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Stop Fake Work in Education

Stop Fake Work in Education
Creating Real Work Cultures That Drive Student Success

Foreword by Debbie Silver

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July 2020 | 296 pages | Corwin

Don’t do more work—do the right work.

Educators at all levels have increasing demands keeping them working harder than ever, but they are often working hard on things that don’t really help them reach the loftiest of goals—student success. This “Fake Work” can mire the most dedicated educator in exhaustion, burnout, and a lack of confidence that improvement is possible. 

Nielson and Burks show leaders and their teams how to stop doing Fake Work, by providing tools for gaining focus, building high-performance teams, and identifying and driving the right work with the right behaviorsWhen you offer your team a better way of working, planning, and collaborating, you turn Fake Work into Real Work—and stagnancy into dynamic change. This data-driven, research-based guide shows you

An overall approach to addressing your culture—the foundational elements that supports the change that sets you up for maximum performance.
A simple, three-part model—strategy, alignment, execution—for shedding Fake Work
Road maps for aligning organizational strategies and actions
Tools for gaining focus, building teams, and cultivating productive behaviors
Real educators’ stories
Exercises, reflection questions, charts, checklists, and more

School change remains elusive when the path to success is murky. Clear the way for principals, teachers and students by turning Fake Work into Real Work—and uncertainty into true success.

Companion Website Contents
Foreword by Debbie Silver
About the Authors
It’s All About Student Success

This Book Is About Real Work

We Use Real Educators’ Stories

Our Research and Experience Taught Us to Focus on Work

Focus on Work

This Book Is Practical, Reflective, and Tool-Based

Take Advantage of the Benefits of the Book

The Book Comes From Our Converging Journeys From Diverse Roots to Common Paths

Section I. The Foundational Principles of Fake Work and Real Work—and Knowing the Difference
Chapter 1. Fake Work: A Road to Nowhere
Real Work and Fake Work Defined

Fake Work Negatively Influences School Boards, Administrators, Teachers, and Students

“Standing on the X”: Focusing on the Point, the Pinnacle, and the Launching Pad for Success

Fake Work Is Illusive and Easily Misdiagnosed Because It Is Work—Often Hard Work

The Nature of Work Has Changed and Educators Are Overwhelmed With the New Reality

Section II. Understanding the Causes of Fake Work: How It Damages the Work Environment
Chapter 2. Exploring the Origins of Fake Work in Education
Fake Work Is Plentiful and Complicated

The Root Causes of Fake Work

Chapter 3. The Culture of Fake Work and Four Causes That Enable Dysfunctionality
Cause 1—A Complacent Culture: Organizations Allow Old Habits to Inhibit Excellence

Culture Drives Performance and Is Threatened by an Accumulation of Flaws

Cause 2—Ineffective Teams: Teams Have Few Common Goals and Minimal Collaboration

Providing Perspective on Professional Learning Communities

Cause 3—Inadequate Communication: Poor Communication Results in Missed Opportunities, Mixed Messages, and Poor Problem-Solving

Communication Breakdowns

Cause 4—Unprincipled and Negative Behaviors: Cultural Values Fade When the Wrong Behaviors Are Unchecked and the Right Ones Are Unsupported

Chapter 4. Fake Work Results From Poor Strategies, Weak Priorities, and the Failure to Align
Cause 5—No Strategic Clarity: Without a Clear and Common Roadmap, Organizations Flounder

Cause 6—Unclear Work Priorities: Too Often, Critical Tasks Are Not Linked to Strategies

Cause 7—No Strategic Alignment: Without Alignment, Teams Default to Silos and Lack Collaboration and Cohesion

Chapter 5. Two Causes That Undermine Executing and Sustaining Strategic Implementation
Cause 8—Failure to Execute: Organizational Intent Falters Without Real Work Plans and Being Accountable for Them

Cause 9—Diminishing Long-Term Commitments: Individual and Team Effectiveness Dwindles When Teams Fail to Manage, Maintain, and Sustain Implementation

Summary of the Causes of Fake Work and Transitioning to Real Work

Section III. The Paths to Real Work: A Step-by-Step Process for Strategy, Alignment, and Execution
Prologue: Five Fundamentals for Doing Real Work
Build a High-Performance Culture

