School Leaders Need to Speak Up
“The movement to reclaim public education will catch fire when school leaders decide they have agency and the moral fortitude to push back against policies they know are harmful to kids … If school leaders would get over their reservations and start … speaking powerfully from their hearts and minds – we might have a chance to turn things around.”
I’m not sure if Nancy Flanagan is totally right about this, but the sentiment surely is appealing. When I think about all the fine schools in which I’ve worked, the outstanding teachers I’ve known, and the strong leadership I’ve seen, it almost seems as if school people themselves have the wherewithal to reform and improve schools. Almost. We know that we’ve done good work for kids, and we know that critics of our schools paint with a very broad, hairy brush. And we know that the argument could be made that, school improvement has been highjacked by business people, politicians, union leaders, and others wishing to enhance their own reputations at the expense of kids. So like Nancy, I’d love to see education leaders – those who actually do the job in schools – take stronger, more articulate positions on what’s good for kids.
Here are just a few topics I’d love to hear education leaders address in measured and thoughtful tones this year, their arguments based on experience and concern for children:
1) Accountability. Let’s admit it’s a good thing, and a portion of it can be measured in kids’ test results. But test results are only one measure of a teacher’s success, not the whole enchilada. It’s unfair and unrealistic to make test results more than 20% of a teacher’s evaluation. And let’s focus on reading and math, areas in which test results are readily accessible. We can figure out how to test other subjects later if necessary after we’ve had some experience with reading and math. And let’s ignore the argument that all teachers have to be evaluated “equally” from the start. Nonsense. Why start now?
2) Piloting change. Districts need to time to pilot changes instead of having to commit hundreds or thousands of employees to plans that haven’t been field tested first (see above).
3) Time. Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight, and that the possibility of lasting reform takes time to implement while you get everyone on board. You can’t legislate commitment. Districts are reeling from unrealistic deadlines set by lawmakers.
4) Civil dialogue. People outside of education may actually have constructive criticism or suggestions to offer. Defensiveness is counterproductive. But while I’m at it, I have to say that every time I hear or read the word “reformy” I have a visceral reaction. The term is snide, condescending, and evokes a Palinesque attitude towards intellectualism and compromise. It’s hard to have a civil dialogue using uncivil terms.
5) Refutation. Critics talk as if every school is terrible. Some schools are. They should focus on them. If your school is doing a good job for kids, make sure the world knows it. And ask out loud why your school is being punished for the failures of others.
The point here is not that school leaders should defend traditional practices by circling the wagons. It’s not about defending the institution. It’s about directing the dialogue, being active rather than passive. Reform and improvement have been part of the ethos of many, many schools for years. We shouldn’t allow outside critics to behave as if they just thought of it.