Posts filed under ‘School Leadership’

Billionaires Take the Bait

When did Bill and Melinda Gates forget who they were? Billionaire philanthropists have joined the great rescue mission that is public education today. They bring seemingly unlimited resources to drive the solution to one of the greatest challenges in the nation, educating our children. Yet they have undermined their own efforts by getting co-opted into the colossal group think tank of an insular industry. Myopic vision and managerial inexperience are being funded by giants who should know better.

To be successful, educators must invest the right amount of money in sustainable and scalable models driven by the mission of educating children in every demographic. All human capital as well as tangible and intangible assets must be redeployed efficiently and effectively, evolving from a turnaround mode to a growth model. While funded and regulated as a public good, education must be administered as an entrepreneurial business that is responsive to the needs of those it serves. Who should be better at helping us achieve these objectives than billionaire philanthropists who accumulated their wealth by solving problems just like these?

The trouble is…our billionaires fell for the notion that the same leadership that has flailed for the last fifty years in education still offers the best insight into its own needs.  Yes, we have the arrogance to invite the greatest entrepreneurs of our nation into our industry and assume they cannot function without being indoctrinated into our way of doing things. They are the money; we are the brains in this very flawed operation.

As funding agents, our business experts have taken the bait. They have skipped the diagnostic phase of the turnaround assignment. Partners with deep pockets have funded school leaders who deflect their own accountability onto teachers and ask for help firing the culprits and building better replacements. Little attention has been paid to an organizational model that systematically misallocates resources, operates bureaucracies that impede progress in favor of meeting regulations, and manages human resources divisively.

The potential exists to fund schools that serve as incubators for new ideas, to build databases for informed decision-making, and to motivate professionals to achieve better outcomes. Instead, smart managers are helping us to build slick new ways to perform the usual dumb tricks. How can we create entrepreneurial small schools in a district where diminished funding trickles down to the school level? We offer fewer choices to diverse learners and hope that the special relationships we build will suffice to engage them. How can we give teachers the knowledge they need to improve their practices collaboratively? We threaten them with rankings that will ultimately determine who stays or goes. How can we manage our human capital to achieve better results? We invest in elite newcomers, target the lowest common denominator for elimination, and ignore the majority in between. This is not managerial excellence.

 Looking at the generic issues in education, we should welcome guidance on such issues as…

  • Understanding our core mission
  • Implementing continuous quality improvement
  • Incubating ideas through small business start-ups
  • Managing and motivating adults
  • Fostering entrepreneurship in a regulated industry
  • Building a better pension plan for the future
  • Understanding asset-based management

Thus far, our work with mission statements has overlooked the primary goal of educating children, focusing instead on dozens of unique concepts that differentiate small schools. We need to start at the top and organize our districts around the children first. Spend the first dollar on that mission, not the nickels and dimes that trickle down to deconstructed schools. On the other hand, there are ways that education cannot be viewed through the lens of capitalism. Entrepreneurs, for example, know self-sacrifice and investments in sweat equity; the analogous martyrdom model for turnaround schools is not sustainable. Perhaps when our billionaires come to their senses they will help us find a better way.


July 6, 2011 at 9:32 PM Leave a comment

Treading Teachers

Luring the next generation of heroes into the teaching profession has become the perennial solution to every ill in education…because, of course, blame for every problem in education has been laid on the teachers. So, whatever happened to all those good teachers who have been hired over the years?

The ritual is played out annually. In the limelight, new heroes arrive with great expectations, anxious to be inducted into their new profession. Rising stars step up to pseudo-leadership positions, the new role models for veteran teachers in need of reinvention. The unwilling, the usual suspects, gird their loins and place their union reps on speed dial. Administrators extend their welcome, endorse their favorites through praise, and send the occasional stern glance. In the background, the majority of staff watches the show.

Yes, there are millions of teachers who love what they do for a living and do it with quiet dignity behind the scenes. For many of them, the best they can hope for is to be taken for granted, to be left alone to perform their duties out of the spotlight. They could be the true leaders, the natural mentors, and the knowledge bank for pedagogy and student support. Yet they often seem to have become the forgotten partners for administration.

Public education is a profession with a very flat pyramidal structure. This structure has been successfully employed in higher education and many high tech industries. It has been heralded as the model for innovation and independence. However, it presumes a strong potential for individual achievement as well as a preference for stability and lower professional risk once tenure has been attained.

Absent the great successes in a field of innovation or the prestige of a university professorship, elementary and secondary education offers limited extrinsic professional value. Nowhere is this more evident than in the urban setting. Challenges far outweigh the recognition or rewards, and the flat pyramid offers little opportunity for promotion. Instead, the culture has developed a cycle of churning those who offer early signs of leadership through a short-lived rising star/falling star phenomenon.

Each batch of fresh recruits brings the potential for new solutions to the achievement gap in urban education. Promising rookies quickly catch the eye of administration. As they grow into their jobs in the classroom, many begin to be groomed for leadership. They offer access to the latest innovations from education schools. Dedication bordering on masochism underlies their choice of the urban setting. They are eager to please and cannot say, “No.” And they do not know yet that tying up all the loose ends for a department or project does not constitute management training. A star is born.

Eventually, a few begin to climb the leadership ladder. Many leave the field, exhausted, disillusioned with education, or drawn to other opportunities. Some remain and join the corps of career teachers. This last group finds itself walking a fine line as they re-assimilate with rank and file teachers, many of whom have grudgingly tolerated their stardom. No time to look back. The next class of new teachers has arrived. New heroes are offering the best lesson plans and latest technology. Pedagogy has shifted; what was old is new again. But only the newer kids are allowed to own it.

