School & District Management Opinion

Ed Leadership Should Go Beyond ‘Comply or Defy’

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 12, 2016 6 min read
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We welcome guest blogger Julie Gorlewski. A public school teacher and faculty member in teacher education and educational leadership, Julie is currently associate professor of secondary education at SUNY New Paltz. In July, she will join the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she will be Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning.

Leading, like teaching and learning, is a multidimensional, highly relational endeavor. In a culture that emphasizes technical efficiencies over relational values, the principles that ground educational leadership can become compromised. This corruption of ideals can be traced to conflicts inherent in our roles, as public educators and leaders are asked to enact contradictory purposes. We are agents of the state whose salaries are paid by public funds; and we are agents of change, expected to work to transform society to become more equitable and just. We are accountable to today’s society, and we owe an even greater allegiance to the imagined society that will be constructed by the young people we teach. Despite the challenges, we owe it to future generations to reclaim the principles of our practice.

Leaders or Managers
Educational leaders function in intersections of policy and practice where we are frequently asked to implement policies that require us to disavow professional knowledge (Taubman, 2012), privileging technical calculations over human development. As Dieter-Meyer (2016) argues, global accountability regimes can narrow and distort educational objectives related to equity, excellence, and democratic principles. Informed educational leaders recognize the dangers, both global and local, of credulous adherence to oppressive directives. However, leaders must also be cognizant of the possibilities and limitations of our own influence. We are called upon to be public intellectuals, and yet are disregarded in terms of policy development. In the contemporary reform era, educational leaders are in danger of being reduced to middle managers, charged to implement top down initiatives rather than lead communities of practice. This trend is alarming. When educational leaders are relegated to middle managers, morale suffers, relationships deteriorate, and the moral purposes of our field disintegrate into outcomes based on dubious test scores. Educators are urged to refuse, to resist, and to opt out of flawed policies, yet resources are often tied to problematic regulations. Leaders are faced with a grim choice: opt out and lose funding, accreditation, and maybe even my job; or opt in and sacrifice my professional principles.

A False Dichotomy
This perspective of decision making creates paralysis and a sense of futility, but I believe that it represents a false dichotomy. In reality, the possibilities for meaningful, ethical leadership are greater than the alternatives of comply or defy. The hazards of unquestioning obedience are obvious and educators who adopt such a stance are rare. However, although I admire and respect activists who have jeopardized their careers to further the movement toward educational liberation, I worry about who might take our place should we choose mass abdication. Reformers might recruit uncertified candidates and replace lifelong educators with temporary teachers who lack deep understanding of social foundations. Beyond the personal concerns related to the loss of income, the absence of practicing teachers with an activist stance could further weaken the profession thus worsening the experiences of young learners. In sum, conditions facing educators today are challenging, requiring critical reflection based on the needs of learners. Confronted by policies that do not align with the needs of learners, educators can comply, disavowing their professional knowledge, or resist, jeopardizing their careers and the credentials of their students. While the latter possibility promises progress, neither option presents immediate benefits for leaders, teachers, or learners. I suggest that an alternative, a standpoint that recognizes the conflicting roles of educators and offers potential to develop critical reflection. This alternative draws on the work of Maxine Greene, who reminded us that “Teachers who are consciously and reflectively choosing themselves as participants in school renewal are being challenged to clarify their beliefs and (more and more often) to defend their practices” (1997, n.p.).

A Viable Alternative
Educational leaders who choose to act as participants in school renewal and transformation allow for the emergence of a more complicated perspective, one that involves a dual approach that I call critical compliance and reflective resistance (Gorlewski, 2015). This dual stance enables educators to comply without passivity, and to resist without rejecting possibilities for transformation. For example, an educator enacting critical compliance might choose to participate in mandated testing because to refuse would result in the school closing, or students’ being denied diplomas. However, such compliance need not be silent or solitary. Acquiescence to a mandate can be accompanied by public pedagogy involving faculty, students, parents, and community members. Furthermore, assent is not infinite; it can be a temporary agreement to fulfill requirements with an understanding that the work is occurring under thoughtful, professional protest. Such protest might even involve research, data collection and analysis that reveals concerns in a systematic, credible manner. On the other hand, educational leaders might choose a path of reflective resistance when conditions warrant. If students will be harmed, if community concern is reaching critical mass, and if reflection indicates that the costs of resistance are mitigated by its advantages, then the choice can be supported as informed and principled.

An important strength of this dual approach is that it embraces the complex context in which education occurs. Teachers and leaders make decisions every day, and this dual perspective allows every decision to get thoughtful consideration. It also emphasizes the possibilities of collectivity among all members of the learning community. To invoke novelist Hanya Yanagihara (2015), educators should be “united by their aspirations instead of divided by their daily realities.” In addition, this approach is particularly suitable for educators, who must toggle between conformity and subversion frequently as they engage with students, community members, and curriculum. The dual paths provide a way for both radicals and conservatives to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about the purposes and consequences of public education. Finally, the twin notions of critical compliance and reflective resistance offer a meaningful invitation for teachers to grow and share their knowledge in ways that can influence policy and ultimately benefit learners.

Works Cited
Dieter-Meyer, H. “The OECD as Pivot of the Emerging Global Educational Accountability Regime: How Accountable are the Accountants?” Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 9, 2014, p. 1-20 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17543, Date Accessed: 4/14/2016 10:24:25 AM

Gorlewski, Julie. “Accountable to Whom? Normalizing Culturally Sustainable Assessment.” American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL. 2015. Paper presentation.

Greene, M. “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times,” Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice 1, no. 1 (Spring 1997), article 2, www.lesley.edu/ journals/jppp/1/jp3ii1.html.

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life: A Novel. , 2015. Print.

Taubman, P.M. (2012). Disavowed Knowledge: Psychoanalysis, Education, and Teaching. New York: Routledge.

Julie Gorlewski is also coeditor of the National Council of Teachers of English publication English Journal, and her research focuses on the intersections of culture, policy, and schooling.

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