Integrity is Essential to Successful School Design

Integrity is the most important element to successful school design. No matter what else a group brings to the process, without integrity they will not achieve their potential. This is true for any organization or initiative. To achieve their potential, they must have integrity.

Unfortunately, integrity is rarely considered when creating teams or working on initiatives, because integrity forces everyone to be held accountable—to each other and to themselves. And while most people say accountability is a good thing, it creates a lot of challenges that people like to avoid; but those challenges are what make it so important.

Integrity gets compromised in two primary ways, both of which compromise the efforts of a team or initiative. The first compromise is allowing the ends to justify the means. This pervasive in every aspect of our society, so is often overlooked or viewed as unavoidable. However, once you understand the damage it causes, you can work to avoid this so you maintain your integrity.

When the ends are used to justify the means, in pretty much every possible context, values are being compromised. This can be an individual’s, an organization’s, or an initiative’s values. The justification often comes from an ethical dilemma; a decision or action is causing a conflict between values so that one of the values must be compromised.

However, that is almost never actually true. Rather, the group gives in to pressure of some sort—might be deadlines, politics, influence, etc.—and decides to allow the ends to justify the means. When this happens, trust erodes because team members wonder what values will be sacrificed next, even if they supported the decision. An invisible barrier starts to build among the team, and it becomes easier to let the ends justify the means in the future.

That’s where integrity comes in. Integrity forces a group to have challenging discussions and dig deep to find alternatives that will not compromise the group’s values. They refuse to sacrifice anyone or any principles. And if they face that rare ethical dilemma that truly doesn’t have an alternative, they take every possible step to mitigate the damage and avoid permanent compromise of values.

Often, in the process of mitigating the damage, better alternatives arise or an unforeseen benefit emerges that offsets the initial damage. One benefit that almost always occurs is the group’s bonds grow stronger along with their commitment. Overcoming adversity by demonstrating values and principles builds the most successful teams.

The second primary way integrity gets compromised is a disconnect between values and actions. In other words, not walking the talk. This occurs when actions and decisions invalidate stated values and principles but often not in ways that are obvious.

This is extremely common in businesses and schools. Businesses will state that their employees are their most important asset but have policies and practices that show the opposite. This can include multi-page lists of rules and consequences showing they don’t trust their employees; they may have low pay and poor benefits and provide no support for employee self-improvement; they may not include most employees in decision making and continuous improvement efforts.

Most schools say they want to develop students who are thoughtful and responsible but then build nearly every aspect of school around rewards and punishments. Like businesses, this includes multi-page codes-of-conduct; it includes grades, often both academic and behavior; it includes assemblies, school trips, and other “incentives” for good conduct and completing school work; and schools rarely include students in decision making and improvement efforts, at least in any meaningful ways.

Of course, businesses and schools will say they have to do these things for a myriad of reasons, but then they should stop claiming “our employees are our most valuable asset” or “we are preparing students to be thoughtful and responsible adults” or similar messages that contradict their actions.

We’re not going to fix these existing situations anytime soon, but recognizing them will help maintain integrity in your efforts to redesign the school model.

Here are some keys to doing that:

  • Have actual discussions with your group about the need to maintain integrity and what that means.
  • Establish a vision for your efforts to which everyone on your team is committed.
  • Establish principle and belief statements to which everyone on your team is committed.
  • Throughout the design process, review your vision as well as your principle and belief statements to ensure your efforts are aligned with these.
  • Encourage everyone on your team to speak up if they sense your integrity is being compromised.

My book covers all these things in greater detail with specific techniques and practices for maintaining integrity. I will also try to post some of these on the website in the future. Chapter 24 from my book provides an in-depth look at the importance of integrity on school model design and that is available for free on my website.

There is one very common way integrity gets compromised in education initiatives. Be especially wary of this—groups often refuse to be honest about their readiness.

The vast majority of initiatives, especially related to educational improvements, begin with some sort of deadline or timetable that must be met. Then the planning process begins. Everyone involved knows they cannot execute the initiative successfully by the deadline—or at least they cannot achieve the full potential of the initiative by the deadline—but they see no choice and begin anyway. With the integrity already compromised, it will continue to erode through to the end. In redesigning your school model, be realistic and patient. It is far better to set a realistic timeline and retain your integrity then try to “finish” by some arbitrary date and sabotage your potential.

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