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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

Why Aren’t More School Leaders Fighting Against Ed Reform?

By Peter DeWitt — June 11, 2013 5 min read
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On Saturday, I attended the Education Rally sponsored by the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) in Albany, NY. Thousands of educators protested against high stakes testing in the Empire State Plaza. Many speakers, from union leaders to teachers, one principal and a very well-spoken and inspiring student named Nhikil Goyal spoke about the harmful effects of standardized testing (Speech).

There have been many times lately when I have written about the numerous issues facing New York State education but we all know that these are issues facing public education around the country, even in other parts of the world. Scott, an educator from Australia contacted me yesterday saying, “We look to be changing government this year to a group who will pursue exactly the kind of “reform” you are fighting right now so it’s really important to see how things transpire, the strategies and dialogs which have impact.”

I was able to spend some quality time with staff from my district but most of my time was spent with principals from downstate. One was from the Hudson Valley but most were from Long Island.

Long Island has a very vocal group of principals that I find very inspiring. Two of them, Carol Burris and Sean Feeney created the N.Y. Principal letter which has been signed by thousands of educators. As we looked around we saw some school leaders spending time with their staff, but not enough leaders showed up.

• Are they apathetic?

• Do they just want to go about their normal business and be left alone?

• Do they like all of the educational reform?

In conversations with teachers at the rally, some expressed sadness that their administrators would not let them hand out fliers to colleagues about the event. Some went so far as to say that their administrators would not let them talk about it, so they were not able to acquire buses to transport students, staff and parents. The truth is that many school leaders are just as scared to speak out as teachers are. Some are untenured and others lack support from above.

As much as it’s important for a teacher to have a supportive administrator so they can take risks in the classroom, it’s just as important for a school building leader to have a supportive school district leader so they can take risks as well. The problem is that if leaders really do think that some of this educational reform is bad and they aren’t saying anything, then they’re not really leading to their full potential.

Do You Like the Reform?
During a recent administrator’s event I attended a principal gave a speech saying “he wasn’t sure which side of the reform movement he is on.” I like hearing alternative voices. We should all listen to the other side of an argument because it helps us get a fuller picture. The other side allows us to understand whether our argument is right. After all, everyone is entitled to their opinions. He didn’t give much input into why he lacks an opinion about the most important issue facing education. Perhaps it’s too early for him to shape one.

Truth be told, I love observing my teachers and having professional conversations about how they can improve in the classroom and I can improve in my role as a building leader. However, I didn’t need point scales and increased accountability measures to make that happen. As school administrators our job is to always strive for continuous improvement.

Other leaders though are looking at educational reform in a whole new way. They are using it all to work to their advantage. Educational reform and insecure leaders are a frightening match. They check planbooks, keep control over their staff and look to test scores as a way to discipline teachers. They get tied up in the numbers and think that numbers tell the whole story. I don’t agree with that, and although I think numbers can be important, they are not the most important element in improving practice.

Some optimistic leaders are trying to be positive. They are following the letter of the law and hoping that this will all lead to a better educational system. They buy into the fact that public education needs to change, and although their school may have always done a great job, they are sure that this will create an equal playing field. Unfortunately, it won’t.

Stand Up, Be a Leader
If after the past few years, leaders have seen that we are on a race to nowhere and these changes have not helped, they need to stand up...no matter how hard it may be. We can no longer complain behind closed doors and do nothing out in the open.

Being a leader means that you may have to stand up, even if you think you may be standing alone. What you will notice when you do is that there are many others who are standing as well. There are times that I feel I may be the only one in my area that is vocal but then I end up at a rally, spending time with some principal colleagues from downstate who inspire me to keep going.

As a writer and outspoken opponent to high stakes testing, I hear from many leaders and educators privately. They are unclear on what to do next. For them, and you, I suggest the following:

Social networking - Twitter and Facebook are great places to connect with other educators. Find colleagues on Twitter. There are so many out there. Look for the SOS (Save our Schools) symbol. In addition, look for groups on Facebook that will help stretch your thinking and provide you with a venue to share your voice more privately.
Think globally...act locally - If you are brave, reach out to newspapers or local television. Media is always looking for someone who will stand up. Join local education groups.
Write a Principal Letter - Create a letter like the NY Principals in your own state and sign the one written by Carol Burris and Sean Feeney.
Blog - Use your voice and join the blogging world. Blogging helps bring the collective voice of parents, students, teachers and principals together. If you do not want to write a blog, at least share them on social networking.
Rally - encourage your teacher and administrator unions to work together and have a rally in your state. Rallies are important because they bring together all stakeholders and let people see they are not alone. Just keep in mind that as important as the rally may be, what you do next is just as important.
Politicians - Not all politicians are bad. Many are not happy about how the reform movement has turned out. They listened to their lobbyists at the beginning and thought all the changes would be good. Now they are hearing from their constituents and know that there needs to be a change. Contact your representatives. Nothing will change without the help of politicians.
Be Informed - Know what you are fighting for. If we, as educators, say no to all the changes it will just seem as though we don’t want to change. What parents feel bad because there is an implementation dip and what parts are just...bad? My arguments begin against high stakes testing (we get nothing from it, they are abusively long, and it’s done in secrecy) and how it is tied to teacher AND administrator evaluation.

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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.