Ferris Wheel by John Spade

As I’ve worked to get up to speed on education politics in Colorado, which is certainly at the “bleeding edge” of education reform nationally, I’ve become very aware of the presence of cyclical elements that feed off each other and create a sort of symbiosis when it comes to education policy.

Currently, the state is in a classic “vicious cycle,” or a chain of events that feed off each other and spiral into increasingly disastrous results.  As a very simplified model, I think the current vicious cycle looks something like this (click to see a larger image):


It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of international benchmarking, or studying the best performing systems for patterns and connected strategies and then considering how those might be adapted to one’s current context, as a way of looking for systemic solutions and ideas for how we might build a great education system.   This thinking certainly forms the basis of our work in Eagle County Schools at becoming a genuinely great education system, as I’ve outlined in our Unparalleled Altitude report.

From my observations, it appears that the high performing systems are in quite a different cycle than the one we are in.  As opposed to our “vicious cycle,” spiraling ever downward, high performing systems are in a “virtuous cycle,” where a chain of events feeds off each other in creating ever higher levels of support, respect, and performance.

Again, an over-simplified model might look something like this (click to see a larger image):


One key question to consider is “How do we get from here to there?”  How does one reverse the seemingly never-ending current in a vicious cycle and turn things around?  Part of that answer, I think, lies in a courageous leader being willing to stand up and go against the conventional wisdom of blame, shame, gloom, and (ultimately) doom associated with the vicious cycle.  But one courageous leader isn’t enough.  We are basically trying to change the direction of a vicious system that has a great deal of momentum and one part of that moving in the opposite direction is both dangerous to the opposing element and unlikely to reverse the course of the entire cycle.  For the cycle to reverse direction, what is needed is for multiple elements to change direction at once.

This might not necessarily need to be in a coordinated or unified manner.  One might imagine elements of the larger system taking cue from the courageous leader and reversing direction as well.

My thinking on this is still evolving.  However, in my studies of high performing education systems, I see virtuous cycles working in all of them.   From this, I infer the following: If we are to become a high performing education system … then we are going to have to create a virtuous cycle when it comes to education policy.