leave).