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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

We Need Great Leaders Now More Than Ever

By Peter DeWitt — November 26, 2013 3 min read
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The other day New York State PTA Education Coordinator Bob Aloise gave a speech on the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) and state testing. Giving a speech is not in itself anything special, but stating that school districts may call Child Protective Services (CPS) on parents who opt their children out of state testing due to educational neglect is a rather poignant moment. You can hear his comment here and view the Power Point here (added 11/27/13).

Words cannot express all that is wrong with the idea that a school leader would threaten to call CPS on a parent who opts their child out of state testing, and that it would even be brought up in a speech to parents at a PTA event. Over the 19 years I have been in education, I have seen CPS visit students who were being neglected, sexually and physically abused, or living in deplorable conditions. CPS has more important work to do then maintain Martial Law on parents who opt their children out of testing. Unfortunately, there have been situations where principals have threatened to call CPS on parents who choose to opt out their children out of testing.

In an e-mail correspondence from April of 2012, a principal from Oceanside Union Free School District told a parent who wanted to keep her child home during the testing period that,

If without medical justification, Joseph is absent from school on any day during the Assessment period, the District will deem this absence as unexcused. Further, if you keep Joseph home from school during the Assessment period, without medical verification, it is within the District's discretion to deem these absences as indicia of educational neglect, which would leave the District little choice but to contact Child Protective Services ("CPS")."

We have indeed lost common sense when it comes to education if school leaders threaten to call CPS.

We Need Open-minded Leadership

During these times of accountability, we need open-minded leadership. Not one that threatens staff and parents, but leadership that can help build relationships and encourages teachers to have creativity by not micro-managing everything they do. Teachers who are given autonomy will be more likely to give autonomy to their students.

Unfortunately, with the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards some states have created strict curriculum which means there is less autonomy in the classroom. It’s not always the standards that is bad, but what the adults do with the standard that becomes a problem. Times of accountability have brought about more rule following and less risk-taking. Education should be uncomfortable and messy, and it should always lead to debate.

Educators should be passionate enough about their craft that they want to debate what is good and what is bad. It’s pathetic that school leaders shy away from debate in order to just move forward to follow rules. Debate is healthy, inspiring, and can lead to stronger practices.

As we know, however, rule following and compliance are byproducts of the accountability movement and it is spreading to the point that parents are being told school leaders may call CPS on any parent who wants to opt their child out of testing. There is no coincidence why this message was given during a school year that has the potential to have the greatest number of opt outs.

We Need Multipliers

Liz Wiseman, the co-author of The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools wrote about diminishers and multipliers. Diminishers are leaders who diminish the gifts of those around them and spread fear among their staff. Wiseman also focused on a much more positive influence, and those are leaders who are multipliers. In her guest blog for Finding Common Ground Liz wrote,

On the other side of the spectrum are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go on; ideas flow and problems get solved. These are the leaders who inspire teachers and administrators to stretch themselves and surpass expectations. These leaders use their smarts to make everyone around them smarter and more capable. These leaders are "multipliers."

Unfortunately, leaders like those who only spread fear instead of building relationships have a far more devastating effect on their schools. Liz went on to write,

Despite their cost and their often-toxic effect on school culture, why do many of these diminishing leaders remain in positions of importance? Is it because they often do a good job managing up to the superintendent and school board? Or is it because staff and teachers working for Diminishers operate in fear, retreat to a safe place, and learn to tread lightly hoping that "this too shall pass?" Or is it because they create a flurry of determined activity around them and, in absence of clear answers for our most difficult challenges in education, even the pretense of progress can be comforting?"

In the End

Now more than ever, we need great leaders. From the state level to the district and building level we need leaders who can differentiate between what is a positive change and what has negative consequences for teachers and students. If the best method leaders can find to get compliance is threaten calls to CPS, then they are doing nothing to move education forward. They are merely creating a culture of fear. Education deserves better than that.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.