Education Opinion

I Hear a Symphony

By Nancy Flanagan — November 17, 2010 2 min read
There's a difference between being a teacher and leading an organization that's focused on teaching. You can have someone running a great symphony who isn't a concert violinist. It doesn't mean the violinist isn't important; it's just a different skill set."

Becca Bracy Knight, Executive Director of the Broad Center.

Excuse me? This “leadership and practice expertise are two different things in education” meme is wearing very thin, folks. Anyone who believes they can successfully lead a school system without first-hand knowledge of what goes on in an effective classroom is mistaken.

And the orchestral metaphor Ms. Knight employs is nonsense. I ought to know. I’ve been directing musical organizations--literally hundreds of civic, church and school ensembles--for nearly four decades, and I’ve been a performer in at least as many orchestras, chorales and concert bands. Anyone leading a musical ensemble who can’t do what musicians do--and doesn’t understand what musicians know--is in deep trouble, no matter what else is in their leadership “skill set.”

Anyone training to be a professional conductor begins with a thorough grounding in playing all the instruments of the orchestra. Proficiency in music theory and composition, history, literature and interpretation is essential. And that goes for the business manager and equipment coordinator, too, who must understand why solvent orchestras balance artistic innovation with commercial appeal and why oboes need a ready water source in a performance venue.

Knowing a field from the bottom up used to be admired--the proverbial journey from the mailroom to the boardroom, broad and deep knowledge of the core issues, best practices and hot buttons. It’s hard to imagine a prospective film producer generating the confidence necessary to launch a multi-million dollar movie project without some hands-on experience in the industry. A law firm is managed by its senior partners; the police chief starts as patrol cop. Experience and distinction are how we evaluate those who seek leadership, from the military to the operating room.

At a minimum, any prospective school leader ought to have:
• Well-grounded beliefs about the purpose of education
• An understanding of curriculum: selection and sequencing of important knowledge
• Familiarity with multiple instructional strategies and research supporting them
• Broad knowledge of education policy, and the implications and relative efficacy of current policy initiatives
• A commitment to equity and excellence for all children

What about the theory that excellent leadership skills are transferable? When it comes to Cathleen Black, the likely new Chancellor of New York City Schools,

As chairman of Hearst Magazines, Ms. Black oversaw 2,000 employees who produced over 200 editions of 14 magazines in 100 countries. The company's U.S. revenue fell 19% last year, to $1.8 billion... Supporters say Ms. Black's skills will be critical with budget cuts looming.

Evidently, a 19% drop in, umm, achievement data is not a problem, if you’re good at downsizing.

The foundation of reform is in place, and what's needed is someone who can complete it. Ms. Black is expected to bring a less confrontational style to the job than her predecessor, but some experts doubt that, given her dearth of experience, Ms. Black will challenge Mr. Klein's policies. "I will be very surprised if she turns out to be independent or concludes that some of the things Klein did were not so great," says Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

So--compliance and consistency matter more than knowledge and experience?

What’s on your short list of essential skills for school leaders?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.

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