Friday, June 1, 2012

Being a 21st School Leader Means Having the Courage to Question Reform

Author Alfie Kohn writes in his collection of essays entitled Feel Bad Education and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling,”
“All around us---including in the field of education of education---we meet people who have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things, people who, when they are handed foolish and destructive mandates, respond meekly by asking for guidance on how to put them into practice.”
I can’t help but wonder sometimes if public educational leaders are nothing more than lemmings when it comes to educational reforms. It’s as if some kind of unspoken rule in education is that you practice the doctrine of “Don’t question the mandate!” We have politicians, fresh from standing on top their soapboxes, tossing educational mandates our direction at the speed of light, and it seems, at least to me, few have the guts to really ask the tough questions about whether these measures will really be good for education and for our students.

Is courage somehow sucked out of those aspiring to be school leaders when they pass through these school administrator training programs? If ever there was a need for leadership and a willingness to stand up to policymakers wielding reforms, now is that time.

We have politicians across the United States pushing reforms that are detrimental to public education, and instead of asking tough questions about the rightness of these reforms, school leaders fall all over themselves trying to find ways to enact what ultimately is tired, bad education policy. Example One---the Common Core Standards. The Obama Administration shoves a set of standards down the throats of 40 plus states, and instead of looking critically at those standards, school leaders accept them, and immediately jump to implementation. No administrator I know has asked tough questions like: Why do we need an nationally standardized curriculum? Is it so that we can test our kids to see what they learn or so we can compare, and the state with the highest test scores can brag? Why these standards and not others? Instead, the question I hear most often from school leaders is: How do we implement those standards. It’s almost as if administrators feel the need to blindly accept this latest “reform” that made its way down from Washington. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s the federal or state capital that these reforms come from. Educational leaders move immediately to implementation.

School leaders in this country are in big part responsible for these endless pendulum swings we take in education, simply because there’s a total lack of courage and unwillingness to ask tough questions about the latest reform our politicians are peddling.
Here’s a proposal I would make to those seeking to be 21st century school leaders. Consider the following when that next “reform” flows down from the powers that be.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And ask the tough ones. If our education system is every going to be sound, and if reform is going to truly happen, there has to be willingness to shine the light of reason on what is being proposed.
  • If policymakers get uncomfortable with the questions we ask, then we need to keep asking. Courage means being willing to ask the tough questions, and sometimes, that’s going to make people uncomfortable. But, ultimately, they should defend their ideas with reason, not with intimidation.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being a skeptic. We need to demand answers to our questions about new education policy. Of course, those who create this policy don’t have to answer, but there is satisfaction in knowing that we’ve been willing to ask the tough questions.
Educational leaders, I think, have lost their capacity to be outraged at the foolish reform ideas being proposed in our nation’s capital and in state capitals around the country. Asking tough questions is not a sign of insubordination. It is a sign of courage, and as leader I hope I never take such questions asked of me in that way.

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