Where have all the heroes gone . . . long time passing? Where are they – John Deasy, Cami Anderson, Michelle Rhee, Chris Barbic, Hanna Skandera, Joshua Star, Dwight Jones and others – the leaders in education who were willing to make the tough decisions few others are prepared to make; who were willing to take bold action to transform failing systems and were willing to pay the political, physical, or personal costs in the attempt?
Detractors and those who are not actually in the arena could certainly point to specific mistakes or failures of these reform-era leaders, but the good they did for students is immeasurable. More important, they gave us examples of the courage it takes to truly put children first.
Alas, there are fewer and fewer examples of truly courageous leaders in the education profession at a time when we need it most – when we need to break from the status quo and take bold steps to create a new education system.
O.K., maybe the “super leader” strategy was never going to work and is not a sustainable strategy for districts. But some level of courageous leadership is needed during any period of great change or challenge. So, let’s talk about the “normal” courage every school or district leader should have. I’m talking about the courage to put children first or for leaders to simply walk their talk. For example, our profession is rightly focused on equity right now, and there have been lots of committees convened and numerous “equity coordinator” positions created. At the same time, very few districts have undertaken the most important step to help our underserved students receive an equitable education: provide them with the most effective teachers.
And the profession is now scrambling to address learning lost during COVID and superintendents are talking about raising expectations – but few want to tackle an evaluation system that allows unsatisfactory teachers to remain in the profession. Fewer want to touch the third rail of the salary schedule and truly reward more effective teachers. No, maybe even “normal” courage is waning.
I hope this blog is not hitting too close to home, but I suspect many of you have other examples of our collective failure to do the right thing or at least challenge prevailing bad practices, much less lead systemic changes. And there are undoubtedly some readers who want to provide several reasons why they are powerless to change things. My kneejerk and slightly immature response to these hypothetical leaders would be to mimic Yondu talking to the excuse-making Broker in Guardians of the Galaxy: “Ah bili bo belu bilu bu.” But I believe school and district leaders are trying to do the best they can and actually have several good arguments; so let me just say, “I understand, it’s the system stupid.”
,A new education system has to be created in a way that doesn’t ask too much of leaders, that doesn’t ask them to possibly derail their careers in order to make bold changes that would benefit the students. One day we will have a system that incentivizes innovation and courageous leadership. In the meantime, let’s all support and applaud those leaders who at least make some effort to truly put children first.
Our current education system makes it incredibly difficult for educators to lead with courage. First, bold action is not rewarded. Bold action almost always is attended by controversy – some interest group is going to feel threatened or start yelling and screaming on social media. Bold action by definition means changing the status quo and some will simply resist change. Bold action carries some risk of failure leading many who are risk-adverse to balk. School boards, teachers unions, politicians, search firms, and local business people often advise new leaders to avoid coloring outside the lines. Indeed, the best way to get promoted to the next level position in education is to keep controversy of any sort to a minimum and to try not to anger any adult group.
“Where have all your heroes gone, Mr. Miles? Well, they didn’t last very long . . . precisely because they tried bold reform . . . they had the courage of Sisyphus – idiots. Oh, and Mike, that scene in the Avengers: End Game when Captain America stands alone against Thanos – well, that wouldn’t happen in real life . . . idiot.”
No, it wouldn’t. Maybe because most of society does not understand the stakes. Hence there is little outrage about the enduring achievement gap for black and brown children. The growing voices warning that the system is broken and that students are not being prepared for a Year 2035 world and workplace more often than not gets a shrug from our collective shoulders and a “we’re doing the best we can . . . what do you want from us?”
A new education system has to be created in a way that doesn’t ask too much of leaders, that doesn’t ask them to possibly derail their careers in order to make bold changes that would benefit the students. One day we will have a system that incentivizes innovation and courageous leadership. In the meantime, let’s all support and applaud those leaders who at least make some effort to truly put children first.