Taking on the Tough Issues:
The Role of Educational Leaders
in Restoring Public Faith in Public Education
by Pedro A. Noguera
For the last decade, education has been widely regarded as the most important domestic policy issue facing the nation. Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it continues to rank high as a concern among policy makers and the general public. Large numbers of public schools are perceived as failing, and not surprisingly, much of the pressure and growing frustration is being directed toward educational leaders.
Whether it is fair or not, principals and superintendents receive the lions share of blame for the problems confronting Americas public schools. Most of these leaders are males, but across the country a growing number of women occupy leadership roles in school districts. Given the immensity of the challenges facing public schools -- from teacher shortages and budget deficits, to lagging test scores and crumbling facilities -- it makes sense to wonder whether the gender of our educational leaders matter at all.
As I think about this question, I cant help but make the connection to the pending election. In several important races across the country, women are challenging men for key leadership posts. In Massachusetts, where I live, Shannon OBrien (Democrat) is competing with Mitt Romney (Republican) for Governor. Although there are many tough issues facing the state, the gender issue has already come up several times. It comes up in references to toughness, as in who is tough enough to handle the state legislature or the failing economy. It comes up in references to compassion, as in who will be the most effective in serving the poor, the elderly and the homeless. Underlying all of these issues is the most significant gender issue of all, and that is should gender matter at all when voters choose who our next governor will be?
As is true in most of these races, most analysts, commentators and even random individuals on the street indicate that gender should really make no difference at all. Most people agree that who the person is, their beliefs, their convictions, their past experiences in leadership -- will be far more important in influencing how the electorate thinks about who should be the next leader of the state.
Yet, while it may seem as though our society has evolved to a point at which gender differences are increasingly irrelevant, it still appears to be the case that perceptions of individuals as leaders vary considerably when gender is taken into consideration. That is, while gender may not show up as a salient factor influencing how they lead, it certainly shows up as a factor influencing whether or not they will be chosen to lead. That is, how the public perceives individuals vying for public office is still very much influenced by gender. There is evidence in other fields as well that perceptions of individual leaders vary significantly depending on the gender of the leader.
I saw quite clearly how this plays itself out while serving as a consultant for several years to a number of large law firms throughout the country. In my work I would be asked to interview attorneys, both senior and junior, about their work. Most of these were very large law firms, which had very few women in senior positions. At almost every firm most of the women attorneys were employed at the most junior, associate level, even though the graduates of most major law schools today are 50/50 men and women. For almost twenty years now there has been an equal number of men and women graduating from the top law schools in the country, but when we look at the ranks of the most powerful and highly compensated attorneys in the country, women are vastly under represented. Today, less than 10% of the partners at major law firms in the country are women.
When I conduct these interviews, one of the questions that often comes up is are women partners different than male partners? We interview women about that question and we interview their male counterparts. Again, we come up with the same answers that we hear in reference to politicians. Most people, men and women, say that gender makes no difference. Women attorneys are perceived as being as aggressive, as tough, and as competitive as the men in how they go about practicing law. However, significant differences show up in how they are perceived, how people respond to them, and in what is expected of them. In thousands of interviews, what we heard over and over again was a double standard in the way men and women were judged. That is, the same behavior that came from a man was seen very differently when it came from a woman. Whereas a man would be praised for being tough, decisive, able to make the strong decisions, a woman would be criticized as shrill, difficulty to work with, and too pushy. We all know the other pejorative names that frequently go along with those kinds of descriptions.
So, while there doesnt necessarily seem to be a difference in how men and women lead, there does definitely seem to be a difference in how they are perceived and in how their constituents responded to them. For educational leaders this is something important to consider as we think about what it takes to survive and succeed in this profession. As many of you know from your own experience, survival of leaders, particularly at the level of superintendent, is often based more on how you are perceived than on what you have actually accomplished. You can pour your heart and soul in tackling the tough issues facing your school district, but if you havent got the support of the school board you can find yourself out of a job.
