Leaders Must Be Visionary Risk-takers to Change Our Schools

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[Note: The following article was originally posted by Harry Keller on 26 July 2010 as a reply to John Adsit’s What Is Needed for Educational Change. -js]

Educational change. What is it? Would we really like to have it?

In better times, things were allowed to move along without too much worry about education, except for some of the poor and minority areas.

Now, with headlines screaming at us about changing education, what’s wrong? John Adsit has provided us all with a cogent analysis of what doesn’t work and a suggestion as to why we aren’t doing what does.

Is change necessary? I have personal experience with a large urban school in a poor neighborhood (60% poverty). Despite hiring the best possible science teachers, they still had a 50% failure rate on the Regents science tests. Some of these teachers had PhDs in science. They were all excellent communicators and, as far as I could tell, excellent teachers. The science department was tearing its hair out. So, yes, change is necessary. This story repeats itself too many times across our country.

John is right. We must feel the pain before we’ll change. Every person who does marketing knows about this truism.

So, I have two questions. Why don’t we feel the pain, and where do we find the leaders to create the change?

My rather glib answer to the first question is that those in power do not feel the pain, but the rest of us do. I have no good answer to solving this problem. We’d have trouble forcing the children of all powerful people to go to ghetto schools.

The second question also causes pause. I’m not certain of the answer, but am happy to start the discussion.

What is a leader? I see two important qualities aside from people skills, managerial ability, and the like. A leader must have a vision. Non-visionaries need not apply. No vision means no direction. No direction means no progress toward solution.

I also believe that leaders must be risk-takers. They must be willing to fail in their quest for their vision, while being strong enough to rally from the inevitable defeats along the way and continue forward.

How many visionary risk-takers have you met today? How many of these have the charisma and people skills (one-on-one and in front of large crowds) to make their visions reality? Probably not too many.

I hold that we cannot simply designate someone as a leader and expect great things. I also, completely without any data to support myself, suggest that our schools do not support and develop leaders.

While I certainly agree with what John says, I have to take another step and ask those questions. I am proposing these answers.

We don’t see change because those in power (I mean REAL power) are pretty much happy with the status quo and because we have trouble finding leaders and even tend to discourage real leadership in our schools.

I’d love to be proven wrong and love even more to have someone show me how to overcome these obstacles.

2 Responses

  1. “We don’t see change because those in power (I mean REAL power) are pretty much happy with the status quo and because we have trouble finding leaders and even tend to discourage real leadership in our schools.”

    This was the essence of my earlier article on why transformational leadership is so hard to find. It’s not just the ones in power who don’t want change, though. Almost no one wants it. It is a vast conspiracy for mediocrity. Part of it is based on a lack of understanding, but much of it is based on comfort with the status quo and a fear of change.

    The lack of understanding comes from a public, and especially the media, who do not understand educational theory. Take math instruction, for example. Everyone bemoans the poor scores American students get in comparison with many other countries, especially many in Asia. Educational experts, including especially the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, firmly believe that the primary problem is how math is taught in our country. We tend to teach a huge number of math topics each year, spending a couple of days on each one, skipping over the surface of math like a stone skipping over water. The theory is that if we do this for enough years, it will eventually sink in. Other countries teach far, far fewer topics in a year, going into great depth on each one, and using practical problems for instruction. Try and introduce a curriculum like that in the United States and you will raise a hue and cry from people screaming that you are dumbing down the curriculum.

    We demand change, but we demand that this change come about by doing everything the same way as before.

    Comfort with the status quo can be seen in many places. One example that comes to mind is a project in which I was asked to help a very prestigious technical college institute a new writing program for engineers. I was asked to do this largely because of the celebrated success I had had in leading a major gain in achievement in a high school writing program. Without a question, the primary reason for our success was the implementation of a mandatory mastery learning grading system. Students whose work did not meet a very high standard were required to redo the work as many times as it took to get it to a high standard, and the grade they received was the final one they earned, with no penalty for repeated efforts. Through this process, students soon learned how to be successful writers without having to take multiple attempts. Their achievement soared beyond our wildest expectations. In two years the school went from next to last (of 22 schools) in a district writing assessment to first.

    I was not allowed to do this at the college, though. Even though the college agreed that this would greatly improve student learning, the policy was forbidden. I was told it was the student’s job to reach the level of achievement they wanted, and it was not my job as a teacher to use policies that pushed students to do more than they wanted to do. I was especially told that my system would raise grade point averages and leave them open to charges of grade inflation, implying that they had lowered their standards (even if students were, in fact, producing better work). If anything, I was to use policies that encouraged lower student achievement so that grades would drop and it would be clear to the public that they had high standards.

    Perhaps better examples of the conspiracy can be seen in two schools I know dealing with low achievement in minority populations. After a local elementary school had several years of poor grades on state assessments, the district tried to reconstitute it with a new staff. They wanted a staff that would hold students to high standards and implement the innovative methods that would get them there. The faculty rebelled. They embarked on a public campaign to tell the district that these students were not capable of better scores, and they need the tender, loving care they had received from the existing faculty. The local community totally supported the teachers. They liked the fact that students got good grades for mediocre work. Faced with this community-wide rebellion, the district caved in. The principal they had selected to lead the change was removed from the school and replaced with one who would not rock the boat.

    I was on the accreditation visiting team for an inner city school with a shockingly low student completion rate. We had a hard time figuring that out, though. The school administration told us that they were working on improving their graduation rate to 92%. We saw that the size of each freshman class was roughly twice the size of each senior class and wondered where those numbers came from. It took a lot of work, but we eventually realized that their definition of a graduation rate was the number of students in the senior class who graduated. Those who dropped out earlier than that did not count.

    We saw that this school allowed 15 absences per semester, an absurdly large number. When we interviewed the faculty, they told us that attendance was so low on Mondays and Fridays that there was no point doing anything at all on those days, since it would only have to be repeated. They were thus down to only three days of actual instruction per week. When we interviewed the students, they told us that nothing of value goes on in the classes on Mondays and Fridays, so there was no point in attending on those days. When we talked to the administration, they said there was nothing they could do because any attempt to make those rules tougher would meet with an outcry from the community and lead to more troubles.

    Finally, I pointed out in my earlier article that when we select education leaders, we usually go through a process of creating a multi-partite search committee composed of people who are totally invested in the status quo. How likely is it that such a group is going to select someone who will upend the world with which they are so very comfortable?

  2. The point about “mile wide and inch deep” recurs often in discussions about math and science instruction. It’s true. Some schools have adopted the Singapore math curriculum to overcome the problem. Perhaps, more will.

    I love the mandatory mastery learning system. If you get it right the first time, you move on. Otherwise, you try again. That’s how master tradespeople work with apprentices.

    I like the point about selecting education “leaders.” Of course, those selected in that fashion don’t really qualify as leaders unless by some fluke they really do lead us away from the status quo.

    Yes, most of those not in power don’t wish change to happen. People are naturally averse to change and only do so when confronted with pain. However, the powerful can overcome that problem. But, why should they? What’s in it for them? I’m talking about those outside of the education system here.

    Perhaps, disruption is our only hope. Online education seems to be making that happen — for now. The merger of KCDL into K12.com begins a process that may help or hinder change. What happens if more such mergers take place.

    I know from personal experience that while entities such as K12.com and the University of Phoenix would like to have good education products, they value the bottom line more. Maybe they can have both. Then again, maybe not. Will they embrace mastery learning? It should be easy with an online course. We’ll see.

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