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Moving Beyond NCLB: Creating Education Imagineers

By Thomas A. Butler, Ph.D., Executive Director, Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, Altoona, PA

Editor’s Note: This Perspectives article is part of a series. Please also read the related research article Getting Better Together: Innovations for Rural Learners and Communities

Education Imagineers view education through a lens of possibility.

Let’s be charitable and say that No Child Left Behind was a reaction to systemic challenges in public schools. These challenges included inadequate academic achievement and success in other “schooling” outcomes by impoverished, minority, and special needs students. If our assumption is that NCLB tried to address these challenges, then we can examine how school leaders tried to innovate and implement solutions in the context of NCLB.

For those of us who became school and district leaders in the NCLB environment, we witnessed how state and federal regulations wrapped around NCLB created a cottage industry of vendors and programs meant to “help” schools. Universities and vendors in both the private and nonprofit sectors reacted to the NCLB vision and requirements by creating numerous programs and interventions as solutions to the challenges.

Programs of all sorts soon appeared with marketing strategies and advocates. Commonly developed by outside entities, these one-best-way programs required high levels of implementation fidelity to achieve expected results. Most often the intervention models accommodated little adaptation to the local context during implementation. Frequently teachers and school leaders became vessels in which programs were packaged and shipped to schools and students. “Implementing with fidelity” disempowered teachers and school
leaders and devalued their expertise and local knowledge to adjust programs as needed. Instead they were instructed and coached to just follow the script and implement the prescribed program with fidelity. The consequence of how NCLB was implemented was that teachers and school leaders become Compliance Zombies.

Through no fault of their own, these Compliance Zombies became educators who spent large parts of their day figuring out how to comply with all of the “reform” initiatives put in place by education policymakers. Education leaders strived to figure out the requirements for the new teacher and principal evaluation systems. Much time was devoted to entering data into the student information system, (and verifying the data), entering data into the teacher information system (and verifying the data), aligning curriculum to the State tests, administering up to 15 state-mandated tests (in PA) to their students each year, and analyzing test scores for input into State-mandated evaluation systems—an enormous undertaking indeed.

Unfortunately, Compliance Zombies must assure the State, the Feds, their school boards and themselves that everything is being completed to the exact specifications of the State Department of Education. This leaves little or no time for educational leaders to actually lead. In a world of constant change requiring nimble, quick reactions, our educators are stuck in a world of “command and control,” fretting over whether they will be compliant to the wishes of the State and Federal government. In other words, they are becoming brain dead just to stay compliant. Rather than becoming Compliance Zombies, a better solution is for teachers and leaders to transform as “Education Imagineers”— a role in which education service agencies can help make the transition successful.

Education Imagineers view education through a lens of possibility. Education Imagineers study the ways in which societal shifts affect learning. Going even deeper, they anticipate shifts in the world they live and create programs and services that will help students thrive in a new reality. Education Imagineers create organizations that are not “command and control.” Rather, the
organizations they create foster innovation and creativity through the input of all members of the organization.

Education Imagineers deconstruct the difference between “schooling” and “learning” to help them understand what their students need. Education Imagineers use the mandates from the State and imagine them in new ways. They understand the system in which they work. There will always be mandates from the State and Federal governments concerning their jobs. However, Education Imagineers use these mandates as a pivot to accomplish the necessary work in their schools.

Education service agencies can create a space in which educators can come together to design a better education experience for students. As a matter of fact, ESAs are perfectly positioned for this role. While there will always exist a need to train educators about compliance issues, ESAs should follow a simple formula to assure that there is adequate training to encourage designing
the ideal learner-centered education system. Here is a simple formula to follow: For every two trainings an ESA conducts on compliance issues, there are three trainings centered on
helping educators become Education Imagineers.

An ESA can simply review its existing training schedule and calculate whether it follows this formula. If some adjustments need to be made, then design trainings that empower educators to use their professionalism and knowledge of their local system to create better learning experiences for students.

Students will benefit once we realize that the command and control, a mandate-compliant model is simply not working well for our kids. To produce innovative, creative learning options for students, our education systems must start to reflect systemic changes that encourage innovation and creativity. The current system accomplishes just the opposite. ESAs can leverage their expertise in professional development to help schools transition toward Education Imagineers. Unleashing the creative power of educational leaders is better for our students than encouraging an army of “Compliance Zombies.”

There are thousands of Education Imagineers across the nation. I have interacted with hundreds in Pennsylvania. Let’s have a discussion about how our educational system can pivot to encourage Education Imagineers— with ESAs leading the way.

More of Dr. Butler’s writings are available at

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