I work with superintendents around the country, particularly in large urban districts, and Ive seen a number of highly effective people lose their jobs simply because the politics of the job got the best of them. I was recently asked to comment by a national newspaper about the candidates who were jockeying to become the next superintendent in Philadelphia. Individuals from all over the country were being considered and their strengths and weaknesses were discussed in the national media. After Paul Valles, the former superintendent from Chicago public schools was chosen, I was asked to comment on the challenges he faced. I said that I found it ironic that there was so much interest in becoming the leader of a district that was being dismantled. Approximately one third of the schools in the nations fifth largest school district have been turned over to private corporations to run. This is a district that has not shown a lot of academic success despite the fact that vast sums of money have been spent on reform. I wondered why anyone would want this job, or whether or not under present circumstances, the job was even tenable.
Those who have been in the field of education for a while understand why becoming the leader of Philadelphias failing schools would be attractive to so many individuals. In many large cities people view these leadership positions as stepping-stones to something greater, or as a platform from which to gain attention. Having seen so many promising leaders fail, I would hope that rather than seeing the superintendency as merely a place from which to make a strategic career move, we would actually start to see these leadership roles as an opportunity to make a genuine difference in public education.
For this to happen a new and very different kind of leadership will be needed. It is a leadership that is much less preoccupied with individual success, and more concerned with generating collective will to advance and support efforts to improve the quality of education. Put more simply, successful educational leaders in the future will be less focused on looking good, than with doing good. The challenges facing public education today calls for leadership that strives for constant evidence of improvement and that asks itself over and over again, Are we making a difference and if so, how? That is the challenge facing educational leaders today, and it is a challenge that has gained a new sense of urgency with the advent of standards and accountability.
The major challenge facing public education across the Untied States is that for the first time in our countrys history we are trying to fulfill the great promise of American education. The great promise of American education, as enunciated by Howard Mann, the first secretary of Education from Massachusetts, is that schools would serve as the great equalizer of opportunity. What he meant by that is that we saw in our public schools the hope that schools would be the place where our society would guarantee that an individuals status at birth would not determine what they could be. Our nation is the first nation to create a system of public schools, and we did that to ensure that America would not become like England; a society where privilege was inherited and where wealth determined what you would be as an individual. We wanted schools that would provide all people with the opportunity to achieve based upon their talent, effort, and intelligence.
That is the promise of American education. Interestingly, it was a promise that was never added to the U.S. constitution, and universal access to public education has been achieved with minimal intervention by the federal government. Public schools were created by local initiative, by communities that agreed to tax themselves to provide children with an education at the publics expense. In Massachusetts where I live there are schools that have been in existence for over 300 years. As public schools spread across the country the drive to create them grew out of the desire to create a source of opportunity for all children; a level playing field referred to as the common school. That was the bold, egalitarian vision.
We know from history that this vision has been an evolving one. That is, which children would be served and who was to be included in this fledgling democracy has been an evolving concept, one that has expanded over time. Today, it has literally come to mean all children because our public schools are by far the most accessible institution in our country. All children, regardless of their background or their status, even if they are undocumented, homeless, or even if their parents are in prison, all children have access and a right to a public education. In effect, public education has become the only social entitlement available to all people in this country. It is an entitlement because it is the only one of our rights that actually provides its beneficiaries with a service.
Today, education continues to hold a special place in society because we now have a president who has pledged to leave no child behind. Under the guidance of the No Child Left Behind Act states across the country have adopted new academic standards and new assessments designed to hold school districts accountable for the achievement of their students. It is a bold and ambitious goal, which if taken seriously, would require a major shift in the way schools have worked in the past.
In the past most schools were content with serving the needs of the most privileged students. The needs of these students, from middle class families and with college educated parents at home, could be met easily and we could take pride in their accomplishments -- the awards they won, and the great universities they were admitted to. Now, for the first time, schools are being asked to serve the needs of all kids and to show evidence that they are actually learning something while they attend our schools. For the first time in our nations history we are being asked to fulfill the promise of American education by finding ways to produce both academic excellence and equity.
