Can Strong Leaders Succeed When Their Hands Are Tied?

As readers may recall, I’m in the middle of a series of posts about ways we can improve our schools beyond changing public policy. If this is only mildly familiar, it might be because of the hiatus since my last contribution, which is due to my procrastinating. And for good reason, I believe: I have very mixed feelings about the argument I’m about to make.

ednext-aug2016-blog-petrilli-leadersThe argument is simple: If we want to improve our schools and school systems, we need to do much better at recruiting, developing, placing, and supporting effective leaders. That much is plain common sense, and not very controversial. Various strains of “effective schools” research going back decades find that leadership is essential for excellence.

Where I get hung up, though, is with the idea that great leaders can make schools—and especially school districts—work well, given the dysfunction of the larger system within which they must work, and the Gordian knot that’s been tied by decades of contradictory, often compromising, laws and regulations, not to mention the impossible politics often created by unruly elected school boards. (A knot that reform—especially charter schooling—has tried to cut.)

Strong leaders are surely better than weak ones. But are they nearly enough? Or are we wasting precious time, energy, and resources when we send in the change agents to a system that cannot be changed? Should we simply focus on recruiting great leaders for a new (charter school) system instead?

I put that question to some folks who have spent much time thinking about school leadership. My friend Rick Hess, for instance, whose Cage-Busting Leadership starts with the premise that:

Two things are true. It is true, as would-be reformers often argue, that statutes, policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and case law make it tougher than it should be for school and system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. However, it is also the case that leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and reinvigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed.

Teaching leaders how to thoughtfully bust cages, then, is a worthwhile pursuit. (As is changing the laws and regulations that created those cages in the first place.) And while Rick prefers to focus on cage-busting as a set of actions and habits rather than cage-busters as heroic personalities, he was willing to name a few for me. “Kaya Henderson was a marvelous example—especially because she used a softer touch. Terry Grier is a nice one, he’s cerebral about the work. Deborah Gist was great at this as state chief in Rhode Island. Duncan Klussmann was a terrific example in Spring Branch.”

Yet are these just exceptions that prove the rule? How many of the nation’s 14,000 superintendents are engaged in cage-busting leadership? Are there thousands out there doing it, off the radar screen? Or are there really just a handful? And, if so, does this merely prove that the task of leading within our current system—or at least leading it to get dramatically better results—is like rolling a boulder up a hill?

Several philanthropists are betting that new and better training programs for school and system leaders will result in more cage-busting and change-making. The Broad Academy and Broad Residency are the best known for superintendents and central office staff; innovative models for principal training can be seen at New Leaders for New Schools, Relay Graduate School of Education, Rice University’s Education Entrepreneurship Program, the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Education Leadership, and—the new kid on the block—Ohio’s BRIGHT initiative. Another approach is for big districts to “grow their own,” like the D.C. Public Schools is doing.

Scaling these programs is a challenge. As Andrea Hodge, the head of Rice’s REEP program, told me, the big question is “who pays” for this type of investment. “It is a visionary superintendent who invests in the entrepreneurial capacity of his or her team.” Hodge also acknowledges the challenge of trying to change the system from within, so they are moving from training principals alone to developing reform-minded central office staff, too, and “facilitating learning across the system.”

I’m still skeptical. I just haven’t seen the kind of drive for continuous improvement in traditional districts that I’ve witnessed in charter networks like KIPP and Achievement First, where the very organizational DNA is obsessed with excellence and continuous improvement, always looking for more effective approaches to teaching and learning. I’ve got to believe that it’s something about the structure of the charter sector—its governance by mission-driven boards instead of local politicians; its ability to recruit and retain educators that share a vision rather than a collective bargaining agreement (and conventional preparation and certification); its sense of urgency driven by accountability to authorizers and funders—that makes the difference. If I were a philanthropist, I’d support leadership development efforts, but mostly for charter schools rather than district ones.

But if you disagree—if you believe that the right leader can indeed transform a school district despite all of the challenges—I’d love to know why.

– Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on Flypaper

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