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Insight from Machiavelli

By LeaderTalk Contributor — March 30, 2009 2 min read

A great passage from The Prince by Machiavelli reminded me how difficult our work is with the current economy and demands for improved performance of public school systems.

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents - who have the laws on their side - and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

Recently, I attended a meeting near Los Angeles and read several articles about the impact of budget cuts on teacher positions in LA Unified. Also, on the east coast, Charlotte Mecklenberg is dealing with the same issues. In both papers on both coasts, the debate is heating up about teacher layoffs. Should school systems layoff teachers based on contracts which always favor those with tenure and longevity in a school system or should school systems layoff teachers who are not producing value as measured by increases in student learning? What has enabled this debate to take place is the advance of sophisticated software systems that are able to measure value add for individual classrooms. Also, the actual impact of the economic conditions we find ourselves in has led to the conversation in the first place. Finally, from the federal level we have the President basically saying that we should not tolerate poor performance by teachers.

Another part of the debate is class size and the perceived impact on student learning. While most research does not show that lowering class size has a significant impact on improving student learning, politicians, parents, and teachers will never give this sacred cow up. Even though the research is clear that the quality of instruction plays a larger role in impacting student learning than lower class size, we will not see politicians or school superintendents raise class size!!!

What an interesting time to be in education and to be a leader. Truly, the critical skill for leaders in education is change management!!! The question for those who develop leaders is this - are we developing the skills needed in change management in the preparation and coaching programs that help leaders be successful?

Terry Holliday

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk 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.