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From Compliance to Collaboration

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Four leadership qualities needed to change schools

Despite all the rhetoric about shared decisionmaking, top-down, compliance-driven school leadership still seems to be the norm in many communities. The reason is that most school boards still expect new superintendents to come in and "take charge." And superintendents often expect the same of their principals. But these behaviors and expectations are badly out of date.

Compliance-driven models of leadership work--more or less--when maintaining the status quo is the goal. But now, when fundamental improvement is the goal, a very different kind of leadership is required.

Public schools are now expected to educate all students to much higher standards than ever before--at a time when many teachers report that it is harder to motivate students to learn than in the past. Despite the simplistic rhetoric of many politicians, there is no "off the shelf" reform to fix this fundamental contradiction. Educators are caught between a rock and a hard place as never before, and no amount of order-giving and -following is going to get us out of this jam. We must, literally, reinvent American public education if we are going to meet the challenge of preparing all our students for the 21st century.

In the long-term work my organization is doing with more than 40 schools around the country, we are finding that a school "reinvention" process requires leadership that encourages collaborative inquiry--adult learning--instead of mere compliance. Together, educators, parents, and community members must come to understand the new competencies that all students need to master and the forms of "best practice" that are most likely to get results. Together, educators, parents, and community members then need to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of current efforts and to develop, implement, assess, and continuously improve new programs and approaches that will enable all students to succeed.

What are the qualities of leadership that promote collaborative inquiry and educational research and development? Let me suggest four essential characteristics of successful leaders in an educational change process: (1) They frame problems in ways that encourage adult learning and dialogue; (2) they ask questions rather than offer answers; (3) they encourage risk-takers; and (4) they model new behaviors.

  • Framing the problem. "We have to get our test scores up so that I (and maybe you) still have a job." Too often, this is either the implicit or explicit problem that state, district, and school leaders offer teachers as the reason for change. The limited focus on improving test scores and keeping jobs may lead to more "teaching to the tests," but otherwise it is unlikely to leave students better educated. To create much more effective approaches to teaching, the problem or goal needs to be framed differently.
Both educators and parents need opportunities to discuss the implications for schools.

We find it most useful, for example, to frame the new educational challenges in the context of the profound economic and social changes that have taken place over the last quarter-century. Both educators and parents need opportunities to discuss, for example, the implications for schools of the radically transformed nature of work in a "techno-service" economy; the demands from the community for advancing civil behavior and active and informed citizenship; the new theories of learning and the implications for learning of the information explosion; and the impact of multiple changes in students' and families' life circumstances.

All of these require that we educate all students for different kinds of proficiencies for work, citizenship, lifelong learning, and personal growth and health. Increased emphasis on standardized tests is merely a crude tool policymakers are using to get the attention of educators. The real challenge is not merely to do better on the tests, but to prepare students for a world fundamentally different from the one for which most of us were educated.

The fact that schools are not, by and large, meeting this challenge is no one's fault. Schools are not "failing." Teachers are not less caring or hard-working than they used to be. Our factory system of public education--essentially designed as a sorting machine and reasonably effective at turning out a medium-quality product in high volume--is simply obsolete, and that is a very different problem. Too many teachers feel victimized by the rhetoric of "failure" and then blame the parents. In such a climate, collaboration becomes impossible. Educational leaders must take the shame and blame for the past out of the conversation and focus on future results for all students, with appropriate accountability.

  • Asking tough questions. When was the last time anyone heard an educational leader say, "I don't know"? Most educators have what I call "answeritis." Perhaps it's an occupational hazard that comes from spending too many years in classrooms where only "right" answers were rewarded. Whatever the cause, the more responsibility we have for leadership in education, the more answers we seem to be expected to have. Too many boards hire superintendents or principals on the basis of their having a strategic master plan--a prepackaged "curriculum" of right answers--for their community or school.

By contrast, successful leaders in changing schools and districts ask tough questions and then give groups of teachers, parents, and community members the time and the tools they need to come up with new answers. For example, rather than telling teachers that the school will now go to block scheduling, why not ask them to look at some different ways the school day might be scheduled to allow for more time for teachers to work together and also have longer blocks of time with fewer student? Let the teachers come up with solutions to the challenges important to them.

Educational leaders need to see risk-takers as a resource, rather than a threat.

Even systemic changes at the district level can be initiated by asking task forces of educators, parents, and community members to come up with several different ways of accomplishing a generally agreed-upon goal, such as raising educational standards or offering students a greater choice of school programs.

  • Encouraging risk-takers. Responsible risk-taking and entrepreneurship are essential qualities in any research-and-development effort attempting to pioneer and perfect new best practice. But too often in education, such behavior is punished, not rewarded.

In many districts, the teachers and principals who create the best classrooms, and schools where all children learn, are perceived as rebels. The reason is that many of them practice what they jokingly call "creative noncompliance" when it comes to the regulations that get in the way of good teaching and learning. They believe that the kids come first, and they have little time for filling out the forms or getting permission for what they know to be right.

Educational leaders need to see such risk-takers as a resource, rather than a threat. They need to work with these individuals to identify and change the rules that thwart good teaching and effective school-based leadership. Rather than seeing the business world as the "enemy," as is all too often the case in education, we in schools have much we might learn from business about how to create a school and district culture that cultivates, supports, and rewards innovations and initiative.

  • Modeling behaviors. When we ask high school students what one change would make the greatest difference in improving their school, they generally talk about better relationships between students and teachers. All kinds of students in every kind of school in America report feeling a lack of respect from their teachers. According to a recent study from the nonprofit organization Public Agenda, 69 percent of students surveyed said they would learn a lot more from teachers who respected them.

All too often, teachers and parents have the same complaint about their schools. Large, bureaucratic, compliance-driven systems have a dehumanizing influence that tends to be passed down through "the chain of command."

The simple solution, at every level, is to do much more listening and less talking. School board members, superintendents, and principals all need to spend more time hearing the interests, needs, and concerns of teachers, parents, students, and community members, rather than telling them all the wonderful things they're doing. Teachers need to do the same for students. The heart of the process of collaborative inquiry and problem-solving is genuine dialogue. All voices must be heard and respected--not just the ones who show up at meetings and complain the loudest.

The second essential ingredient in a collaborative inquiry is constructive criticism. Too many superintendents and principals talk about the need for greater teacher accountability (and teachers then talk about student accountability), but rarely is the notion of accountability mutual and reciprocal. If educational leaders expect "front line" workers--the teachers--to be evaluated more rigorously and to be accountable for results, then they, too, must seek feedback about how they're doing their jobs and what more they might do to help teachers be successful.

The kind of leadership I am describing is easy to talk about but much harder to learn and to practice consistently. Above all, leaders in a change process need qualities of the heart--idealism, courage, and empathy, or what the writer and psychologist Daniel Goleman calls "emotional intelligence"--as much as qualities of the intellect. If too many of our leaders--in education and elsewhere--lack such qualities, then all of us must share some responsibility. Until we value "EQ" as much as IQ at every level in our educational systems, leaders who can encourage the collaboration and adult learning required for deep and lasting change in schools will be in short supply.

Tony Wagner is the president of the Institute for Responsive Education at Northeastern University in Boston and a visiting associate professor at the university. His book How Schools Change: Lessons From Three Communities, with a foreword by Theodore R. Sizer, was recently released in paperback by Beacon Press.

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