Many schools and districts are struggling with this challenge because they have never been expected to do this before and many dont really know how to go about educating all children. Wide disparities in student achievement that correspond closely with racial, linguistic and socio-economic differences among students have been in place for a long time. In many communities, the so-called achievement gap has been with us for so long that over time these disparities in performance are accepted as normal. Undoubtedly, it will be nearly impossible to close the gap and eliminate the idea that a students background -- race, culture, or class background - can predict what a student can do academically, unless beliefs related to achievement change significantly.
Once we have confronted the beliefs and expectations of educators, parents and the community about what it takes to enable all children to learn, the next step is to devise a plan or strategy that provides a vision and road map for bringing this about. In the following pages, I have outlined the basic elements of such a strategy, one that I believe can provide clarity and a shared understanding of how to confront the challenge we face.
Historically we have seen these as incompatible goals. Many of us know how to produce academic excellence. We have several models of excellence in this country: in our great universities, in our magnet high schools, and in some of our stellar elementary schools where demand for access is high and parents literally compete to enroll their children. What we dont have are too many examples of educational institutions that produce equity. When we strive for equity we are focused not merely on providing equality of opportunity, but equality in outcomes. Schools that take equity seriously recognize that because not all children have access to the same resources, schools will have to compensate for pre-existing inequity. Put more simply, if we do the same thing for everyone, it will not enable us to succeed in educating all children because they come to us with different levels of preparation, and different levels of support at home.
Most parents understand the concept of equity because they practice it in relation to their own children. For example, I have four children. At the present time I spend more money on the oldest one than I spend on the other three combined because he is in college, not because I love him more. If I had a child who was disabled I would do whatever it took to insure that s/he had the chance to succeed in life, even if it meant spending more money on private schools, on tutors, on extra clinical support. As a parent I cannot be satisfied with merely giving that child the opportunity to go to school like the other kids. I want results.
When we are focused on equity and when we respond to the needs of the children we serve as if they were our own, we realize that children have different needs and treating them all the same would not be fair. In many schools, not only dont we treat all children the same, we actually contribute to inequality by giving those who come to us with the least the very least in terms of resources and support. In fact, we often practice a form of educational triage. Those who are perceived as promising and ready to learn get the best teachers, the best schools, and the most resources. In contrast, those who are struggling, who are less ready to learn, less motivated, and who dont have parents who understand the system and can provide the support at home, are given the weakest teachers and channeled into the most disorganized schools. In this way, we actually set some kids up to fail and we do this because neglecting the needs of poor students has become the standard operating procedure in many school districts.
The parents of affluent kids will not allow us to put their kids in a classroom with an incompetent teacher. They simply wont let us do it. They will go after our jobs, they will file lawsuits, and they will do whatever it takes to prevent their children from being poorly served. However, we can get away with providing poor service to the children of the poor, in part because they trust us -- they assume that as professional educators we will do the right thing. Even if they dont trust us they are less likely to be effective in challenging the way their children are treated because they simply do not know how to use the system to do anything about it. Poor parents typically do not know how to hold schools accountable, and therefore we can get away with them being given less than they deserve. If we are serious about equity we have to insure that even when parents are not able to hold us accountable that we hold ourselves accountable for serving the needs of disadvantaged of kids.
Part of the other difficulty with finding the balance between the pursuit of equity and excellence is that in some communities there is a perception that there is a zero sum scenario in how we allocate educational resources. What I mean by that is there is a perception that if you are doing more for some kids it is going to come at the expense of others. For example, if we take actions to open up our AP classes so that we get more minority students enrolled, the parents of more affluent students will often protest, fearing that greater equity will lower academic standards, or diminish the competitive edge their children previously enjoyed. Teachers may also complain because with more students who require greater academic support they may actually have to work harder. They cant expect the students to learn on their own or for their parents to pay for private tutors to compensate for what they do not learn in the classroom.
