In her article in a Washington Post blog last month Katherine Schultz, Dean of the School of Education at Mills College, got it right. She summarized with clarity and brevity the issues handicapping school leadership and impinging on school improvement. Reacting to the recent resignation of Oakland Unified School District superintendent Tony Smith she offers some insight into the problems that are holding back school reform across the country.
She first points out that the majority of school leaders rarely stay in their positions more than a few years. Too few to provide effective leadership or to create and sustain substantive change. Systemic changes of the scope that most educational systems require take at least seven years according to most organization experts. Short term leadership is insufficient to solve the long term problems that many schools face. The same could be said of the education governors, legislators and even the president where the pressure is for short term solutions with immediate results; solutions that simply do not exist.
Her second point is that new leadership is often expected to offer “new bold vision” which results in as Schultz puts a “slow down in the momentum of progress” and a “ disruption in the lives of children, teachers and families.” In short the school or school system is repeatedly taken back to square one in its improvement efforts. The mentality of the teachers who are the ones responsible for bringing any “new vision” to fruition learn to hunker down and wait for the current reform efforts to pass.
The third issue raised by Dean Schultz is the recent trend to hire CEO’s. The effect she says is a “diminished attention to the knowledge of teaching and learning”; a diminished focus on the technical core of what schools need to improve. You can’t become a doctor by watching Grey’s Anatomy and you shouldn’t be considered eligible to run a school just because you once attended one!
School leaders have to have a deep understanding of both teaching and learning and should have a demonstrated track record of having successfully engaged in both.
But Dean Shultz stops short of offering any direction as to how we can turn back the tide although solutions are implied in her analysis of the problem. Visions for improvement need to be owned by the school community and not vested in an individual or a leadership position. Governing Board’s need to stop asking school leaders for bold new visions and need to start asking how a candidate can help the school attain the vision that it holds for itself. And finally school leaders need to stop doing what’s in the best interest of their careers and start doing what’s best for students in the schools and districts they serve. Just like Tony Smith appears to have been doing in Oakland.
And as for those crusading CEO’s who are venturing in to the education “business”. One of their own, Lee Iacocca, said it best. “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less.”