Guest post courtesy of Becca Bracy Knight, Executive Director, The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems
When was the last time you spoke to a student about his or her experiences at school? I don’t think anyone working in education reform can have these conversations often enough. I was fortunate to hear from a group of high school students last week at one of The Broad Center’s professional development sessions.
To help make our discussions about the current state of education a little more real, we invited a group of students and teachers from local schools to talk about their views on education today. It was a powerful, stark reminder that our young people are amazingly resilient, but also keenly aware that we as adults are, in general, letting them down.
One high school student had this to say about the current budget crisis in her local school district: “I don’t understand why we have to suffer because adults don’t know how to manage their money. It’s not right. If we are the country’s future, you are cutting off the tree at the root.”
She’s right. Miles away from the classroom, central office leaders, although well intentioned, haven’t always been part of the solution.
The blame game in education is never productive. Problem-solving is. There is simply a great deal more that central office leaders can do to better manage dollars and strategically align resources to best serve teachers and students.
Of course, outstanding leaders and managers in central offices aren’t the only thing needed to transform education, but as this student points out, we can’t get there without them.
Although they are often tasked with leading organizations the size of Fortune 500 companies, too many school district superintendents lack the critical management experience needed to effectively lead thousands of employees, oversee million- or billion-dollar budgets, and navigate complex labor and political environments. And they often shy away from making tough, unpopular decisions that are best for kids.
However, today, in a growing number of school districts, leaders are going against the grain. Closing dozens of under-enrolled and failing schools. Firing hundreds of low-performing teachers. Abolishing teacher tenure. Leaders like Joel Klein in New York City and Michelle Rhee in DC stand out for having taken dramatic action to make smart, strategic use of dwindling taxpayer dollars to better educate students.
We are proud that among such leaders are a growing number who have graduated from The Broad Superintendents Academy. [Note: Stay tuned, as we will soon release the first student achievement results under academy graduates’ leadership.]
For example, Robert Bobb, the former city manager and deputy mayor of DC, and now the emergency financial manager of Detroit Public Schools, which may be the lowest-performing urban school district in the country, has gone, in the words of Star Trek, where no man has gone before. He’s identified 250 phantom employees on the payroll, fired 685 administrators, closed 29 failing and under-enrolled schools and reduced expenses by $115 million. He has also recruited 5,400 volunteers to donate 633,000 hours to help kids read.
In Pittsburgh, Mark Roosevelt, former President Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson and a former Massachusetts legislator, has upgraded the district’s curriculum, closed 22 underperforming schools, reached an agreement to provide principals with raises based on increased student achievement rather than on tenure, and raised $100 million to send every Pittsburgh public school student to college.
And Superintendent John Covington in Kansas City, Missouri has proven that it’s possible for school boards and communities to back dramatic changes when they understand that the result will be a better use of existing resources for all students. In Kansas City, the public schools had long been half-empty, and the district faced potential bankruptcy, despite receiving $2 billion in recent years from a court-ordered desegregation plan. This year, Superintendent Covington recommended the closure of nearly half of the district’s 61 schools in order to reallocate existing resources to benefit children. He was fortunate to have the backing of the school board and community.
However, actions like these, which put children’s needs above those of adults, are more often met with criticism and controversy than with praise. Not everyone likes these leaders.
But as another student wisely told me last week, his best teachers were often the ones that he didn’t like, because they were tough and strict and made him work really hard. They didn’t try to be his friend. But by the end of the year he knew he had learned a lot – and that felt good.
So my question for Eduwonk readers is this: how can we change the standard for successful school district leadership from being popular to being effective?