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Education Opinion

5 Ideas to Start Tackling the Missing Half of School Reform

By Rick Hess — October 04, 2013 8 min read
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In my last several posts, I’ve discussed my National Affairs article the “Missing Half of School Reform” and the problems that ensue. Today, I want to offer some suggestions on how to start tackling the “missing half.” Because education reformers tend to treat implementation as somebody else’s problem, the contemporary school-reform landscape is dotted with advocates declaring “mission accomplished” after winning policy changes -- rather than ensuring that those changes deliver. Indeed, major funders ask advocacy groups to tally their legislative successes, and advocates comply by eagerly claiming wins and moving on, so that they might gear up for the next legislative fight.

But real change requires much more attention to the second half of the improvement agenda: cultivating and supporting teachers, principals, district leaders, and state officials willing and able to rethink old norms. Progressives mistakenly imply that new policies will yield dynamic leadership, and conservatives are equally wrong to imagine that simply rolling back federal mandates or challenging unions will do so. Bureaucratized, compliant, fearful cultures don’t reform themselves; they require reformers willing to tend to the soft tissue of institutions, norms, and leadership. Such an effort should begin by focusing on five areas that have received far too little attention to date.

First, there is a great need for school-, district-, and state-level leaders able and willing to challenge established routines and entrenched cultures. Today, potential leaders typically must endure mandated preparation programs in “educational administration” at schools of education. Licensure requirements give education schools a firm grip on entry into the field, dissuading change-minded educators, discouraging talented people who might otherwise consider a career switch into education, and dulling the sensibilities of those getting trained. Keep in mind that private-sector organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, generally do not require the licensing of leaders. The MBA degree is a credential, not a license, because the skills in question are broad and amorphous rather than technical - while certification works most effectively when the standards for mastery are clear and concrete. Governors, state legislatures, and state school-board members have it fully in their power to remove old licensure restrictions to allow a broader spectrum of seasoned managers to enter leadership positions in education.

Second, in recent years, a number of alternative leadership programs have emerged. Programs like New Leaders, the Broad Foundation’s Superintendents Academy, Education Pioneers, and the KIPP Academies’ Fisher Fellows that were launched early in the last decade have been joined by newer entrants like Rice University’s educational entrepreneurship program (REEP) and the Leadership Institute of Nevada. These programs create healthful intellectual diversity by bypassing traditional education schools, with REEP breaking new ground a few years ago by getting approval to license principals and superintendents through the university’s Jones School of Business. The freestanding Leadership Institute of Nevada brings together two dozen school and system leaders for a year of intensive executive education. The Rice and Nevada programs seek to create a critical mass of connected leaders in a community or state who will be willing and able to deliver on the promise of reform. State legislators and officials can encourage such programs by granting more business schools, policy schools, and other entities the authority to certify educational leaders. University officials and trustees ought to encourage the pursuit of such opportunities. And funders and policymakers can help provide resources to launch these new programs. The Houston Endowment played a critical role in launching the Rice program, and Nevada governor Brian Sandoval pushed the state to provide crucial seed funds for the Leadership Institute of Nevada.

Third, the substance of what prospective school leaders learn matters enormously. Frustrated with schools of education, reformers have long washed their hands of anything that requires them to wade in the muck and mire of what those schools teach. One result is that theories of leadership, management, staffing, budgeting, and the rest are all colored by traditional education-school nostrums. This applies to the most widely read texts, articles, and resources, as well as to the questions taken up by academic researchers. These norms are so pervasive that, outside of the Rice and Nevada programs, they typically dominate even the kinds of reform-minded training mentioned above. There is an enormous need for scholars and thinkers to develop a canon of strategies, volumes, articles, and curricula that sketch a cage-busting vision and that challenge the hegemony of entrenched educational leadership.

Fourth, those instances in which leaders have leveraged their existing authority or found a way to make reforms work on the ground are rarely explained, highlighted, or celebrated. There are plenty of huzzahs for principals or superintendents who get test scores or graduation rates up, but remarkably little interest in anything other than airbrushed narratives of how they did so. Popular accounts and professional accolades tend to emphasize the role of charisma, curricula, coaching, and consensus, while skipping past the meatier questions of how to redeploy public funds or alter teacher roles without running afoul of contracts or statutes. After all, while educational leaders are far more focused on raising student achievement today than they were 15 years ago, it is a mistake to confuse eagerness with knowing how to challenge convention and transform organizations. Models of such behavior are not discussed in their conferences, celebrated in their associations, or written about in their professional journals. Advocates, funders, and reform-minded academics have a crucial role to play in changing this state of affairs. They can do vastly more to identify those school and system leaders who are doing what supposedly cannot be done, celebrate them, and document and disseminate information about what they are doing. Such efforts can tilt cultural norms, while making it less intimidating for others to follow suit. Reformers, advocates, and funders ought to start reviewing conference agendas and strategic documents to see if they are devoting as much attention to the missing practical half of the reform agenda as they are to policy fights. Launching a magazine, association, or conference focused on the work of executing reform could help provide a forum and nurture a community.

Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that educational leadership entails spending public funds on someone else’s children. This is as true in a charter school (or under a voucher system) as it is in a traditional district school. The public nature of schooling means that education will always be subject to the vagaries of democratic decision-making and the inevitable array of laws, rules, and regulations. Driving improvement therefore requires some command of regulatory minutiae and some capacity for legalistic thinking. Superintendents, school boards, and principals need help negotiating contracts, finding their way around federal regulations, learning what reforms have made possible, and much else. But these leaders are generally ill-equipped for this part of their job. Sympathetic, talented attorneys willing to help reform-minded

leaders find their way could make a great difference. Today, however, such legal support is all too rare. Lawyers who represent districts, whether as in-house counsel or on retainer, prioritize risk avoidance and minimizing conflict. Philanthropists, business leaders, or reformers could help districts to connect with local law firms or attorneys to provide pro bono support. After all, the typical attorney does more than 40 hours of pro bono work a year, and education reform is an area of particular interest. There is a need for a new entity, call it “Lawyers for Education Reform,” that could facilitate partnerships between districts and law firms, set up recruiting chapters on campuses, and provide the kind of research and analysis of regulations and contracts that is so sorely needed.

Such measures will have a secondary, enormously salutary effect. The incentives and accountability created by education reform are often too weak to overcome the political and bureaucratic obstacles that prompt leaders to stick with business as usual. But public recognition and external networks can dramatically increase the rewards for bold leadership and the costs of timidity. If leaders knew that measures that promise short-term pain but long-term benefits (like squeezing budgets or revamping dumb work rules) would be recognized, it would be easier for more to try -- and to convince their bosses that the benefits of public acclaim outweigh the costs of action. Meanwhile, if advocates and reformers were more intent on calling out excuse-mongering, the temptation for superintendents, school boards, and principals to hide behind contracts or rules could be curtailed. After all, for most school and system leaders, educational leadership is a relationship business where reputation matters -- for its own sake and for future advancement.

Rewriting policy constitutes only half of a reform agenda. It is equally vital to produce leaders willing and able to leverage new opportunities and to support them as they do so. Absent such efforts, reformers will enact teacher-evaluation and turnaround policies that will disappoint in the face of contracts, embedded routines, and recalcitrant cultures. They will find themselves fighting unnecessary battles and seeing major victories undone. They can blame opponents, skeptical educators, or dysfunctional governance for all this, but that won’t help anyone the next time implementation flounders.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.