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The 'New Collar' Restructured School Leader of 2000: Spinning on a New Axis

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Principals, administrators, and school leaders are usually proud to be perceived as "white collar'' professionals. And this can become a problem as we get ready for the year 2000 and beyond. Community and school-board expectations historically cast the school leader in the mold of a mythical, anachronistic 1950's corporate milksop--a paragon of predictability and a role model of orderly conformity.

Like gyroscopes, we school leaders tend to stabilize ourselves on the most fixed axis of all--traditional preservationism--while the world of our students and their parents wobbles wildly off into a deepening economic darkness.

The private sector's choice/voucher push, the New American Schools Development Corporation, the federal America 2000 models, and the graying electorate's extinguished support for most education combine to create an in-your-face need for a new axis around which emergent school leaders should spin. I will describe it as the "new collar'' axis.

New-collar school leaders will be the doers and traders and vendors of schooling as a client-driven, worklife-derived commodity. They will immerse themselves less deeply in the pedagogy, realizing that too many of their predecessors created and suffered from a public perception of being fops with fads or jugglers with jargon. New-collar leaders will act more like the inventive sole proprietor of a local business and less like a protector of a rule-governed, self-perpetuating monolith.

These are harsh descriptors. Yet they are descriptors used by powerful and numerous critics who are bent upon scrapping the machine of universal education.

California's business-backed Senate Bill 1274, which poured millions into encouraging radical models of future schooling, is well intentioned, but it has generally produced minor face-lifts on a body needing multiple organ transplants. The obstacles seem to come not so much from the schools but from their organizational contexts--districts, counties, the state, the employee unions. To be eligible for the next round of major funding (up to $200 per student for five years), the key actors in the system have to sign off in unwavering support of the changes--the unions, the board, the district, and perhaps others. We wait to see how these sign-offs occur and to what extent these actors will endorse organic changes that may diminish their own clout.

The few touted California schools that are visited as sites where restructuring is already under way--Woodland High School in Yolo County, for example, and Pasadena High School in Los Angeles County--are brave models, but models which pretty much existed decades ago.

A digression serves: Imagine a restructured high-school system of the future. A student has post-10th-grade school options. School A is aimed at preparing students for university admissions. School B is for community college or vocational placement. Both are certified for college-admissions criteria and both have elements of thinking-meaning-centered curricula. At School B, the buzzwords are apprenticeships and performance-based competencies tied to jobs at local businesses. Nirvana? No, it is where my father had school choice in the early 1930's: the Los Angeles Unified School District (Manual Arts High School, Los Angeles High School).

Why this gyroscopic tilt back to the same axis?

Given the bottomless swamp of statutory restrictions through which public educators trudge, the leaders at Woodland, Pasadena, and numerous other path-finding schools are to be commended. But their efforts are not generally transportable to other school systems or to other school leaders, due to a host of reasons not tied to blame. When these efforts are finally, partly transported to another system, the implementation delay usually frustrates even the most persevering reformer. Since the urgency to undergo major schoolwide metamorphosis has never been greater, it is no wonder that the frustrations built in by the traditional approaches and by the traditional leaders have never been more excruciating.

New-collar leaders, I believe, will be able to construct new models based on what Michael Fullan has called "positive contagion.'' They will read as much about business, technology, and international affairs as about education. They will challenge the "non-negotiables'' in the bureaucracy, and will be propelled by loyalty to outcomes above traditions. They will not ascend professionally "through the chairs'' of an organization: Rather, they will invent new chairs for themselves--or lead by standing on rather than sitting in the chairs. Spinning on an axis aligned to the social and economic pre-eminence of the nation, these new-collar leaders will be intolerant of systems that use compliance to ensure or create jobs while simultaneously choking off innovation. While traditional leaders may be brave by seeking a few waivers to stretch the codes, new-collar leaders will solicit enough support to reduce the number and effect of the codes. While the Coalition of Essential Schools' leaders go about paring down their schools to deliver the essentials (an exemplary goal), new-collar leaders will be part of something like a Coalition of Essential Governance, which will pare down restrictive layers of code and tradition to clear a path for visible, not academic, restructuring.

