Taking a Lesson from The Boys in the Boat and Aiming for ‘Swing’

To be of championship caliber, a crew must have total confidence in each other, able to drive with abandon, confident that no man will get the full weight of the pull…. When you get the full rhythm in an eight, it’s pure pleasure to be in it. It’s not hard work when the rhythm comes—that “swing” as they call it. I’ve heard men shriek out in delight when the swing came into an eight; it’s a thing they’ll never forget as long as they live.

– George Yeoman Pocock, from Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat

I just finished The Boys in the Boat, a terrific true tale of the University of Washington men’s rowing team’s unlikely victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Filled with compelling stories of rowing, life in Depression-era Seattle, the rise of fascism, and the awe-inspiring determination of a group of remarkable young Northwestern men who became hometown heroes, this is a story to teach your kids about grit and character. It’s great summer reading.

ednext-blog-aug16-lake-boatBut what I kept thinking about while reading wasn’t rowing, but the high-performing schools that serve disadvantaged students that I’ve studied over the years. These schools had something like what rowers call “swing.” It’s the moment when a group of talented individuals are suddenly rowing in near-perfect sync, with complete trust in and respect for the other rowers, in “the zone.” In the school world, people often call it “culture” for lack of better word, but it’s so much more.

Here’s what I’ve seen “swing” look like in the highest-performing schools.

First, there’s a sense of unison. Teachers, students, parents, and administrators all share an understanding of what the school is about: what it values, how it plans to meet its goals, the strategies it uses to understand what works well in the building and what doesn’t. In these schools everything—whether instructional time or professional development or PTA fundraising—is organized to support specific, agreed-upon goals for teaching and learning.

Second, there’s a strong social fabric of trust. Everyone has total confidence that the others are pulling their weight. Everyone knows that if something goes wrong, they can count on the others to help fix it. At my sons’ elementary school, I knew that no matter what, my kids would be valued and smart people would find solutions to any challenges.

Third, there’s joy. No amount of strategic planning or performance evaluation or project-based curricula can succeed in a school where kids don’t feel good about themselves, their class, or schoolmates, where their teachers just punch a timesheet rather than inspire in their students a hunger for intellectualism and learning, where parents feel disconnected or unwelcome. I’ve been in both joyful schools and joyless schools; the difference is immediately apparent.

These attributes, and other qualities that might be unique to an effective organization, come together as something amorphous that people refer to as “culture” in a school. As was true with the winning 1936 Husky team, culture makes a collection of talented people much more than the sum of their individual talents. Culture demonstrated its worth in the English Premiere League this year when the scrappy Leicester City soccer team clinched the League title—the odds of which were placed at more then 5,000 to 1 at the start of the season. The coach’s words echoed the rowing coach’s: “I’ve never known a spirit like the one between these boys.”

The thing is, swing—or a cohesive, strong school culture—is extremely hard to achieve. And if one manages to achieve it, it’s fragile and tough to maintain. If one of the boys in the boat was sick or depressed or even simply distracted, the team lost focus and paid in their performance on the water. In schools, the principal is usually the key culture builder, creating the conditions to allow for swing. Some principals value it and know how to attain it, but most don’t. Frankly, we don’t tend to train principals to see building and maintaining a strong unified culture as their main job.

Culture can’t be forced or legislated from the top down. A strong culture is easiest to build and sustain when students, teachers, and principals choose to be part of a school and its vision. When students, teachers, and principals are involuntarily assigned to schools, it creates a very steep slope for the school to climb. That’s why new schools and schools of choice (whether district or charter) usually have stronger cultures than traditional neighborhood district schools.

People in public education unwittingly destroy school cultures all the time by treating educators as interchangeable cogs, transferring principals and teachers without regard for a school’s approach and operating assumptions, by creating one-size-fits-all mandates that suggest a school’s distinctiveness is a nuisance, not a value, and by sending mixed messages and edicts from the central office until people are burned out and resentful.

So how can we get more public schools to have swing? The answer is not, “Just leave schools alone and let them do their own thing.” To build a coherent culture, school systems—whether school districts, charter management organizations, or state agencies—need to spend much more time thinking about how everything they touch is likely to influence schools (from accountability and evaluation systems to testing requirements and union contracts). And they need to exert self-discipline to heed the motto, “First, do no harm.”

Foundations, school districts, states, and the federal government have spent the last decade or more investing in teacher quality, which research clearly tells us matters more than anything else. It’s true, badly trained or weak rowers can never outmatch a well-trained crew. But maybe we’ve failed to capitalize on the ability of schools with strong cultures to train their own teachers. And we haven’t fully admitted how schools with weak or dysfunctional cultures drive away talented teachers.

Granted, education isn’t a crew race or soccer match. But public education will never fully succeed until we stop wringing our hands about how to get more great teachers into dysfunctional schools and start treating schools as organizations whose job it is to recruit, develop, and maintain high-performing teams. The role of the principal cannot simply be tougher teacher evaluation standards. We need tougher organizational standards. Teachers may need individual coaching, but they also need organizational strategies that will ensure all teachers are working toward common goals in the most effective way possible. I hope states keep this in mind as they think through how ESSA and choice policies can best promote strong school culture.

The extreme focus, teamwork, effort, and joy that drive elite winning teams are exactly what’s required to turn around our lowest-performing schools and to move kids from a life of poverty and trauma to academic success. By focusing so hard on the system or the individual, maybe we’ve overlooked the place where swing is born: the school.

—Robin J. Lake

This post originally appeared on The Lens, the blog of CRPE

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