There will be political pressure when you make changes to achieve greater equity because of a perception that more for some will mean less for others. As an educational leader if you are not able to present a vision which shows that it is possible to achieve excellence and equity then you are likely to become a casualty of the conflict that will surely ensue. The affluent parents will come after you if you are seen as reducing some of their advantages and leveling the playing field. Unless you have a vision that makes it clear this is not a zero sum game, and that we can achieve both excellence and equity, educating all children will not be possible. The basic operating principle has got to be that those who have less, have to be given more. We cant continue to give those with less the least. Weve got to make sure that we practice equity when we allocate our teacher resources, when we spend our supplemental resources, and when we examine the conditions that exist in our schools.
There are a few things that we know from research about the achievement gap. One of the things we know is that disparities in achievement reflect other disparities that exist in our society. The students who are least likely to achieve in school are the students from the poor families - the kids who are less likely to have educated parents, stable housing, or adequate health care. The achievement gap is a reflection of the socioeconomic gap, the health gap, the gap in opportunity.
In many states it has become a common practice to rank schools by test scores and to publish the rankings in the local newspapers. I suppose the assumption behind the practice is that we will improve these schools by humiliating them. Most educators know even before the results are published which schools will be on the bottom. If you know the socioeconomic status of the district you can pretty much predict where they are going to end up on the rankings. Recently, after the rankings were published, I asked one of my graduate students to compile a ranking of districts in Massachusetts by the percentage of kids on free and reduced lunch so that we could see how this list compared to the rankings by test score. Not surprisingly, the lists were almost identical.
Although we have known for a long time that the socioeconomic status of students and of communities effects achievement, we have pretended that we can treat everyone the same and expect equal results. In response to the federal governments call to leave no child behind, educational leaders must speak out to call upon our society to do more to help the districts and the schools that serve the neediest kids. Part of the reason why middle class kids do better in school than poor kids because they have educated parents at home. A mothers education is the strongest predictor for how well a child will do in school - more than a fathers education. This is because the mother is often the childs first teacher.
Because of poverty and numerous other factors beyond our control our students come to us unevenly prepared. The question is: what happens to students when we get them? Does the gap in ability begin to close or does it widen further? In most schools it widens further. Although they are differentially prepared, the differences among students are relatively minor when they enter kindergarten. However, the longer they are in school, the wider the gap becomes, even when we spend more money to help those who are behind through programs like compensatory and special education. How could that be? How could it be that we spend more money on the kids with greater needs, but the evidence shows that the gap in skills and ability actually widens? Of course the reason for this has to do with the lack of quality in the services provided to needy children. In most districts there is very little focus on quality control. We place students who are behind in remedial programs but we rarely ask: Are the programs high quality? Where is the evidence that students are actually being helped? Do the programs provide them with the opportunity to advance and accelerate? Too often we are content with placing needy students into compensatory programs. Unless we evaluate these programs regularly and look for evidence that they are being helped, chances are that we will have relegated them to programs that trap them and exacerbate their academic weaknesses.
There are a few things we know already about the low performance schools:
They tend to serve the poorest children
They tend to have high turnover in staff, particularly among administrators. At many high poverty schools in California there is high turnover among teachers also, particularly during their first five years of teaching. However, in other places the problem is a lack of turnover; the same ineffective teachers are allowed to work in failing schools for too long.
Low performing schools tend to suffer from a dysfunctional culture. Low expectations for students, a lack of order and discipline, poor professional norms, and complacency about failure, are manifestations of a dysfunctional culture. For the last several years we have focused a lot of our attention in school reform on changing the organization and the structure of schools. However, all the evidence shows that unless we change the culture of schools, nothing changes. That is, no matter what curriculum we introduce, or how many changes we make to the organization (i.e. small learning communities or block scheduling) if you do not change beliefs, the norms, and the relationships nothing will change.
Captured market problem.