Vision and Mission Provide a Mythic Quality to a Very Real World

Culture Thrives in a Moral Fabric With Values Interconnected by Trust

Teams Are the Operational Reality of a Performing Culture

Prioritize Strategic Plans That Focus on Ambitious Targets

Adhere to the Process for Real Work: The Work Itself

Embrace the “Everyone a Leader” Type of Leadership

Ensure That Your Work Is Renewable and Sustainable

Path 1: Create a High-Performance Educational Culture
The Essence of Culture

Step 1: Assess Your Organization to Find Out Who You Are Now

Step 2: Create an Inventory of Behaviors You Want to Cultivate

Step 3: Transform Teams Into Cooperative and Collaborative Powerhouses

Step 4: Prioritize Communication and Communication Planning

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 2: Think Strategically
Step 1: Invest in Strategic Thinking to Gaze Into the Future

Step 2: Find the Right Questions and Turn Them Into Insightful Answers

Step 3: Do a SWOT Analysis to Gauge Your Fitness and to Penetrate Factors That Affect Planning

Step 4: Conduct a Stakeholder Analysis to Plan for Partnerships and Potential Distractions

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 3: Plan Strategically
Step 1: Understand the Elements of a Strategic Plan

Step 2: Engage Strategic Leaders at Every Level

Step 3: Collect Data Strategically

Step 4: Write an Executive Summary

Step 5: Formulate a Vision and Mission That Epitomize Your Highest Aspirations for the Future

Step 6: Identify Your “Navigational Stars”—the Values Vital to Your New Culture

Step 7: Create Objectives That Focus on Your Biggest Challenges

Step 8: Create a Dashboard for Your Objectives and Watch Them Closely

Step 9: Create a Portrait of a Graduate

Step 10: Develop Strategies to Achieve the Objectives

Step 11: Partner With the Board to Work on the District’s Vision

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 4: Focus on Your Real Work Priorities
Step 1: Develop a Task List That Reflects What You Do at Work

Step 2: Consult With Your Team

Step 3: Relate Your Work to the Strategic Plan

Step 4: Prioritize Real Work Tasks

Step 5: Narrow and Refine Your Real Work Tasks

Step 6: Shift Your Work Paradigm

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 5: Align Cultures, Leaders, Teams, and Schools
Step 1: Ensure That Alignment Is a Team Process

Step 2: Establish Alignment as the Essential Connection—the Glue—Between Strategy and Execution

Step 3: Create Alignment at Every Level—Systemwide

Step 4: Build the Critical Steps to Establish Alignment

Summary and The Path to Action

Path 6: Execute the Real Work
Step 1: Develop Real Work Plans for Each Priority

Step 2: Plan for Strategic Execution of Your Real Work Plan

Step 3: Plan to Cascade Real Work Plans and Priorities Throughout the Entire Organization

Summary and the Path to Action

Path 7: Sustain the Real Work
Step 1: Cascade the Real Work Process Throughout the Organization

Step 2: Monitor Performance to Promote Accountability and Teamwork

Step 3: Perform Quarterly Reviews to Demonstrate Ongoing Commitments

Step 4: Establish Real Work Meeting Guidelines

Step 5: Celebrate Success and Stimulate Renewed Commitment

Step 6: Empower People and Build Leaders

Summary and the Path to Action

Epilogue: And Then There Was Transformation


My career has been shaped positively by listening to trusted educators share lessons they’ve learned. Gaylan Nielson and Betty Burks uniquely fit the bill of trusted as they share strategies that both help you avoid the many distractions educators face and focus your attention on what is really matters for learning to happen.

Raymond J. McNulty
President, Successful Practices Network, National Dropout Prevention Center
New York

Stop Fake Work in Education provides school leaders with the mind-set and associated tool-set to keep the main thing the main thing. In the end it is all about student success and removing barriers and distractions from the schoolhouse so that school leaders and teachers can be laser-focused on student outcomes allows this to happen. School leaders that are looking for a “how-to-guide” to make this a reality should have this book on their bookshelf.

Jeff Goldhorn, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Education Service Center, Region 20
San Antonio, TX

Work smarter, not harder, is the theme of this important book for leaders at all levels of education. Nielson and Burks keep the focus on the main thing, student success, while writing passionately about the features of Real Work and compassionately about the traps of Fake Work. The stories of real school leaders punctuate and bring to life the authors’ transformational design model. The 7 Paths to Real Work provide a clear, accessible, step-by-step approach to doing this work. The hands-on tools and templates will help you get started. Fake Work is the rare book that situates strategic thinking and planning in the context of cultural considerations to provide a compelling and credible approach to leading change. Best of all, it is a delightful read that has the ring of authenticity and practicality.

