Bonus Post: The Leadership Trap In No Excuses Schools

Caleb is sitting across from me. He is a former KIPP principal, and now in charge of their effort to develop more principals for their 99 schools. We just spent 20 important minutes having a chat while we walked his kid around in a stroller. You never know when the big insights are going to come. Well, one just happened.

Principals in No Excuses Charters Do Waaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyy Too Much Reinventing The Wheel. That's our big insight.

On what?

1. Schedule.

(Example: Morning Meeting versus Advisory; changing the start time of the day or how long each period lasts.)

2. Calendar.

(Example: "Let's get rid of Saturdays to increase teacher sustainability." Example: "Let's add a professional development day here and here...which turns into a ton of extra prep work for the principal to make that day valuable.")

3. Rules/Incentives.

(Example: New way of running the system that rewards kids for good behavior.)

4. Across-subject initiatives that often don't stick.

(Example: each class should do X with vocabulary, or each class should teach note-taking in the following way, or "writing across the curriculum.")

5. Elective Classes.

(Example: Which ones, how they're run.)

6. Class Groupings.

(Boys and Girls should learn separately. We should group kids by ability. No, we should group them randomly.)

7. Non-class academic support/events.

(Example: Silent reading, study hall, teacher after-school help, trips, assemblies, etc.)

8. Teacher support.

(Example: Take a zero-sum resource, like someone's time, and deploy it in a different way to help teachers either on coaching, curriculum, or just scut work like grading papers. Or take a zero-sum resource like $, and come up with a new method of compensation).

* * *

But these are all legitimate things to want to optimize.

So what's the problem?

So why do we say: Principals in No Excuses Charters Do Waaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyy Too Much Reinventing The Wheel.

Reinventing The Wheel, even on legitimate things, competes with, and often CRUSHES, another goal.

That goal is: a schoolwide teacher-to-teacher, and leader-teacher, sole focus on simply executing day-to-day teaching better. Daily, hourly conversation about executing the fundamentals well in class.

A. Why do we think Reinventing The Wheel so totally CRUSHES teacher focus on better day-to-day teaching?

Caleb and I have both been at this now for about 10 years. We both made this "reinventing the wheel" mistake a lot personally.

And now we see it all too often across schools (me through the lens of rookie teachers in various No Excuses schools, him through the lens of KIPP schools).

B. Is it really zero-sum?


A leader's ability to drive a sole, daily, sometimes dry conversation about improving day-to-day teaching is not easy. A leader easily gets pinned by implementing the changes from Reinventing The Wheel.

The typical scenario: She really feels a) swamped, b) frustrated because she knows she's not doing as much work on the execution of teaching as she should.

C. Give me a football analogy.

I knew you'd want that. Imagine if each year a team changed defenses. Last year it was a 3-4. This year it's a 4-3. Next year it'll be zone coverage.

So every year, there was a ton of coaching just to solve the implementation issues.

The thing is, there are inherent advantages/disadvantages to the 3-4. Same with the 4-3. Same with any defense. There are +s and -s.

There are inherent advantages/disadvantages to every way you decide to run a school, to all of the choices I listed, #1 through #8.

And it's understandable that we always try to problem-solve with structural things. It's fun. It feels urgent.

But often it's better to just stick with the reasonable system you have, and then used all that freed-up bandwidth to generate urgency around the most basic work that happens each day: all the fascinating, gritty, tough details of teaching.