One of the reasons why middle class schools perform well is because the parents wont allow them not to. Middle class parents know what good education looks like and know how to make sure their kids get it, even if it means pulling their kids out as the last recourse. Poor parents are much more likely to feel as though they have to take what they are given. If we put them in a bad school, that was their tough luck. Some will actually do what they can -- take three buses across town -- to get to a better school. But many will stay with the neighborhood school theyve been assigned to. Poor parents form a captured market. When you know you serve a group that has no ability to challenge how they are being served where does the incentive come from to serve them well? Districts must devise strategies to insure that parents matters. Unless their satisfaction is somehow a part of the equation, it is very hard to change the way an institution functions.
Key questions for administrators.
How can you be sure that you are adding value to schools and helping to make a difference? That is the key question. Where is the evidence that what we are doing is resulting in measurable growth and improvement? A question I always pose to superintendents when I speak to them is, what would happen if the central office disappeared? Would anyone miss you? Since no teaching or learning takes place in the central office, and since teaching and learning is the most important activity going on in the district, how do the people who are not in the schools make sure they are helping the schools and not making their lives more difficult?
I have been working with a group of researchers at Harvard on how to train superintendents -- the superintendents of the future. As we think about leadership and some of the key challenges confronting superintendents, we have developed some new concepts to guide us in our work. One is the concept of adaptive work. Part of the challenge for leaders is to figure out how to adapt the norms and belief systems of the people they work with so that progress can be made in a changing environment. The environments we work within are constantly changing. If we dont figure out how to adapt to those changes -- changes in policy, in values, in the status of families, in the lives of young people -- then we will not be able to lead effectively. Adaptive leadership work studies the changes going on around us. It recognizes the new challenges that arise as a result of change, and helps organizations to adjust accordingly.
The other concept is the adaptive challenge which is the gap between our aspirations and reality. Too often superintendents lead as if the world were a static place. They have their five-year plan, their strategic plan and present it to their staff as a vision of where the organization is going. Too often the plan is not based upon the reality of the district. The question is how does a leader take that vision and meld it to the reality of the district? Additionally, how does s/he insure that the vision is shared? If it is not a shared vision then it is not a vision at all. Closing the gap between the vision and the reality is one of the greatest challenges facing leadership.
The third key concept is moving to the balcony. To the degree that you are in the midst of the work, that you are immersed in it, it is hard to see what is actually going on. Where are you achieving success? Where are your greatest problems? Who are your strong people and your allies? Who are your weak people, the ones that need to be replaced, and the ones that may try to undermine you? Where do you need to focus your energy and prioritize?
Obviously, you cant change everything at the same time. Some degree of detachment from the work allows you to keep things in perspective. We call that staying on a balcony; staying enough above the fray so that you can reflect upon whats going on. The problem is you cant stay up there too long. Eventually you have to get back to the dance floor. That is the fourth concept. The dance floor is where the action happens. If you are a superintendent and no one has ever seen you before -- at a school, a science fair, at a meeting with parents -- then you are not where the primary work -- the teaching and learning - is occurring. It is very difficult to know if your vision is being acted upon if you are too removed and too detached.
The big challenge we have in public education is how do we deal with highly decentralized organizations, organizations where it is very difficult to use leadership to actually influence behavior. We can tell the teachers, Heres our new curriculum. These are the standards we are going to be assessed on. Heres what we want you to do. Yet, we know full well that as soon as they close the door our ability to exert influence on what is going on is very limited. Teachers work in isolation and schools operate with considerable autonomy. The decentralized nature of the work calls for a different kind of leadership than you have in most corporations. In most corporations you can tell people this is the job, do it. And the span of authority is such that you can actually see if they are doing it. In most school districts the span of authority control is so great that we cannot rely upon command and control. It calls for a style of leadership that is based much more on influence than simply directives.
The biggest challenge we face in public education is figuring out how to replicate success. In almost every school I go to there is always at least one teacher who is excellent, who is very good at teaching the students. Adaptive leadership enables us to use that successful teacher as a model for her colleagues. In many districts there is at least one successful school if not more. We must also use the successful schools as a model for the unsuccessful ones. Part of the challenge again comes from understanding what are the ingredients of success. Why is that classroom or school successful? The adaptive leadership challenge is figuring out what would it take to increase the scale and frequency of the successful model.
