I recently observed a daylong meeting with district administrators in a fairly large, affluent, suburban K-12 school district. The morning session was dedicated to unveiling the new district strategic plan, and the superintendent was almost giddy with excitement.
Copies of the plan (17 pages, if my memory serves me correctly), fresh off the press, were distributed to everyone, and the superintendent asked his administrators to take 20 minutes to read the document and highlight areas of brilliance. Really.
Although a team of administrators had served on the committee whose mandate it was to guide the development of this plan, the fingerprints of the superintendent were all over the document. It was beautifully written. It presented eloquent arguments in support of college readiness. It cautiously and safely explored current educational trends in ways that were difficult to argue with. As a philosophical treatise, it would have made a commendable semester project for a doctoral program.
After reading the plan, representatives from every table group were invited to stand and share what they considered to be the one most brilliant part of the document. What followed was a scene reminiscent of the children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Accolade after accolade flowed from the tables while a loyal scribe summarized each on an overhead projector, and it appeared that every table attempted to outdo the last with glowing compliments.
But something wasn’t quite right, and one maverick leader sought clarification from the superintendent.
“Exactly who is your intended audience?” he asked.
“Our most important audience? It’s teachers,” the superintendent replied.
“And what do you want teachers to do once they read this document?”
“Well, I want them to meet in groups and have rich conversations about these ideas, and to think about the implications these ideas may have for their current practices.”
It is unusual for teachers to willingly dedicate significant blocks of time to having ‘rich conversations’ about philosophically dense topics.
The superintendent’s intentions were commendable, but I knew where this maverick leader was coming from. I’ve been around this business for years and I understand teachers. I was one, and my wife is one. Teachers are practitioners. They are hard-working. They are smart. They are results-oriented. They are problem-solvers. And they are frantically overwhelmed by a system that demands accountability for the academic proficiency of every student. Given these demands, and because they are practitioners, it is unusual for teachers to willingly dedicate significant blocks of time to having “rich conversations” about philosophically dense topics. That’s just not today’s reality.
Afraid that any fleeting potential this document may have had to inspire excellence would be lost if it didn’t include at least one inspirational call to action, the maverick leader made the politically imprudent suggestion that an addendum be attached that urged teachers to solve at least one specific challenge that was based upon priorities identified in the report. After all, he argued, it’s the job of a superintendent to select the next districtwide challenge that needs to be confronted, and it’s largely the job of teachers (as the professionals who live closest to that challenge) to figure out how to solve it. Given proper leadership, that is what teachers do best.
To him, and to me, it all made perfect sense, but he soon found that he stood alone. All eyes turned to the front, and the superintendent made it immediately clear that no specific next steps would be identified. No challenges would be issued. No action would be required. The plan stood as written, and it would not be amended. It would serve as an open-ended resource, motivating teachers to have rich conversations for the next several years.
I’ve replayed that meeting over and over in my mind. Why was the superintendent so stubbornly adamant that teachers (and his principals) only think, when he could have insisted that they both think and act? Had he stumbled upon a particularly clever way to motivate excellence, or did fear cause him to squander an opportunity to boldly pursue greatness? I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect the latter. And if I am correct, what can we learn from his example that will help us never to be guilty of issuing our own call to no action?
This story took place in a district with a reputation for good student achievement. Its standing in the community is excellent, and the superintendent enjoys positive relationships with his board of education, community leaders, the teachers’ union, and the local newspaper. Considering the political rapids that threaten all superintendents, for him, these were the best of times.
I believe the superintendent feared compromising the comfortable coexistence he enjoyed with his constituencies. After all, with things going so well, why should he risk this current goodwill and political support by insisting that his administrators and teachers step outside their comfort zones, challenge status quo assumptions, and step up their game? For him, good enough was good enough.
But there’s more to this story than what one reads in complimentary editorials and glowing district communiqués. After peeling back a layer or two, one finds large numbers of students, especially children of color and those who experience the burdens of generational poverty, who are not academically successful. These children are almost invisible against a backdrop of organizational success, yet they continue to struggle year in and year out. These are children who never dream of college and who may eventually drop out of school, after what few dreams they did have are crushed. For these wonderful children, good enough is not good enough.
And therein lies the reason we administrators should never be guilty of issuing a call to no action. Our struggling, disenfranchised, often forgotten students don’t have another year, or two, or three to wait while we have rich conversations. They deserve courageous leaders who will stand tall today, challenging previously held beliefs and practices, and doing whatever needs to be done to make sure such children experience the same educational success as do their more affluent friends who live on the other side of town.
This can happen. It’s already happening in schools across America. And we can all make it happen in our schools or districts by boldly declaring our own Call to Action.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as A Call to No Action