When Tough, Unpopular Decisions Are Best for Kids

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?

8 Replies to “When Tough, Unpopular Decisions Are Best for Kids”

  1. So your data will tell how Broad graduates IMPROVED student performance in Detroit and Kansas City? I can’t wait to hear the results produced by John Q. Porter in Oklahoma City.

  2. In one story, administrators are the villains and in another, eliminating the principal protection employees have from capricious administrator behavior is applauded. What are we supposed to get from this?

    The only take-away I find is the standard conservative ed reform cant, “All players are corrupt. We must get rid of them.” It certainly works for Glen Beck’s viewers.

    The largest, sickest school districts have more employees than many Fortune 500 companies and many times the number of clients. Is there a reason we should look to Fortune 500 companies for solutions? If it’s Chainsaw Al, it won’t look good in the end.

    Joel Klein is not looking good at all right now. Closing and reconstituting schools has proven effective when low performing students are moved to other schools.

    The strategy I see written above is, “Feed your cohorts, starve your enemies. Win the field, then figure out what to do.”

  3. Yes, tough decisions and courage are needed to improve education for all children. Let’s just take one factor: effective teachers for our most challenging schools.

    First we need to identify the problem. As I see it, we have had a great deal of difficulty, until the recent recession, in attracting and retaining teachers for low-income schools in “inner-cities.” When I was first hired for a postion in a very low-income school in Cleveland in 1964, the district was desperate for “warm bodies.” Almost anyone could have a teaching job in one of these schools. Credentials and experience were not required. Once this recession is over, and baby boomer women are in many professions, I predict we’ll once again find ourselves experiencing a huge teacher shortage.

    Throughout my career it remained fairly difficult to recruit and retain teachers for challenging schools. As late as the 1990s individuals were given “emergency” credentials to teach in low-income schools in my state. Of course the affluent suburbs did not hire these people. Inexperienced teachers right out of college are still being placed almost exclusively in schools with the neediest students.

    At this time of teacher-bashing, very few of our top college students are preparing for teaching careers. Some are offering to teach for a few years until they get something better, but that’s about it.

    The only obvious solution to this problem is to find a way to make K-12 teaching an attractive career for talented and motivated students. This will take courage because you’d have to go against the recession-induced “bash-the-teacher” fad that’s all the rage right now. Here are my ideas for attracting the “best and the brightest” to the profession:

    Make k-12 teaching a full profession, similar to college teaching. Teachers need to have the same ability as other professionals to make decisions regarding curriculum, instruction, entry into the profession, peer review and promotions, etc. Intelligent and well-educated people want to be decison-makers.

    Improve salaries, working conditions, and benefits for teachers, espcially those entering the most challenging areas.

    Institute a career ladder for teachers (instructor, assistant teacher, associate teacher, teacher, mentor teacher etc.). Teachers need to be able to advance without leaving the classroom.

    Encourge leaders to model gratitude and respect for teachers. Nothing will hurt children more than the current teacher-bashing because it will discourage talented people from entering the profession.

    You are right. The blame game is never productive. In order to go from popular (teacher-bashing) to effective (able to hire and retain talented people) we need to do what we know works. We know how to improve the workforce in any profession (salaries, benefits, working conditions etc.). It’s time to apply what we know to the teaching profession. We can do better.

  4. Linda: Great comment, as usual! You hit on a salient point in the “blame the teachers” game: Unless teaching in low-income schools is attractive to today’s generation of teachers, kicking out the current teachers isn’t going to help much — because there won’t be new ones willing to take their places. However, I still believe that the focus of education reformers on “effective” or “ineffective” teachers is misplaced: Teachers are just one part of the K-12 education system; Good schools aren’t going to exist without supportive administrators, effective school discipline policies, involved parents and students who understand the value of an education. It takes a village to educate a child.

  5. Thanks, Attorney DC. Of course you are right; it DOES take a village to educate a child, and everyone knows it too. The “reformer” might demand “no excuses” and “an effective teacher” for the poor kid in the city; but for his own child he requires medical and dental care, lots of books, bedtime reading, effective teachers, summer camp, summer science workshops, soccer, and lots of “stuff” to satisfy and develop Junior’s personal interests (computers, piano lessons, telescopes, a trip to DC, etc, etc.).

    No, we can’t replace the family, but with a spirit of generosity we can surely provide some of those necessities (and maybe even some “frills”) for those who have so little. The last thing these children need is test prep, drill, and a demoralized and humiliated teacher.

    Well, what else is new? The poor kids always get the shaft.

  6. Linda: Keep up the good comments… Maybe when enough of us speak out, the powers-that-be will starting listening!

  7. In answer to the question posed at the end of the guest blog: data, data, data.

    Make ALL decisions regarding leadership choices based on data. Use current research results (based on solid statistical analysis) to make decisions regarding the curriculum, teacher effectiveness, and student achievement. Aim for a GLOBAL standard in student achievement, not just a local standard. It’s horrifying to find out what low expectations some communities have for their children.

    Parents can be swayed by PROVEN methods of improving schools. Why should each new principal or superintendent try to reinvent the wheel? There are successful models of school reform in every state — just ask Bill Daggett. Choose the method that best fits your community, get all the parents, teachers, and community leaders together, and make your pitch. No one wants to have a failing school, but, as Arne Duncan says, we have to stop lying to our children and their parents. Parents (and most teachers) think their schools are pretty good or, at least, adequate. They need to know what a good or GREAT school looks like before they’ll understand that their school doesn’t make the cut.

    Slavery was popular. Separate schools for blacks and whites were popular. Busing students to non-neighborhood schools was popular. Creationism is popular. And none of them are right or effective.

  8. Pittsburgh scores have declined. Roosevelt has no idea what he is doing, and we will be another district with mass firings next year.

    He has Carte Blanche.

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