The key to getting on the balcony is developing systems to determine whether or not success is being made, and whether or not an increase in achievement is occurring. For that to happen districts must rely upon data to analyze patterns of academic achievement and the effectiveness of various reforms. Without data, you are guessing and hoping for success.
Typically, districts amass lots of data, however it is rarely analyzed, processed, and used to make strategic decisions. The big shift that we have got to make if we are going to focus on accountability is to make sure that there is evidence that the changes we are making are actually producing the advances in achievement we hope for. Some of the kinds of data that you may want to analyze and examine are course enrollment patterns. How are kids being assigned to courses, particularly your gatekeeper courses? Typically who gets Algebra when determines who will go to college later. In elementary school what is the critical year? In most places it usually the 3rd or 4th grade. Students who are poor readers at this stage typically cannot move on to the more advanced work required in the higher grades. Generally, if you can get students reading at or above grade level in 3rd grade, then 4th will be a lot easier. Some schools will strategically place their best reading teachers in the 3rd or 2nd grade to make sure the kids have a chance to excel in the higher grades.
Knowing how kids are assigned to teachers and which courses have the highest failure rates, is very important for figuring out where change is needed. If we assign our newest, least experienced teachers to teach our gatekeeper courses or to teach our remedial courses, it is unlikely to help us to address the gaps in achievement. We want to use data to look at teacher assignment, and to make the connection to grades, and test scores. We want to study the patterns and analyze how outcome measures vary from course to course and from school to school.
We also want to look at feeder patterns. Do kids from one elementary school out do kids from other elementary schools? If so, what would explain the differences in achievement? Is it a literacy issue, is it a math issue, is it a leadership issue? Whats going on at that feeder school?
We also want to examine patterns of attendance and attrition. I use attrition here instead of referring to the dropout rate because throughout the country the dropout rate is underreported because it is typically measured in the 12th grade. Too often we are not looking at what happens between the 9th grade and graduation. In many districts the dropout rate is close to 50% when you compare the number entering the 9th grade to the number graduating the 12th grade. Many schools actually plan for a high level of attrition. They offer a whole lot less courses in 12th grade because they expect that fewer students will be enrolled. We need to look at that data. When are we losing kids? What are the signs? Where are the holes? Which kids are we most likely to lose? If you can intervene early with truant students it is a lot more effective than waiting until you have a chronic truancy problem.
Discipline patterns are another form of data to analyze. Who is being disciplined? What is the profile of kids who are most likely to be suspended, expelled, or referred for punishment in the office? In many districts we disproportionately punish the kids with the greatest needs. We respond to their needs by pushing them out of school. It is ironic that we use suspension so frequently, almost uniformly, as a form of punishment. Suspension generally only works as a form of discipline for students who care about school. If you care about school and you are suspended once, you dont want to be suspended ever again. Such students typically have a parent at home who will hold them accountable for their behavior in school. A student who is concerned about going to college will be worried about how their transcript will look if they are suspended from school . If you are a kid who doesnt come to school regularly, a kid who doesnt have much support at home, a kid who is behind academically, then suspension is unlikely to serve as an effective deterrent to bad behavior. The punishment for not doing well in school should actually be more school, not less school.
When you collect data and analyze the patterns, then you will also need to discuss the data with your staff. You want to discuss the data because everyone must embrace the strategies we devise to correct the problems that have been identified. Everyone must know what the situation is. You want that problem to be owned by your entire staff. If the staff doesnt believe that they share responsibility in coming up with solutions there will be no change in academic achievement. You wont change achievement patterns just because you have a strong leader. There has to be a shared sense of ownership for the problem.
