THIS IS NO TIME TO BAIL OUT. INSTEAD, FIND SOME INFLUENCERS.
The response to my latest post, Succession Planning in the Era of the Superintendent Exodus, was a surprise to me. I'm not planning my own succession. But I am concerned with everything I reported in the post. The superintendency is becoming an endangered species in an America that is less optimistic about the long-term prospects for public education then it was a decade ago, according to the Pew Foundation. Education is consumer-driven as evidenced by families fleeing public schools for charter schools, private schools, or home schools in unprecedented numbers.
While navigating the Twittersphere can be perilous, it can also be a great source of encouragement. If you follow some of my favorite influencers, including school site administrators' Dr. Monica Luther and Dr. Alejandro Cisneros, Superintendent Mike McCormick, and Director of Communications and Intergovernmental Relations, Jenny Owen, you will be inspired by their comforting and confident words.
When I have my moments when I need to be lifted I turn to my influencers. Even an experienced superintendent like me, despite leading districts through a variety of crises, needs inspiration. I'm not too proud. I consider my influencers to be on my team. They're not on the payroll. But they ought to be.
Education Week headlines capture the essence of the current public education climate: School Shootings This Year: How Many and Where; How Attacks on Critical Race Theory Are Affecting Teachers; Appeals Court Revives Student’s Free Speech Suit Over Antisemitic Social Media Post; Swatting’ Hoaxes Disrupt Schools Across the Country; A School Librarian Pushes Back on Censorship and Gets Death Threats and Online Harassment; and Conservatives Hammer on Hot-Button K-12 Education Issues at Federalist Society Event. As one of my colleagues,
While these headlines appear aggressive, America's democracy was built on challenging each other’s views. No leader should try to escape it. Instead, leaders must enter the debate, not bail out.
Leading in today's environment requires authentic leadership. The all-encompassing and contemporary discourse revolving around cancelling people whose opinions differ from your own has no place in education leadership. Is there even such a thing as a cancel culture? Many superintendents I know believe that there is such a thing and that societal distrust in institutions has perpetuated it and are holding them accountable for things they have no control over like vaccinations, and state content standards and frameworks to deliver them. Many have chosen to leave the profession and retire or resurface in a leadership support role or as a corporate spokesperson.
It's time for big picture leadership. That's not really a type of leadership, but it is a leadership quality. A big picture leader doesn't miss the forest for the trees.
Make no mistake about it, education is at a critical juncture. In California, enrollment is down from 6,002,523 in 2020–21 to 5,892,240 in 2021–22, a decrease of more than 110,000. Students are moving from public schools to charter schools in record numbers. The data trends indicate that the state’s schools will continue to see enrollment declines in 2022-23 and for the foreseeable future.
Declining enrollment creates a financial dilemma for school districts, given the state's funding mechanism based purely on average daily attendance. Fewer students equates to fewer dollars. Fewer dollars equates to fewer highly-qualified teachers joining the profession, exacerbating the teacher shortage. Ultimately students suffer, particularly the most vulnerable students.
Education will not be defeated by those who are not among it. Education will only be defeated from within. That's why superintendents must step up to protect our cherished institution and ensure democracy thrives in its name.
I am aware that educators are vulnerable to attacks and are targets for criticism and all forms of abuse. Leading districts through these coarse times requires goliath strength and stability. It's enough to make the strongest leaders a little wobbly at times. If you are ever feeling defeated or are questioning your purpose and potential to make a difference, know that you have the above-named educators and many others to lift you up. Add them to your team.
One more thing, realize that the negativity swirling around you is manufactured for the purpose of defeating you. This is no time to retreat. Education needs its superintendents and future superintendents more than ever.