Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Long Game

People who know me know that one of my favorite phrases is “playing the long game.”  It means favoring sustainable, gradual, long-term changes over Big Splash interventions that often leave destruction in their wake.  That’s probably why this story made so much sense to me.

It’s a contrast between two major urban school districts in New Jersey: Newark and Union.  Newark got a huge burst of publicity, a major infusion of funds, the attention of some very high-profile people, and a master plan so complex that its author referred to it as “sixteen-dimensional chess.”  Union used existing staff to focus on reading.

Years later, Newark has very little to show for its changes, while Union is showing real and compounding gains.

The “Big Splash” model holds visceral appeal to some people.  It looks “decisive,” and it gets attention.  The “long game” model isn’t nearly as easy to encapsulate in a headline; in the very short term, it can look like not doing very much at all.  If you equate “leadership” with getting headlines and making big splashes, the long game can look sort of distant or passive.

But that’s a fundamental misreading.  The long game works.  It gets results.  It’s sustainable, even in the absence of “angel” funders.  And it allows for fallibility, public input, and institutional learning along the way.

(SNHU, characteristically, does both, and does them separately.  I’m a fan of that approach, but I don’t have the resources to try it here.  Very few places do.)

The long game works by looking at the resources and strengths that already exist, rather than assuming that the whole thing needs to be blown up.  It settles on one or a very few goals, sets timeframes measured in years, and gradually aligns resources around those goals.  It sticks to those goals and accepts mixed or incremental gains in the early going.  

It makes certain demands that make it harder than it sounds.  It requires both humility and perseverance in its administrative leadership.  It requires faculty and staff who are willing to admit that things aren’t perfect.  And it requires Board and public/political patience.  That last one can be the most difficult of all.

If the senior leadership turns over every couple of years, and each new team has to bring in a new Big Splash to justify its existence, you can expect a certain earned cynicism to set in among the staff.  You start to hear terms like “this too shall pass” or “flavor of the month.”  Certain desperate leaders will even cook the books to try to make it look like the Big Splash is actually working; that’s the sort of thing that works until it doesn’t.  And once it doesn’t, the cynicism gets even worse.

Making the long game work requires leadership that sticks around, keeps its eye on the big picture, admits when something didn’t work and makes a change, and doesn’t require the spotlight.  That combination is rarer than it should be, for all sorts of obvious political reasons.  

In the context of community colleges, I’d be skeptical -- if not openly cynical about -- any claims of improving completion rates by double digits in a year or two.  That’s not how this works.  In the absence of something fluky and extraordinary -- regression to the mean after a natural disaster, say -- improvement is likely to be uneven at first, and then gradual.  But it feeds on itself.  

Kudos to the Union schools for doing it the right way.  I hope that funders take note, and start thinking about investing in the long game.  The only thing better than a smart long-term strategy is a smart long-term strategy with money.  Bring it on.