ECIS 2012 and Decisional Capital

Posted on May 24, 2012

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It’s been a few weeks since I flew back from the European Council of International Schools (ECIS) Leadership Conference in Vienna, and now that I’ve had a little bit of time to stew on what I heard, I thought I’d share a few of the most important ideas that circulated there.

The theme this year was “Forming the Future,” and as a keynote, Andy Hargreaves did a fantastic job honing in on the roles and responsibilities that leaders in education have to shape culture. For everything he discussed, what struck me most was his analysis of “decisional capital.”

Decisional capital refers to a practitioner’s ability to assess and judge based upon experience. With attorneys, for example, decisional capital arises out of years of engagement in case-law, throughout which a good lawyer will develop an ability to judge from among a variety of complex facets of legal code, and make the best decisions in a case.

As any lawyer will attest, young attorneys tend to make mistakes because they lack decisional capital. The same goes for teachers. In their early careers, teachers are high in commitment, but lower in capability. They are less cynical, but haven’t hit their professional stride yet.

On the other hand, teachers later into their careers—we’re talking 23 years plus—generally experience declining commitment. They will often be in the middle of raising teenagers themselves. They’ll be getting older, and will frequently find it harder to exert patience and tolerance.

To Hargreaves, the sweet spot in which decisional capital is balanced with energy and commitment is between 8 to 20 years. 8 years of teaching represents about 10,000 hours in the classroom, enough to truly gain mastery. By 20 years, with teachers at least, exhaustion and cynicism can begin to set in and affect performance.

As I see it, a crisis in decisional capital is at the very core of educational challenges in America, where student achievement has sagged for many years. While forces outside the classroom play an important role in student outcomes, a well-prepared, motivated teacher can lift students beyond their circumstances and toward college and career readiness. In fact, the single most important thing we can do for students is to provide them with well-trained, motivated, highly effective teachers. Often, when teachers struggle to reach a suitable level of effectiveness, it’s because of what Hargreaves described—a lack of experience and training, or total exhaustion.

These two mitigating factors, inexperience and exhaustion, too often characterize the teaching profession in America. It’s a well established fact that within 5 years (still 3 years and thousands of hours short of mastery) schools lose 50 percent of new teachers. Many schools have become a revolving door for at least half of their faculty.

And teachers who aren’t leaving before they attain suitable decisional capital stay in the system and become exhausted long before 20 years. The culture of education in America is reducing the number of teachers who attain mastery of their craft, and at the same time is shrinking that sweet spot I talked about. The 8 to 20 year window is frequently reduced to an 8 to 15, or even an 8 to 10 year sweet spot, as the teachers who remain in education are burnt out early.

I welcome your feedback on any of this. Thoughts? Disagreements? Solutions?

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