Above it all, school leaders tread through the cycle, not actually affecting much change in student outcomes. Accountability calls for action, and action means calls for new teachers. “Send me a new batch…the last ones seem to be broken…Where, oh where, can we find good teachers?

Meanwhile, an invisible army of teachers carries on, driven by their independence, a desire to share in the joy of discovery, and the knowledge that they are not really alone in spirit. Still, it is going to be a long 30 years. There must be a better answer.

June 21, 2011 at 4:25 PM 1 comment

Decentralized Accounting in Schools – The Carpenter’s Dilemma

To paraphrase an old saying…If the Principal’s whole budget is a personnel budget…every problem looks like a person.

Asset-based management depends on knowing the true value of all of one’s inputs. Every school has bricks and mortar, people, fixtures, equipment, and supplies. It also depends on intangibles in the form of community partners, public and private. It is not the habit of a government service such as education to apply market principles to the analysis of its enterprise, its investments and its returns. However, we may well benefit from borrowing the tools of the market to know where we stand for strategic planning purposes.

In addition to taking an inventory of assets, each school would benefit from understanding all the fully allocated costs it incurs, not just the staffing costs. This would be a stepping stone to decentralized accounting, which would send more resources to the schools along with more discretion in spending and accountability for results. We have a genuine need to know where the money is spent. Teachers must demonstrate their effectiveness, but so must the many and varied offices and materials that comprise district overhead. Would any good manager intentionally pay for all of their goods and services at the current cost?

April 29, 2011 at 11:43 AM Leave a comment

On cultural change through teacher leadership…

Some time ago, I worked on a Strategic Practice grant to expand a teacher leadership program at my high school. Found this among my entries…

 “The distributive leadership model is being explored to empower teachers as content leaders and mentors. While these roles have been designed to sustain momentum in academic disciplines and improve staff retention rates, incumbents also enhance the cultural diffusion of new values throughout the organization. Teacher leaders represent access to decision-making, goal-setting, and professional growth. As credible change agents, they endorse new programs by getting involved. As rank-and-file teachers, they stimulate interest in leadership values among peers as colleagues reflect upon their own professional aspirations in a new light. As a result, the current cohort of teacher leaders directly affects pedagogy as well as tacitly motivating their own successors. Ultimately, every member of the faculty should expect to have an impact on organizational growth and an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in and out of the classroom.

I continue to agree with this model; however, I would suggest some caveats below. 

  • Teacher leadership opportunities must offer authentic roles, not merely compensation for the absence of administrative assistants for content areas or professional development. The latter merely reinforces the bureaucracy by encumbering an exemplary leader with more low-level tasks, rather than genuinely supporting his or her career progress. Similarly, it reinforces a dues-paying mentality more so than creativity as a driver of career success.
  • Cultural change cannot occur unless peer leadership is empowered to challenge colleagues past the point of complacency with existing performance. There must be a shared sense of urgency for professional development along with the commitment to a participatory change process originating with senior management.
  • Having the intent and ability to lead is intrinsic to the teaching process. A culture of instructional excellence must recognize that strength across the faculty and encourage sharing of each unique voice. Access to leadership opportunities cannot be perceived to reside among a privileged few who share a common point of view.
  • Student-centered learning is nearly always on the agenda for professional development. Ironically, that is modeled through teacher-centered professional development whenever the teachers are being asked to learn something new. 
  • Teacher leaders should reflect the diversity of the faculty and the students over time. 
  • Institutional mentoring programs are by definition artificial and may reflect a lack of respect for maturity among teachers. Staff members should be encouraged in their search for kindred spirits and natural mentoring relationships. Time should be allowed for faculty relationships to evolve and genuine professional nurturing to emerge. School-assigned “mentors” should not be part of the long-term solution.

In keeping with my point of view…I resigned my teacher leader role after one year to make room for the next voice to be heard.

March 14, 2011 at 12:00 PM Leave a comment

The New School Leader

From Instructional Leader to General Manager

As reform-oriented superintendents experiment with new budget formulas, a dramatic shift toward decentralization of school funding and decision-making is emerging. The model makes good sense for management of 21st century schools. However, one may wonder if traditional training in instructional leadership will be adequate preparation for school leaders.

Instructional leadership has been a priority for principal preparation programs for many years. The movement recently gained strength from concern for achievement gaps among children, particularly in urban education. While these programs provide for course work and a wealth of mentoring in the many other roles of school leaders through residencies or apprenticeships, all heads of schools may find themselves perplexed as they venture into the unfamiliar waters of general management. So, what’s the difference?

I would hypothesize that new accountabilities will elevate non-pedagogical decision-making to a level of equality with academics. The headmaster of the future will need to be knowledgeable in finance, marketing, human resources, organizational behavior, information tecnology, and facility operations. He or she will make policy and judgment calls in conflicts, but there will be less emphasis on cumbersome consensual decision-making. The more democratic participatory leadership will be pushed further down into the organization to the level of the small learning community. Management of teacher effectiveness will rely on a combination of shared leadership and new data on student outcomes. In addition, many learning opportunities will engage students with community resources beyond the school’s oversight.

(To be continued…)

February 15, 2011 at 4:44 PM Leave a comment

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