Category Archives: School Leadership

New Years Resolution: Be Honest About Education 2012

As we start 2012 I propose that we all make the resolution that we begin to be honest with ourselves, and with our children, about education in America. For too long we have led ourselves and our children to believe untruths about schools, teachers, and our systems of public education. This ends for me today. For I believe the only way to move toward fixing our education uglies is to expose them. In that vein, I begin today with a exposing a few lies that we have continued to tell our ourselves and our children about education. Here are a few to get us started:

Lie #1: Schools are all about children.

The Truth: Schools are about money and adults too.
It is true that if there were no children there would be no schools. It is true that children are at the heart of many of the decisions we make in and about schools. But it is also true that P-12 education is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in every state. Thousands of adults in every state are public school employees and state public school systems spend millions of dollars every year on contracts with vendors. All this is to say that schools are also the places where lots of adults work, and many of the decisions we make in and about schools are based not on what is best for children, but on what is most convenient for adults. Whether you want to call this truth good, bad, or ugly, it remains the truth.

Is there any way around this? Would it be reasonable to say that we can get to the point where all decisions in schools are made strictly on the basis of what is best for student learning? Probably not. But it is reasonable to set the goal that children’s learning will become our top priority when making decisions. It is reasonable to say that if a decision comes down to two choices: one option being better for student learning, and the other option being easier/more convenient/more lucrative for policy makers/school leaders/teachers, the clear choice would be the option that is best for student learning. We are not currently at that place.

Lie #2: We believe all children deserve a quality education.

The Truth: We do not.
This one is a pretty obvious fabrication. If it were true we would not continue to provide lesser quality education to students based on their socioeconomic background/neighborhood. The vast majority of children in the US who live in more affluent neighborhoods have a higher quality educational experience than children who live in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Children in lower income neighborhoods typically attend schools with poorer quality facilities, teachers who are less able to meet their needs, and lesser quality instructional and technological resources. Many factors contribute to this reality. A few of these factors are many teachers’ preference to not teach in predominantly low income and minority schools, teacher preparation programs failing to prepare aspiring teachers to meet the needs of low income and minority students, a failure to attract candidates into the teacher profession who would serve low income and minority students well, differential school funding, and outright neglect of resources in schools that serve predominantly low income and minority students.

Lie #3: All teachers are good teachers.

The Truth: Some teachers are completely ineffective.
The claim that all teachers are effective or even that all teachers have the potential to be effective is ridiculous and is an insult to the teaching profession. High-quality teachers are highly-skilled professionials with a mastery of both the academic content that they teach and the pedagogical skill necessary to effectively deliver that content to students. It is insulting to the profession to assume not only that anyone could do this, but that anyone could do this well. Many of our current crop of teachers are not effective teachers. Some of them have no desire to become effective teachers. These teachers should be relieved of their classroom duties immediately.

Lie #4: People become teachers because they love children.

The Truth: Some teachers/principals do it for the money.
I believe that the majority of educators went into the field because they care about children, but I know very well that this is not the case for a significant minority of educators. Contrary to popular belief, public school teaching is not the worst paying job in town. Some people actually do become educators for the money. The stability and benefits that come along with the profession are attractive to some people as well. Also, it might be a little less than pleasant for the general public to find out the number of teachers that majored in education because it was easier to get into and keep a job than the field they would prefer to be in.

What about the principalship? Well, some principals make really good money (really good)! That is attractive to some educators whether they believe they would be effective at the job or not. Higher education institutions have exacerbated this problem as many education administration graduate degree programs have become diploma mills, recommending principal certification to the state for any living breathing human being who pays two years worth of tuition. Worse still, some teachers go into school administration in an effort to work less directly with children.

Please join me in telling the truth about education in 2012. Being honest about our shortcomings in education is the necessary first step toward making things better, and I really want things to get better. Our children’s future depends on it.

Happy New Year!

The Realities of Urban Schools and Communities, Part II (Solutions)

As promised, I will try extremely hard to not harp on problems without also exploring some viable solutions. As such, I offer two which I believe hold great promise for turning around some of our most difficult urban schools. As a school leadership professor most of you probably won’t be surprised that I start with leadership. Urban superintendent’s must make a top priority of placing a highly effective principal in every school school building. Whether you’re talking about schools, supermarkets, or restaurant, there is absolutely no substitute for effective building leadership. There are a myriad of reasons why these buildings aren’t always led by effective leaders, district-level politics being primary amongst them. Seniority and conyism are the root of too many  Principalship appointments. I am absolutely opposed to anyone being given a position because of the number of years that they have worked in a school district. That makes absolutely no sense, and our children’s education is too important to continue playing those types of games. My solution calls for eliminating the consideration of everything in the principal selection process that is not directly related to determining how capable a candidate is of providing high needs schools with highly effective leadership.