When you talk about the data with your staff you are doing it to also get questions related to interpretation. How do we understand these patterns? What is behind them? Why is it that school A has much less achievement than school B? What is going on at school A? Do we need more data to figure it out? When discussing data with your staff the biggest concern and pitfall is to avoid fingering point and assignment of blame. If people start to feel that the data will be used to blame and attack them, they will be less likely to rise to the challenge. You want your staff to see themselves as part of the solution. If you use the data to blame parents, teachers or kids, it prevents people from taking responsibility for their role in addressing the districts problems. There is no magic in data. The data just presents an accurate picture of what is going on. The key is how we use the data to change the conversation about what we do. That is the key. Once you have collected the data you want to use it to set benchmarks so that you will know if change and improvement is occurring.
The most important thing that we can do with respect to assessment, and its the thing we do the least, is to engage in some form of diagnostic assessment. The way we engage in testing in most places is we give a test in the spring and then wait for the results to be released in the fall. By the time the test scores are available the students are typically assigned to a new teacher. Such an approach limits our ability to use the results from the test to modify practice, and to actually use the test to help students who are behind.
Today, we are generally using testing for the purpose of ranking students and schools. I would argue that what we want to do instead, is to use testing for diagnostic purposes. We need to know where our kids are when they come to us in the fall. What are their strengths and weaknesses? You can only do that if you do some form of diagnostic assessment. A diagnostic assessment need not consist of a long battery of tests. It could be a fairly simple instrument devised by teachers. If we dont know what our students needs are then it will be very difficult to serve them well. We want to use diagnostic assessment to measure where the kids are in comparison to the standards. This will enable us to make informed decisions about instruction and about the use of our supplemental resources. What we want to get to is a situation where we can actually measure how much academic growth occurs over a course of a year. We want to know where our kids are when they start the school year and how much growth occurs over a course of the year. Teachers will rightfully say that it is not fair to expect them to take a students who starts out at the 3rd grade level in reading and bring them up to the 9th grade level in a year. However, all teachers should be able to demonstrate that during the course of a school year their students experienced academic growth in skills and ability. Using some form of diagnostic assessment allows us to monitor progress, to know whether we are producing academic growth.
We also need to spend time assessing the learning styles of students. How do our students learn outside of school? What do they learn, and how do they use literacy and math? These are important questions because too often we expect kids to adjust to the way we teach rather than teaching to the way they learn. The most common form of instruction in most schools is what my colleague Rolland Barth calls the cemetery method. By this he means that we typically line kids up in rows and try to keep them as still as possible. That method of instruction does not work for large numbers of kids. Some students are so motivated and so focused on their future goals that they can put up with that form of instruction. There are many other kids who cannot learn that way. They have too much energy, they need to get up, they need to talk, they need to touch, they need to interact. They need to be able to say, I dont understand, can you do that again? They need to see how the ideas can be applied in another context, and they need to experience what we are trying to convey to them.
Part of the change that we need to produce in our schools is that we need to have teachers who see teaching and learning as connected activities. We need to get our teachers to see that if there is no evidence of learning then there is no evidence of teaching. I know lots of teachers who think of themselves as great teachers even though they fail lots and lots of kids. The question is, if you are a great teacher, where is the evidence in your students? The most important evidence of how effective we are as teachers comes in the work our students produce. The homework, the papers, the assignments, are the ultimate evidence of how effective our teaching has been. We want teachers who are completely invested in learning and who take complete responsibility for the work that occurs in their classrooms.
To bring about this kind of change in teaching our teachers have to know a lot more about how kids learn. The more we know about how they learn, the more of a chance we have of being able to reach them in our classrooms. Teachers who know their students find ways to make challenging texts come to life for their students. They do that not by teaching at them, but by figuring out how to engage them in the material. I meet teachers all the time who tell me that they cant get their high school students to read Shakespeare. I say that is amazing because I saw some fourth graders at an elementary school in Berkeley reading Macbeth. They performed the entire play, and this was not Macbeth for dummies either. Teachers who see teaching and learning as connected, reciprocal activities, find ways to creatively develop bridges between the knowledge and skills they seek to impart, and the knowledge that the students have already.
