Tag Archives: Leadership

What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Progress Not Perfection: Overcoming Your Hesitation to Talk about Race and Equity at Work

The Shaman by Pedro Paricio via Halcyon Gallery

Is it a prerequisite that you feel fluent in the language of race, inclusion, and equity before tackling such issues in your organization?

This is a question I’ve been working through myself. Acting to resolve a sensitive issue we may be met with silence, confusion, denial, or resistance. If not communicated tactfully, we might unintentionally offend colleagues. In the worst case scenario, we might encounter marginalization, reprimand, or even termination. Scary stuff. So, initially, my intuition said that we should get good at talking about sensitive topics before launching into action to avoid complicating an already complex situation. Reaching a level of conversational proficiency where we feel confident to handle any situation before intervening in an equity issue seemed like a logical pursuit.

More recently, I’ve come to think that this is a recipe for delay, paralysis, and, ultimately, the perpetuation of the status quo. Waiting for everyone to reach proficiency won’t work because everyone’s starting from a different place. More importantly, as a sector and as leaders, we’re late to the game on this and it’s time to report for duty.

As an education leader, you have two roles: lead and provide space and support for others to grow. The same is true when making equity part of your daily dialogue. It’s important to acknowledge that people all have different levels of comfort and sophistication with discussions about race and equity. For instance, when we talk about race, there are often stark differences between people of color and whites. Continue reading

The Definitive Ranking of 2016 Candidates… by Charter Performance

Note: Several candidates are missing from this chart. The states represented by Rand Paul (KY) and Bernie Sanders (VT) do not currently have charter laws. The states represented by Martin O’Malley (MD), Lindsey Graham (SC), Jim Gilmore (VA), Jim Webb (VA), and Scott Walker (WI) were not included in the 2013 CREDO study.

Charter schools are growing. The number of charter students has grown from 1.2 million to 2.9 million in less than a decade. Within two decades, a third of public education’s students – or more – could be educated in charter schools. That’s why the next president’s perspective and record on charters matters.  But what can we tell about the candidates based on how their states do with charter schooling?

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Do You Have Opposability and Cross-class Expertise?

In yesterday’s New York Times op-ed, “Skills in Flux,” David Brooks shares some examples of seven new skills that are valued in today’s highly-networked, multicultural, and data-rich world. He writes: “As the economy changes, the skills required to thrive in it change, too, and it takes a while before these new skills are defined and acknowledged.”

More to come on what this means for the education sector, but for now I want to dig into two skills that Brooks mentions that are particularly valuable for education leaders.

The first is opposability – the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind while still retaining the ability to function (a la F. Scott Fitzgerald).

The education sector is wrought with polemic arguments that present policy solutions as mutually exclusive, but behind those arguments is intimidating complexity and startling nuance that exposes the vast gray area where most issues reside. For instance, high-quality, competency-based instruction is not incompatible with annual tests and accountability measures, yet I don’t often see education leaders and policymakers employing the mental opposability that could reconcile these ideas into powerful policy and practice.

The second is cross-class expertise – the ability to operate in an insular social niche while seeing it from the vantage point of an outsider.

Brooks’ idea of cross-class expertise as a professional skill is particularly germane to urban education where teachers, principals, and system leaders are disproportionately white, well-educated, and affluent compared to the constituencies that they serve. I interpret this skill as a kind of actionable self-awareness specific to race and class which is related to one of my recent posts on the necessity of education leaders being able to discuss issues of race, class, and inequity,

In a conversation with my colleague Saamra Mekuria-Grillo, at the Pahara Institute, we broke down  cross-class expertise into two kinds: native and learned. Native cross-class expertise is a skill acquired by mixed-race, bi-cultural, or mixed-class people or those who operate in highly diverse environments for extended lengths of time – much like how being  immersed in a digital culture results in digital natives. Learned cross-class expertise pertains to people who operate in a racially or culturally homogeneous environment but proactively gain exposure to new cultures, perspectives, and experiences to inform their work and personal development.

Should the education sector learn to value opposability we’d move closer to public debate that’s more civil, productive, and nuanced. And more cross-class experts could help reconcile the urgency to close achievement gaps with reforms that include the communities where they exist.

Let’s Talk About Race: An Uncomfortable Necessity for Education Leaders

Dialogue by Pedro Paricio

Dialogue by Pedro Paricio via Halcyon Gallery

When I’m in a professional setting and I see a conversation about race materializing, my heart beats faster and I become acutely tuned into the room’s social dynamics. My whiteness is top of mind. I interrogate my observations and comments before sharing them. I load my statements and questions with qualifiers the way you might pack a fragile vase to be shipped cross-country by freight.

And I shipped truckloads of freight on Tuesday night.

Education Pioneers (EP) hosted an alumni event called Black Lives Matter to the Education Community, where I joined about 20 education leaders representing EP’s diverse network to reflect independently and engage in small- and large-group “courageous conversations about race” prompted by the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

It’s my understanding that the event was first-come-first-served, so the demographics were largely a function of chance. Even so, the room was fairly racially diverse, although there were fewer black attendees than I would have expected considering the topic.

The Education Pioneers’ program team is full of expert facilitators so it wasn’t surprising to see a thoughtful agenda that began with introductions and brief check-ins on everyone’s feelings and expectations for the evening. “Eager,” “vulnerable,” “nervous,” and “open” were common sentiments.

But even with the best facilitation and when everyone’s part of a trusted and familiar professional network, there’s always a fair bit of hesitation to dive into a discussion about race with semi-strangers. Raising issues about race in a professional setting can be fraught with risks including personal discomfort, poorly received messages, and marginalization. As a result, public dialogue tends to be academic in nature and disassociated from lived experiences and feelings. In general, this was the tenor of the conversation on Tuesday too, but there were moments when people left their comfort zone to share their perspectives. In those moments, the room seemed quieter and participants were more reverent, sensing that something uncommon was happening.

“How incredible would it be,” I thought, “if these moments were the rule instead of the exception.”

I’ve recently vowed to be more proactive and vocal around issues of race and class in my work and am always looking for patterns, barriers, and opportunities to improve myself, my colleagues, Bellwether, and our clients. So here are my three big takeaways from the night:

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