Jackie Acree Walsh, Ph.D.
Author and Consultant
Montgomery, AL

One question: Where was this book and information when I began my work in school administration? What a great resource! Whether you are a beginning teacher leader or a seasoned administrator, this book can make your life easier by recognizing and acknowledging the impact that high performing cultures have on student achievement and how to achieve that culture in your work. This book points to running on a treadmill and getting nowhere, ie Fake Work, but most importantly it points to the important strategies to do the real, meaningful, impactful work. This book should serve a focus of study for all teams. 

Lora G. Mora, Ph.D.
Associate Director, Center for Educational Leadership, Department of Education, Trinity University, Deputy Superintendent, Retired, Northside ISD
San Antonio, TX

If they didn’t coin the terms “fake work” and “real work” in education, Nielsen and Burks certainly clarified them and their impact on the lives of students and those who serve them. Fake Work in Education provides educators with a clear purpose and path for moving from organizational addiction on the fake to systemwide focus on the real. 

The authors weave research with practice through artful use of real experiences from real educators who’ve been stymied by the fake work syndrome in their own schools and districts. But Nielsen and Burks don’t stop there...throughout the book, they provide practical strategies, tools and measures for educators to begin their own efforts to focus on the real work.

Denise Collier, Ed.D.
Educator, Professor, and Educational Consultant, Chief Academic Officer, Retired, Dallas ISD
Dallas, TX

This book had me hooked as soon as I read the definition of Fake Work! As educators, we are passionate by nature. We are also notorious for putting a great amount of effort into all we do. Yet, how often do we stop and ask ourselves whether our efforts will be matched in value of the output of what we are working on? We don’t! We work and work and work, and look up only to realize that we haven’t moved nearly as far as we set out to. This book encourages and challenges us to evaluate everything we are doing on a daily basis to ensure strategic alignment with our goals. The success of our students depends on us understanding this concept of Fake Work and putting our best effort and energy into the Right Work.


Deanna D. Jackson
Principal, Watts Elementary, Schertz-Cibolo Universal City ISD
Schertz, TX

As a school Superintendent for over two decades and a National Baldrige Examiner, I became consumed by a quote from W. Edwards Deming, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” The greatest challenge in an organization aspiring to align with Deming’s systems approach is to take what many consider an abstract concept and translate to daily actions. The key for us was to help staff understand the concepts, but more importantly give them tools to implement. Stop Fake Work In Education: Creating Real Work Cultures that Drive Student Success is one of the best collections of practical tools for educators aspiring for performance excellence.

Greg Gibson
Superintendent of Schools, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD
Schertz, Texas

As school districts strive to transform their organizations into systems based on trust, shared values, creativity, innovation, and respect, Stop Fake Work in Education: Creating Real Work Cultures That Drive Student Success, offers hope for a better way of working, planning, and collaborating – all focused on student success. Nielson and Burks have pooled their experiences and learning from the fields of education and business to offer readers more effective processes to create new paths to achieve results while transforming their cultures to true learning organizations. Their transformational design model for systemic change provides direction, while highlighting some of the fake work pitfalls which tend to consume educators’ focus and time.  From the Board room to the classroom, Real Work must become the focus of all, each and every day, preparing students for success in life.

Johnny Veselka
Executive Director emeritus, Texas Association of School Adminisrators
Austin, Texas

The book challenges leaders to aim our collective energy on what matters most in education, the students. The authors give us practical tools to help us let go of the Fake Work that is derailing high performing school cultures and lay out a path to ensure our Real Work priorities are strategic and successful.

Jana Chang, Ph.D.
Educator and Data Use Advocate

In the world of education, teachers and administrators often deal with multiple initiatives and other demands on both their time and energy, making it so easy to get caught up in doing “fake work”. This book helps leaders fine tune their work so they can focus on what really matters - kids, what they are learning, and how we know they are learning  it. The vignettes provided throughout illustrate the reality of the every day life of school leaders, showing the tools provided within the text really do help stop the “fake work”. 

Shannon Johnson
Educational Diagnostician, Former Principal
Shertz, Texas

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