“Simplifying means doing a lean set of things deeply and well,” advises Cami Anderson, “and communicating with utter clarity and empathy. We need to do less, better.”
With stress and anxiety rising among teachers and school leaders this past school year, and in preparation for another historic school year, our schools and school systems cannot afford to pile on new initiatives without stopping the initiatives that no longer work. A subtractive approach, rather than an additive one, is the kind of leadership that will help ensure the academic and social emotional well-being of our students, staff, and families.
Central to our four leadership shifts—Partner, Believe, Adapt, Simplify—a subtractive approach is one more way you can “do school” differently and co-create a new normal this school year.
To be clear, Anderson cautions, “simplifying does not mean dumbing down or expecting less of kids or adults.” If anything, it should have the opposite effect. When we plan as purposefully for what we will stop doing as for what we will start, implementation deepens, and expectations rise. This level of clarity gives teachers and leaders more time, resources, and focus to double down on what works. And our students soar.
We sat down with Anderson, a New Leaders alum, experienced district superintendent, and CEO of ThirdWay Solutions, to better understand how school and system leaders can prioritize for impact. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Tell us how you led for change in Newark Public Schools as the superintendent? How did you use a subtractive approach?
What happened in Newark during my tenure, like lots of big school systems right now, was that we needed a centralized vision for high-quality instructional materials. We had a potpourri of purchased materials, most of which were low quality. We had homemade curricula and teacher favorites. But we did not have a centralized curriculum that was rigorous.
So, we spent one full year getting everyone—our teachers, school leaders, families, central office—really clear about what children need to know and be able to do at every grade. Common Core, which offers fewer, better, and deeper standards, was our guide and norming tool. Then, like now, we wanted every educator, parent, and leader to understand in a deep way what children need to learn.
Without all that groundwork, we could not have gone from “all things to all people, and nothing to no one” to a solid Tier I curriculum overnight that we implemented across our schools (with a nominal amount of choice). Then we turned our attention to Tier II and Tier III interventions which were messier and even less aligned.
It was basically the same leadership move: we needed to stop doing what no longer served our kids. At one point we counted 17 different math interventions. We were like enough is enough.
Is it true that you put them in a trash can and lit them on fire?
Yes, but it was perhaps not as crazy as it sounds. I am a theater person. The work we do in schools is really hard and it’s easy to stay in our heads. Sometimes I think we need a “show me, don’t tell me.” This was my way of saying, “I’m serious.” We’d talked and talked about the need to simplify and align our interventions. I wanted to make our commitment visceral. So, a few of us went out to the parking lot. We took fire safety precautions. And we lit the canceled interventions on fire.
What did you see as a result of all your efforts to double down on what works?
First and foremost, our teachers got much, much better at delivering high-quality lessons that were aligned to great content and rigorous standards. Principals got better at providing high-quality feedback because they knew the content teachers were delivering. Our professional development became more precise. And our teachers interacted more with each other because they were no longer comparing apples to oranges.
Most importantly, our students got more targeted feedback on their work and we saw student growth. We also saw a significant increase in parent involvement because our messaging was clear about what students needed to learn. Families and teachers supported each other.
That’s a huge lesson from the pandemic. Parents in the pandemic really needed—and wanted—to understand what their children were supposed to be able to do at their grade. When our schools and school systems fail to provide that level of clarity, and only the teacher knows what is being taught, we leave out key players and there’s no way to truly partner.
Given the demands and pressures of this time, especially as leaders are strategizing around how to use American Rescue Plan fundings, what might be the pitfalls of adding more initiatives without taking some away?
We’re all so overwhelmed right now. My concern is that schools and school systems will end up super fragmented, doing a million different things without the support they need for quality implementation. Or we’ll just kind of shut down.
I firmly believe that the school is the unit of change. And that the role of the central office—other than ensuring a rockstar school leader and team—is threefold: 1) best-in-class content and tools; 2) coaching and implementation support; and 3) problem solving and thought partnership. Right now, as you know well, school systems are responding to health and safety procedures that are changing daily. There is wild variation in how the pandemic impacted children and families. Some experienced significant trauma, others fared better than ever.
In order to co-create a new normal, your messaging has to be both simple and clear—and highly individualized so schools can meet their communities where they are.
Any final advice to school and system leaders right now?
Among your lean set of things to do well, you must prioritize academic learning along with social-emotional well-being. We now see how truly interconnected they are.
It’s always necessary to stop doing what is not working. But right now especially, we need leaders to think clearly about a lean set of priorities and then put as much support in place as possible to allow schools and their leaders to be the change agents they are.