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Leading a District Can Be Controversial, Embrace It

Fear of political backlash shouldn’t drive leadership decisionmaking

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Former President Barack Obama often talked about politics as "the art of the possible." This aphorism comes from the 19th-century Prussian diplomat and politician Otto von Bismarck. One way to interpret the adage is that pragmatism trumps all; in other words, when trying to steer public opinion, it is best to focus on the attainable. And, unfortunately, when it comes to our children’s education, this notion of "what’s possible" is often synonymous with what is politically safe. This is a big mistake.

In my early days as a principal in Florida, the superintendent of my district was fond of describing our goals in similar terms: He explained that we should be aware of the political environment and steer clear of controversy. Compromise or a "good enough" solution was the holy grail to him. Wanting the perfect, in his world, meant you got nothing at all.

—Getty

Now, after serving more than decade as a superintendent, I have learned firsthand that our education system is often shaped more by the politically safe and less by the fearless experimentation it takes to truly improve schools for all students. And yet, the search firms that help recruit school and district leaders tend to view candidates’ first qualifier as the length of time they have served in a district. Unfortunately, the examination of data that could show how, or if, a school or district leader has made on-the-ground improvements often takes a back seat. A leader who avoids controversy or policy proposals that question long-established practices hasn’t taken the right kind of chances in my book.

Recently, I was inquiring about the qualifications that search consultants were seeking for superintendent positions in two large urban districts. One consultant told me, "When people resign from their positions or don’t have their contracts renewed, we assume that they don’t know how to manage their relationships with board members." Why is the emphasis on getting along with the board rather than on student needs?

The education researcher Ronald Edmonds and others have shown that higher expectations are at the core of improving student behavior and achievement. This starts with changing the expectations of the teachers, school leaders, and parents in a school system. That can be difficult.

Teachers and administrators can get frustrated when they are asked to change what and how they are teaching. In some cases, they even run to board members who, in turn, accuse districts leaders of "destroying morale," and thereby send the message to the superintendent: If you want to keep your job, back off.

Being a controversial leader comes with a price. Before I took the position as the superintendent in New London, Conn., where I served for five years, I told the school board that if they were interested in maintaining the status quo, I was not the person to hire. Their goal for me was to hold staff accountable for closing existing achievement gaps between white, low-income, and minority students.

"If change is going to happen, states must back their education leaders and their staffs."

An audit conducted on New London’s public schools in 2012, halfway through my superintendency, concluded that, because of the district’s pronounced racial and socioeconomic divides and a poor relationship between the local government and schools, "only powerful, transformational, and systemic interventions have a chance of changing the achievement gap." And during my time in New London, I oversaw several big interventions.

We expanded the district’s gifted program to open access to underrepresented low-income and minority students, created the first student-achievement-based teacher-evaluation system, established a 10th grade literacy requirement for graduation, and provided supper for students. New London High School was rated the most improved high school in the state based on test scores and was awarded a bronze medal in the 2014 Best High Schools rankings by U.S. News & World Report.

These changes required a fair amount of pushing, months of effort by school staff, and few compromises, and my leadership style sometimes led to clashes with board members. When they chose not to renew my contract in 2014, the president of the board cited poor communication as the cause.

I have no regrets. Compromise on vital change rarely works. School politics too often become the art of keeping your head down and preserving your retirement, but it’s our students who pay the price.

How can districts clear the way for school leadership to make a difference?

Districts must first accept that, in most cases, public education and the welfare of students are the responsibility of the state. It is through state constitutions that school boards gain their authority. States license teachers and school administrators. If change is going to happen, states must back their education leaders and their staffs.

School and district leaders must have a core set of beliefs that allows them to stand their ground and risk their jobs over contested decisions. Despite pushback, they’ll find constituents who are willing to support the kinds of leaders who pursue what is in the best interest of students, parents, and school staff.

The function of schools is to make sure that young people have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful. And a skilled leader should never fear taking a political risk when it comes to helping children become the best they can be.

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