To bring about this kind of change in teaching on a larger scale we need to more carefully and effectively model what good teaching, what good education looks like. I was on a panel this summer in Kansas City talking about the challenges facing new principals. I pointed out that I thought it would be very hard to be an effective principal if youve never been to an effective school. How would you know what you are doing if you never saw it done well before? There was a 29-year-old new principal sitting next to me and he turned to me and said, Ive never been to an effective school before and Im going to be a principal this September, and I dont know what the hell Im doing. I wondered why the district he was in would pick a person with such little experience to become a principal? I am sure that he was smart. He appeared to be energetic and dedicated, but he was also clueless about the challenge he was about to undertake.
Our districts need to have schools where we can model best practices in teaching and leadership. We need to have a place where we can take our new teachers and say, Look, this what it looks like when it is done well. See those English learners, those new kids? This is how they are being taught by this teacher who knows how to provide sheltered instruction, or who knows how to help recent immigrants learn English even while they continue to learn and develop their native literacy skills. We need to model best practices, to put them on display so people can see it. There are a lot of people who have never seen good teaching, and who have never been to a well-managed school. Not surprisingly, some of them cant even imagine that its possible because they have never observed it. Teachers need a chance to see good teaching and to have a chance to see someone who is able to excite kids, and motivate them to get them to produce excellent work. All of us at some point in our lives had one of these people as a teacher. Our new teachers need to see that too and as district leaders you have to provide the opportunity by creating a professional development school in your district. Each district must have a school where you can model best practices and use it for professional development purposes.
The last point that I want to make to educational leaders is the importance of building partnerships in the community. We know that some superintendents spend almost all their time on public relations. Beyond public relations with the media, the business community, parents and local government, district leaders must also build strategic partnerships. These can be with the private sector, with the public sector, and with the nonprofit sector, but in each case they should be designed to bring resources and support to your students and your schools.
Ill cite an example of how this is being done in Pomona, California. This district straddles two counties -- Los Angeles and San Bernadino. There is a big shopping mall in Pomona that was an abandoned eyesore. The district decided to buy the mall using bond money. They bought the property because they knew that if they could improve the use of the land they would actually help families they serve. When they bought the mall they decided to put their personnel office in the mall so they could actually use it as a place to recruit new teachers. With the distract serving as the anchor tenant they then began to lease property at the mall to private businesses and nonprofit organizations, particularly nonprofits that provide child services. Today the mall generates revenue for the district. The service providers at the mall serve schools and families in the district and their proximity to each other heightens their ability to act as partners. The district now is involved in using its resources to improve the entire community and its working.
This kind of strategic partnership takes vision, it takes imagination, it takes creative use of resources, and it takes know-how to work with the private and public sector to figure out how we leverage conditions to our advantage for our schools. Beyond looking at the needs of our schools internally we also have got to look at the community and find ways to bring in resources to help us in what we are tying to do.
I do not want to create the impression that doing the things Ive raised in this essay will be easy or that the challenges confronting educational leaders are simple. Generally, I find that the people the furthest removed from these educational issues are the only ones who think that the problems should be easy to solve. This is why politicians so frequently fixate upon a gimmick -- charter schools, vouchers, or testing -- in the hope that one simple solution will solve all of the problems. That is also the reason why many districts are turning to non-educators -- businessmen, attorneys, and now generals -- to serve as leaders of large school systems.
The issues arent easy because as Ive said already, the educational challenges we face are a reflection of larger societal challenges related to inequality, poverty, and powerlessness. It is not fair for our society to expect schools to solve the problems facing young people, especially those from poor families, without help. Unfortunately, that is the situation at the moment. I believe we must respond to this challenge by calling attention to the great injustice of the situation while simultaneously doing all we can to make our improve our schools.
The future of our society will ultimately be determined by the quality of our public schools. This simple fact has been understood throughout our nations history. Finding ways to fulfill the great promise and potential of American education is the task before us. For the sake of the country, the kids and our future, I hope that we can rise to meet this challenge.
Published in In Motion Magazine August 13, 2003
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