Second, with that effective pricincipal in place, s/he must be given the the authority to make decisions, real decisions. One of the things that perplexes me most is that we have dramatically increased the level of accountability of our school leaders, but in many cases have restricted their discretion to the point where very little of what goes on in their buildings is under their control. Principals in too many of our highest needs schools are no more than middle-managers, carrying out orders from district administrators who don’t truly have a grasp of what the needs are at the school-building level. My solution calls for continuing to hold school leaders accountable for the success of their schools, but in turn giving them the authority to make real decisions in their buildings. I’m talking about budget decisions, curriculum decisions, selecting their own staff, negotiating salaries, and yes, having the power to remove staff if need be. 
I believe that getting the right people in leadership positions and then giving them the power they need to do their jobs would result in school leaders rising to and above expectations. Throughout my career I have worked with so many incredibly intelligent, passionate, and creative educators, and I know that we have the human resources to turn some of our most challenging schools into shining stars. But we have to stop getting in the way of student learning with outdated policies and practices that have nothing to do with providing all children with a first-rate education. 

Harvard’s New Education Leadership Doctorate & School Leadershp Preparation Reform

Harvard University announced this week the creation of a Doctor of Education Leadership program (Ed. L. D.). According to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education website (http://www.gse.harvard.edu), the new degree program will be a “practice-based doctorate designed to equip students with a deep understanding of learning and teaching, as well as the management and leadership skills necessary to reshape the American education sector.” That statement in an of itself is not terribly revolutionary. University departments of education leadership across the country (including my own at the University of Kentucky) are engaged in program reforms with the same goals. However, Harvard’s program will be revolutionary in several other ways. First, the program will be tuition free. That’s right, free. Admission to the program will be highly selective and limited to only 25 students per year. For a university with the resources of Harvard, footing the bill for 25 doctoral students doesn’t sound like much. But I believe the gesture is meaningful.

Second, and most noteworthy, I would argue, is that the program will be the product of collaboration between faculty members from Harvard’s schools of education, government, and business. This is not customary for education leadership programs. In fact, it’s pretty far from the norm. The great majority of Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Education Leadership programs feature curriculums that are completely self-contained within the college of education. The idea that scholars and leaders in sectors outside of education can contribute meaningfully to school and school leadership reform is resisted by more than a few education practioners and scholars. So what Harvard is doing is indeed pushing the envelope in the school leadership preparation reform discussion. And in my opinion, it’s a positive move.
For more information on Harvard’s program, go to: www.gse.harvard.edu/academics/doctorate/edld/index.html

Since I’m giving plugs, for more information on the University of Kentucky’s education leadership programs, go to: education.uky.edu/edl

Charter School Principal Salaries

The market-based and outcomes-based accountability systems that underlie the charter school concept are much different than the bureaucratic accountability systems that we have become accustomed to. While the specifics of charter school legislation vary considerably from state to state, the basic charter school concept is that these public/private hybrids of sorts are relieved of much of the bureaucratic oversight that traditional public schools are subject to, in exchange for agreeing to high standards of academic achievement. One area of freedom that many charter schools enjoy is budget autonomy; meaning most if not all school spending decisions are made at the school level, usually by boards of directors and school administrators. With that freedom, a number charter schools have chosen to pay their school leaders salaries that are significantly higher than the salaries of traditional public school principals. The Times Picayune reported on Sunday May 17, 2009 of some pretty remarkable salaries for charter school principals in New Orleans. At the top of that list were the head of Lusher Charter School who earns $203, 556 annually, and the principal of Lafayette Charter School who earns $186,000 per year.

It should be expected that many questions will be asked and much will be said about these salaries in the wake of this media attention. But issue I would like to focus on is this: if a charter school’s board of directors decides that the best way to meet the achievement goals of set forth in its charter is to pay its principal what the general public would consider to be an extraordinary amount of money, is that decision not that board’s statutory right? If that decision does not produce the results the desired results (at least theoretically) that school leader will be out of a job. And if that school does not reach the standards set forth in its charter, (again, theoretically) that school will be closed either because a state board of education has closed it or because parents have sent their children elsewhere. So the question that I raise is a simple one and is farther reaching than any question of an individual administrator’s salary in New Orleans. If by design charter schools are created as mostly autonomous entities with their boards of directors vested with the power to make autonomous school spending decisions, is the public entitled to any direct say in those decisions? As always, I’d love to hear from you!