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What Schools Can Do About Chronic Absenteeism, Mental Health, and Learning Loss (Opinion)

There are many challenges and fundamental problems impacting schools, such as chronic absenteeism, student and teacher mental health, or the ubiquitous “learning loss.” The tendency is to search in order to find a good solution—and then use it in your situation. You want the pill to lose weight, the steps that will make you healthier, and so on. Such improvements are difficult even if the target of improvement is yourself—one person. Imagine if it is to improve well-being and learning in your whole school district?

The challenge multiplies dramatically even if you can find exemplary cases elsewhere. The road to heavenly implementation is paved with superficiality. Why is that?

There is one fundamental reason why we use the word “superficiality” when it comes to implementation. Complex change is difficult because it involves changing a system aligned to the right drivers! Drivers meet the following criteria:

  • Foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students;
  • Engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning;
  • Inspire collective or teamwork; and
  • Affect all teachers and students—100 percent

The reason why this is so difficult is that systems are cultural entities that function arising from their internal habits and external environments. Successful change requires changing those very aspects—your internal habits and culture and your relationships to your environments. There are a small number of practical, but deep, elements schools need to get that right.

When it comes to those key steps, the order does not matter so much as ensuring that the elements interact. However, there are five that are required:
1.) Understand as deeply as possible your own needs to change—and why they exist and persist. What are the mindsets and state of being of your main constituents: students, parents, educators, support staff, communities, and so on. What are their aspirations, hopes, and state of progress about their lives, and their prospects? That is your driver.

2.) Look for evidently successful examples outside yourselves. In this case, if you are a high school district or have junior kindergarten, or P-12, schools, the Anaheim Union High School district (AUHSD) is a very good bet.

3.) Now we come to a fatal curve in the road. Do not think that you can borrow the specific elements that you observe in the so-called successful case. The answer is no.

The key here, and it is not as abstract as it sounds, is that AUHSD is successful because of the culture they have built around an integrated system. In a word, they developed a new system. You cannot “scale up” your system. You have to “grow it up” in your context. This is exactly what AUHSD did over an eight-year period grounded in common drivers and committed to continuous improvement. You can save time now that they have identified key factors and pathways, but there is no substitute for the internal development that you must foster and create in your own culture—your very own culture of success.

4.) AUHSD changed a) the purpose of education, b) the pedagogy, c) the cultivation of new roles and role relationships for all, d) ubiquitous interrelated leadership, e) key partnerships with the outside community, f) new metrics for success (such as the 5Cs), g) new integrated artificial intelligence that supports rather than supplants teaching and learning, and h) built systems aligned to the drivers/purpose.

5.) Create ongoing “lateral learning” (peers at all levels inside and outside your schools and communities), combined with two-way “vertical learning” across levels. Go outside to get better inside as long as the inside is constantly processing what is being learned. Help others learn outside your district as AUHSD does in receiving a constant stream of visitors. It is no coincidence that teaching others is one of the best ways of self-learning.

We are indeed talking about changing systems. System change comes about and is the fruit of the above five elements “interacting.” System transformation, or system failure, always is a function of the interaction effects of a small number of key factors. The fact that the number is small gives us hope. The reality that these factors dynamically affect each other is daunting. There is one final theme that makes this work crucial at this time in our evolution. Increasingly—because of the complexity and negative downward spiral of humanity and the universe—we are shortchanging and in fact jeopardizing the future of the young. It turns out that children and youth not only have a vested interest in the future, but they also have special skills and insights about what we should focus on.

They are the only group that have been born entirely in the digital age. AUHSD cultivates its future as it learns from its youth. Overall, AUHSD is worth learning from because youth are helping to carve out a new pathway that mobilizes students of all ages to become powerfully good “in society” and “for society.” It is time for us “to grow up,” not “scale up.” It’s as practical as it is deep, and vice versa.

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