How Does Education Leadership Fail?
How does education leadership fail? As part of education, and following it for years, it’s completely evident to me that it’s easier to follow the simplest lead, which more than likely has the most tethered-agenda connections. What we really should do is a bit more work, figure out a proper game plan, which is backed by good research—then make things happen—to bring words to action. Even then, there’s the chance that actions look right, but many times only from a very small and limited viewpoint.
Don’t get me wrong, most leaders feel they’re doing the right things, and for the right purposes. So, that’s not the question. I think the real problem is that most don’t read enough, listen enough, interact enough in the real education world outside the school walls and district boundaries. Many get stranded on their own district, school, or comfortable island. In order to improve education leadership, they need to be rescued. The failure, here, only occurs if leaders don’t want to know more, do more, and interact more—take words to action. Again, it is far easier to do what you’ve been doing than change to do something that’s different. It’s far more difficult when the results seem to indicate nothing is wrong. In that case, stay the same is easier, and moving beyond most often not even a thought. Let me share an example of what I mean.
I had a conversation not too long ago with a very young administrator, who was over-the-moon because his school was a top performer on a standardized test. His school and students won district-wide recognition, and was awarded a prize for the achievement. I listened carefully, nodded a lot, all the while wondering how those teachers taught, how those students learned, and how this leader led. I was gentle, but asked the questions that should have been asked. Here’s the way the conversation went:
Me: “Congratulations on the recognition. I know your district considers doing well on standardized tests a top goal for you, teachers and students. How did you, your students, and teachers do it?”
Administrator: “Thanks, we spend a lot of time practicing questions and answers that look like the test. We didn’t do well on the tests last year, so this is big for us and the district.”
Me: “So, a normal school day would be filled with tasks that are standardized test-based lessons and activities? Do you do project-based, experiential learning activities as well, and if so, what sorts of tools do students and teachers use?”
Administrator: “Yes, we do. What do you mean by tools?”
Me: “I mean tools for today’s classrooms, such as interactive boards, handheld devices—interactive instructional technology—that sort of thing.”
Administrator: “Oh, we really don’t have much technology. A few teachers do have a mobile whiteboard they share, and we do have some document cameras we share. We’re thinking of getting some tablets to share, too.”
Me: “So, your great scores and high ranking really was done without technology?”
Me: “And you’re higher level administrators and board members are pleased?”
Administrator: “Yes! They were thrilled by the change in ranking.”
Me: “I’m going to say something that needs to be said, and it’s more to get you thinking than anything else. I think you’re doing a disservice to your students as well as your teachers. While your test numbers are great, you are not preparing your kids for today and the future, and your teachers are teaching in past centuries. It also seems that you’re proving to your higher administrators and board that this is learning success. Do you think that is education success?”
Me: “I know that’s probably not what you’d like to hear, but it is true. I know that, in your position, you are working toward goals set for your school as well as district. So, think about this. You have a really nice stage to stand on at this point, and I’d probably say something similar to you, about building a stage, if you didn’t. But in your case, you could use your award to your advantage, if you’re brave enough, and leaders should be brave. Ask for a meeting to discuss some new, additional goals. No one will argue about doing more. Something along these lines: ‘Look what we did without technology; wonder what we could do with today’s student and teacher tools in classrooms, and maybe some instructional technology professional development to go with it? I know we can’t do everything right away, but I think we could improve much further. We could prepare our students better for the real world, and improve our teaching beyond important test practice skills.’ Give that a try, and even if the answer is no, continue thinking along those lines, because you’ve thought and said what was needed. Think about it.”
Administrator: “I am in a good position to say those things, now.”
Me: “While you might not be in this same position, again, you need to know that you as an administrator are always in a position to say the things that need to be said. But you’re right; their hearing may be a little better right now. The best thing to do is look beyond the walls of your school. That requires no spending other than time—and that time will be more than well spent. Get your staff to do that same, and get them to encourage your students to follow and lead in that direction as well.”
The trouble with encounters like that is that you’re never quite certain the end result. I’ve checked in with this young administrator, recently, and discovered more talk and interest in technology, but not much movement due to funding issues. He now has a few teachers expert in interactive whiteboards, as well as taking a closer look at tablets for a one-class pilot. I’d love to talk to him about that, so maybe that will happen, too. I hope so, and if not, maybe someone else will help him ask the right questions. Maybe that is it. Could it be that part of the reason leadership fails is because the right questions haven’t been asked, followed by some reasonable and possible actions as well as solutions? That’s something we all can work on, isn’t it?
About the Author
Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology experience, as well as a blogger on all things education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.