EDUCATION LEADERS. LEAD
Updated: Nov 1
This is a reprise of an April 14, 2017 blog. I've reprised after I saw (and responded to) the 3/6/18 "Rows of Desks" Tweet from Secretary of Education DeVos that inspired me...for all of the wrong reasons..
While planning my upcoming class, Transforming Teaching and Schools through Resource Optimization, I am reminded that entrenched systems do not change easily, if at all. If they do change, it is because of a collaborative and interest-based effort that includes teachers (and staff) as decision-making partners (Critics of teachers’ unions will be disappointed to learn that the highest achieving Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) countries are among those with the strongest teachers’ unions and among those that treat teachers as trusted professional partners). This class explores innovative and creative ways to allocate resources by studying the problems through an economic, social and political lens. Public schools rarely engage in allocation shifts. To find schools and/or districts that do or have engaged in such progressive practices, you usually have to look at charter schools or schools that have been similarly restructured, since charters often start from scratch – or close to it - and are either immune from the institutional barriers that restrict flexibility and freedom related to hiring staff and creating programs, or are collaborating with their bargaining units to create a similarly conducive environment. Say what you want about choice, vouchers, tax-credits and other free-market movements in education.
All of us long time insiders know that K-12 public education is an entrenched institution and more likely to be compared to Sears, Roebuck & Company than Apple as it relates to market share and innovation.
As reported recently by CNN, in its heyday, Sears was more than just the largest U.S. employer or retailer. It actually reshaped the nation, transforming the average citizen's lifestyle. In the same report, CNN reported that Sears warned investors that it can no longer promise it will remain in business. It is not in bankruptcy, but it has posted losses of $10.4 billion since 2010, and debt has soared while the value of its stock has tumbled.
It is not as though choice snuck up on Sears one day. Anymore than choice snuck up on education. We both simply chose to ignore it. Until it was too late. As an institution, education never learned to change. It was not built for change, any more than Sears was built for change. Ultimately we have became immutable to change. I am not picking on Sears. I could have used JC Penny or a myriad of other iconic relics of the past that were part of my American experience. Or I could have used the example of cable TV companies. They too had the market cornered until Internet options such as Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu, etc… offered choice and forced their hand. But education is less like a company that failed to anticipate market demand and demographic shifts and more like an electricity or water utility company. Or the Postal Service. The consistent delivery of the product and/or service is the priority so the government regulates it, instead of letting the free-market regulate it. What’s my point? Monopolies lose incentive to innovate. They have no need to improve. Well, there is the moral imperative to improve that drives all educators who are serious about our work. But that has not proven to be enough.
It is convenient and easy to point the blame at failed or flawed policy or unions or other exogenous factors when we should be pointing blame at ourselves.
Local education agencies and its leaders traditionally resist going boldly where no education leaders before them have gone.
Most district leadership teams play it safe. Keep the ship afloat. Dr. John Porter, a retired superintendent and a colleague of mine at CSUF, studied PISA while he was a Fellow at a think tank in Washington D.C.. Relative to resource allocation, the PISA data shows no strong correlation between the overall amount of money spent on education and student achievement. This is notable because the United States has long been one of the world’s biggest spenders, yet has average results compared with the most successful OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. The problem, then, is not the amount of money, it is how it is allocated.
Among the tools we use in this doctoral-level class is a strategic benchmarking matrix. Students study the problems through four benchmarking lenses:
Strategic Thinking (Strategos)
Accountability & Capacity Building
Linda Darling-Hammond, in the report, Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad, concluded that in high achieving nations, teachers’ professional learning is a high priority and teachers are treated as professionals. Many of the countries that have established strong infrastructures for high-quality teaching have built them over the last two decades. This suggests that such conditions could be developed in the United States as well, with purposeful effort and clarity about what matters and what works to support professional learning and practice.
Unfortunately, purposeful effort is thwarted by myriad obstacles and barriers that were cured and raised in a monopolistic system that does not reward innovation and change. Especially at the superintendent level, where the stakes are the highest and “purposeful” takes on an entirely new meaning in the context of politics. I am blessed that I work for a progressive-minded school board and with two bargaining units that are blowing through obstacles and not letting barriers block their path to creating education utopia. But everyone isn't as lucky as I am.
Education leaders at all levels who choose to lead boldly should do so with an understanding that things may not always go so well for those who choose to go where few educators before them have gone. My mentor (and a relative on my wife’s side of the family) Dr. Francis Laufenberg, former Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent of School and also the President of the California State Board of Education, guided my career. These were among his last words to me regarding education leadership:
The Superintendency is a great last job. A superintendent can succeed beyond anyone’s wildest beliefs if he or she is beholden to children, and nothing else. Sound naïve? It’s not. It’s the sum of my experiences in education.
It’s been the sum of my experiences too.