Schools Are Special Places

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Are schools special places? Or are they just organizations that share most of the features and characteristics of all other organizations? I often ask teachers and administrators those questions. They begin by pointing out how schools are similar to other organizations. But as our conversation continues, their list of how schools are different begins to grow. Pretty soon most conclude that schools are indeed special places.

Let me give you an example. Recently I asked a group of teachers and administrators in Kansas City, Mo., to name familiar enterprises in their community. The Kansas City Royals, Hallmark Cards, Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, General Motors, the local mass-transit authority, two banks, a hospital, several churches, a synagogue, a local department store, two other businesses, the Polish-American Mutual Aid Society, the Y.M.C.A., a volunteer women's group, a neighborhood association, a civic group, several social clubs, and even the family were mentioned. I then asked each person, representing an enterprise they had selected, to get into a line by standing next to two others who represented similar enterprises. After some reshuffling, they were arranged in a predictable order. Toward the left end of the line were such organizations as Hallmark Cards, General Motors, the bank, and so on. Then a large gap appeared in the line. To the right side of this gap were the church, social clubs, the volunteer group, the mutual-aid association, the family, and other social enterprises. At the far left was General Motors and at the far right was the family.

We stood in that line for some time talking about the principles of leadership that were needed to make the organizations to the left of the gap in the line work effectively. But when we tried to apply these same principles to the enterprises that were to the right of the gap, they didn't seem to fit very well. It was hard to put our finger on just what were the leadership principles that seem to guide what went on in the enterprises to the right, but it was clear that they were different.

What we did, I think, was to discover a basic principle of leadership. The theories of management, organization, motivation, and control that make sense for some kinds of collectivities do not make sense for others. Good leadership for corporations and other organizations, it appears, may not be good leadership for churches, neighborhood associations, families, and other social enterprises. The key question is, "Where should schools be placed on this continuum?" Without hesitation, everyone in the Kansas City group agreed that schools belong somewhere on the right side of that gap in the line. Most parents, teachers, policymakers, and ordinary citizens, I believe, agree with them.

Schools should be treated as special cases because they serve as transitional places for children. They stand between the subjective and protective environment of the family, and the more objective and the more risky environment of the outside world. Relationships between educators and students are characterized as being in loco parentis. As this role is played out, teachers and administrators are brought together into a collective practice that resembles a shared stewardship. Schools are not only responsible for developing basic competence in students, and in passing on the culture. They are also responsible for teaching habits of the mind and habits of the heart. Everything that happens in the schoolhouse has moral overtones that are virtually unmatched by other institutions in our society.

Ideally, the in loco parentis role of teachers and administrators is not distant from actual parental roles, but nested within them. Students are best served when teachers, administrators, and parents act in concert--when their complementary roles represent more than a partnership but a mutually beneficial compact on behalf of students. Within this web of moral commitments and morally held reciprocal responsibilities, schools are best thought of as a kind of moral learning community that enjoys a place within our society very close to the family as a moral nurturing community. Both share affinities with churches that function as spiritual communities; youth clubs that function as friendship communities; and neighborhood associations that function as civic communities.

In practice, however, differences between schools and other institutions do not count. We now import our theories of leadership from the management disciplines that are anchored in our business schools, and we now import our leadership practices from corporations, baseball teams, armies, transportation systems, and other organizations. Imported theories and practices are accompanied by assumptions and beliefs that provide taken-for-granted models for how schools should be organized, how schedules should be arranged, how the curriculum should be developed and implemented, how teaching and learning should be understood, how students should be assessed, and how teachers should be supervised and evaluated.

Instead of importing, we need to develop our own theories and practices--theories and practices that emerge from and are central to what schools are like, what schools are trying to do, and who schools serve. This goal is important for both practical and moral reasons. Practically speaking, our imported theories of leadership are not working very well. Criticizing our theories is not the same as criticizing the people who are stuck with them. Most school leaders care, and try to do what is best for students. They are, however, under enormous pressure to change things for the better. In true North American fashion, these changes are expected to be implemented quickly. This quick-fix pressure leads many school leaders to look for easy answers that typically do not result in meaningful change.

Many school leaders, for example, look to the corporate "quality" movement for answers. Others link their fate to corporate versions of "visionary" leadership. Most worry about how to motivate teachers to perform better, and how to monitor and assess this performance in ways that enhance morale, and improve productivity. They learn how to use various leadership styles and techniques that are matched to the situations they face. Sometimes they put all these answers together by introducing something called the strategic-planning process. But all of these practices are bought or borrowed from places other than the schoolhouse, and very few of these practices have resulted in long-term solutions to our problems.

These practices fail, I suspect, for two reasons. First, they are based on ideas that separate the process of leadership from the substance of schooling. Unless leadership principles emerge from teaching and learning, and from the unique social and political contexts of schools, they invite the question "Where's the beef?!" Second, these practices are based on tertiary ideas. Take, for example, "visionary leadership" and "transformational leadership." The primary source for visionary leadership is the Bible and other sacred texts. Corporate versions of vision, however, are secondary sources that represent interpretations for the business contextinterpretations that change the original meaning of the term. When we borrow conceptions of vision from this secondary source, we engage in still a third reinterpretation to the school setting. It should not surprise anyone when the original intent gets lost.

Similarly, James McGregor Burns pointed out that transformational leadership involves purposes and visions that are socially useful, serve the common good, meet the needs of followers, and elevate both leaders and followers to higher moral levels. The essence of transformational leadership, in his view, is the cultivation of civic virtue, and the development of a polity that resembles a moral community. Corporate versions of transformational leadership, by contrast, emphasize inspiration, the rallying of people around slogans and mission statements, and the subsequent motivating of people to higher levels of organizational performance. The conversation about transformational leadership in schools would be quite different had we gone to primary rather than secondary sources for insights.

Why aren't our borrowed theories and our borrowed practices creating the promised miracles? Could it be that the law of proximity is at play? I think so. The law of proximity states: The more often we import ideas from afar, the less likely that over time they will make a difference. The law of proximity works in concert with the law of conservation of information. This law states: No matter how refined a model becomes, or no matter how effectively a model is translated into practice, it cannot enlarge the basic premises upon which it rests.

Perhaps the solution to this theoretical conundrum can be found in the law of effect which states: It is not likely that much progress will be made over time in improving schools unless we accept the reality that leadership for the schoolhouse should be different, and unless we begin to invent our own practice.

Vol. 14, Issue 33, Pages 35, 48

Published in Print: May 10, 1995, as Schools Are Special Places
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