Thought Thursday – Seeing Systems Part 4: Managing the Bottom Space
Most all of us can recall a time when we felt at the “bottom” of the hierarchy within a system; where we found ourselves responsible for producing the goods and services for others with seemingly little control over policy, resources or evaluation criteria. In a school, one can experience his or her “bottomness” across the range of roles in the system.
Whether you are a student taking several tests on the same day, a teacher who must move his or her classroom, a Head of School being asked to pull together a last minute report for a finance committee, a parent filling out a financial aid form for a college application, a business manager being asked to find money to deal with unanticipated facility issues, or an athletic director being told his or her scholarship budget has been cut by 30% right before recruiting season, you know you are at the bottom when things feel out of your control and yet you still have to produce.
Barry Oshry describes the bottom space as a place where the work you do, who you work with, where you work, the resources you are given to execute your work, and how you are evaluated all are determined by others. Refer to the analogy of a dog jumping into a lake: the condition that awaits you when you jump into the bottom space is vulnerability, and the reflexive shake in response to that condition is to blame higher ups for all your frustrating circumstances. Unfortunately, this response, though it might feel good to vent, doesn’t reduce your condition of feeling powerless or oppressed; it just leaves you feeling self-righteous, frustrated and ignored.
Barry suggests that in order to move out of state of oppression to one of empowerment, we need to take the following stand: Be a “bottom” who takes responsibility for your condition and for the condition of the system.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines and bonding with others through misery about what’s not happening, we should turn our complaints into potential projects and propose solutions. In order to successfully implement our solutions, we need a game plan that includes:
It’s not easy, but it can be done. One of the most dramatic examples I’ve experienced of everyone’s world going “bottoms up” in the world of education came in 2001 with the passage of The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
NCLB was America’s flagship program to close the gap for disadvantaged students. Its intent was noble, but its impact wreaked havoc on public school educators around the country. Suddenly there were expectations for each school, each teacher and each student to achieve to state standards or lose critical federal dollars.
“Priority Groups”, including minorities and those with special learning needs, who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the program, felt stigmatized by the extra attention. Teachers were forced to shift what they taught and how they taught it in order ensure proficiency in reading, mathematics and science based on a test, rather than a set of more complex, sophisticated and rigorous standards of excellence. Schools had to have all their students score at the proficiency rate by a certain year or lose their federal funding.
Leadership at all levels was under incredible pressure and was reeling. Suddenly, refining teaching practices based on differentiated learning styles and new models of student engagement gave way to succeeding on a single state mandated test. The whole system was in protest mode and complained to each other and whoever else would listen, but with little impact.
Rather than waiting for NCLB to establish the standard, one of the school districts I was consulting with in 2001 decided to proactively conduct a learning needs assessment. The assessment focused particularly on listening to individuals who were members of, or worked most closely with what the NCLB called “priority groups”, or students who were most likely to fall into the achievement gap.
The study, comprised of interviews, focus groups and surveys, unearthed some areas in need of continuous improvement. Concentrics set forth a set of recommendations regarding culture, communication, and teaching practice for the district. Our recommendations were vetted with key stakeholders and further refined for implementation at the building level for each school.
The impact was profound. Not only did this district reduce their anxiety about meeting state standards on the dreaded tests, but it was also able to address the true mission of NCLB, which was to close the achievement gap that existed among the district’s diverse student body. Today, the study continues to provide the best methods of addressing learning issues within the district, while the test scores have been a non-issue.
When faced with “bottomness” in a system, we have a choice. We can be the victim or the co-creator of an improvement plan. It’s just another example that leadership is available to us at all levels of a system.
Tune in next week to learn how to navigate the customer space!
In case you missed it, click here and to read introduction about the Top, Middle, Bottom, and Customer spaces. To learn about the other spaces discussed, click the following links:
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