From whence will spring these new-collar school leaders? If you are thinking from among professional educators, think again. Less than half will come from the ranks of traditional educational leadership. For one thing, almost half of the existing higher-level school leaders are within a decade of retirement. The leadership gap will be impossible to fill from within the parade of traditionalists marching through the chairs of responsibility. The majority of new-collar leaders will be career crossovers, upstarts, retreads, mavericks, and sideliners. Their vocabulary, too, will be different. Instead of rotating slowly in the safety of such words as consider, discuss, reflect, revisit, plan, attend, facilitate, they will turn quickly on an axis of words like do, start, build, move, give, take, spend, cut. Many will come with backgrounds involving that urgency of competition not common in the public sector. In the last two or more decades while academicians have had the K-12 curriculum in a college-bound headlock, many of the alternative-education folks (continuation high schools, opportunity schools, court schools, and the whole swarm of vocational endeavors) have been wearing something like a new collar--it was just not yet fully in fashion.

One specific example of a school trying on a new collar is Quincy Junior/Senior High School in Plumas County, Calif. A school of 600 in the Sierras, far north of Lake Tahoe and nearly two hours from an urban center, Quincy stands alone in its nine-county region in having qualified for one of the California Department of Education's High School Investment Grants, funded as one-time starter support through the federal vocational-education program. Why is this school "new collarish''?

First: The leadership sprang up at a time when the district was losing one superintendent and in the process of finding a new one. In that gap of about a year, local school leaders were able to catapult forward with some creative uses of resources to link their curriculum to local job availability. To say this could not have been done under the guidance of a superintendent is overstatement, but the lack of centralized authority appears to have provided the window of opportunity through which the school moved.

Next, the school's principal, Dennis Sonnenburg, is productively impatient with traditional hurdles and has been willing to relinquish authority to his staff, thus allowing them to build their own capacity for leadership. He is also entrepreneurial, entering into deals with various agencies that have caused those agencies in turn to coordinate hitherto independent services.

Quincy Junior/Senior High School is located in a basically conservative, rural, lumber-oriented community that has lived for years with an unrelenting economic downturn. It is not blessed with corporate patrons who underwrite programs; it is not relying on money to make systemic changes. But the staff has seen a turnaround in the months since it made the commitment to become a "family of leaders.'' This is site-centered leadership spread among nontraditional stakeholders. Many of these stakeholders are driving four hours a day through the mountains to attend leadership training in Oroville, the nearest city of any size. Yes, they are using some of the latest brain research to guide curriculum services to students, but they are not confusing the studying of the research with leadership. They are designing a performance-based cluster curriculum linked to job-market data in northeastern California. Using strategic-planning techniques and a cathartic, "startover'' day-long session to rally staff, students, and parents around a set of beliefs and a new mission, Mr. Sonnenburg and his vice principal helped flatten the flow diagram of authority. Last fall, six months into the process, the principal reflected that "coming from the traditional mind-set of who's running the place to a staff-centered sharing of responsibility as we all learn together has been a fast, scary journey. That's how we want it; that's how it is when you use the ready-fire-aim approach.''

As Quincy moves on toward its new plateau, the new-collar attributes of its principal (and some supportive board members) will be what makes the difference, not the tedious habit of simply carrying the past into the future.

Other new-collar school leaders are around. You may know some. Keep an eye on them, because the axis on which they spin is pointing in a direction that parallels some of public education's critics. These leaders are ready to build systems that will make choice and competition nonthreatening, because they know what it is like to aim not at a goal, but at a moving target.

Van Wilkinson is director of development and technology for the Shasta County Office of Education in Redding, Calif. He also serves as director of the North State Administrator Training Center, part of the California School Leadership Academy.

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