Sunday, March 25, 2018

Educational Leadership, Business Management and Becoming Witch Doctors

Wooldridge (2011) describes four charges against the discipline of management that also have some truth to them when thinking about the discipline of educational leadership. 

First of all, like management, the discipline of educational leadership is currently often incapable of “self-criticism.” In its embrace of practicality and praxis, there is little room left to genuinely critique the discipline of educational leadership. Without any analytical or philosophical reflection, for example, there is little questioning of the marriage between the discipline of educational leadership and business management. It is automatically assumed that leading practices used in business can be directly imported into the practices leading schools. But to make this assumption ignores that these two organizations exist for different purposes and have different structural qualities. What’s worse, when one, like myself, engages in this criticism of the educational leadership discipline, words are construed to be blasphemous at worst, or simply irrelevant at best. Criticizing the ideas, practices, and tenets of educational leadership is seen as a taboo subject. The truth is, mature disciplines are engaged in self-criticism and reflection of any assumptions and practices.

Like management, educational leadership also likes to favors terminology that confuses rather than educates. In fact, education as discipline is guilty of this too. Just thumb through almost any of the latest educational leadership books and you’ll see a common list of jargonistic language that sometimes isn’t really about explaining anything. Words and phrases like “empowering teachers,” “including stakeholders,” “visionary,” “strategic plans,” and so on, are found in many of the educational leadership tomes, and what’s more, these books often say the same thing. The effect of this is that now, like business managers, educational leaders have placed themselves in a echo chamber where words and phrases reverberate back and forth, but in the end really mean little to being a human in the leadership role of a school or organization. Educational leadership, in using these words borrowed from business management, shows that perhaps it is incapable of inventing its own terminology, its own language, and becoming really its own discipline.

In addition, Wooldridge (2011) points out another quality of the educational leadership discipline procured from the management discipline: “neither of the disciplines rarely rise above the level of basic common sense.” In the educational leadership guru literature, much of what is discussed is just common sense to any one who finds themselves in charge of schools. For example, take the idea that people are important. How could anyone expect a school, whose purpose is to educate “people” to view people as irrelevant or not important? There’s no research needed here: it’s just common sense that the people—students, teachers, parents, and custodians—are important. Many of the books I have read that offer principals "10 things they can do improve their schools” are usually simply 10 common sense things anyone who rises to the position should already know.

Finally, like the management discipline, the discipline of educational administration, or leadership is “faddish, fickle, and bedeviled by contradictions that would not be allowed in the more rigorous disciplines” (Wooldridge, 2011, p. 12). Perhaps I am a bit unfair here. Education as a discipline itself is just as faddish and fickle as educational leadership. Both pilfer other disciplines constantly for an idea that can generate a new practices that can be packaged and sold to practitioners. 

Educational leadership, however, has proven itself particularly faddish and fickle, because over its one hundred year existence, it has mirrored closely the fads that have occurred in the discipline of management. For example, when Taylor’s scientific management became the fad of business at the turn of the twentieth century, educational leaders adopted it. In the 1930s and 40s, when the human relations movements that sought to focus on the conditions of work were in vogue in business management, educational leaders procured those ideas as well. In my own life time, when Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management became the salvation of business and manufacturing, the school systems in which I worked began slinging the jargon of TQM around like it was a gospel passed down from on high. Today’s fads? About every book or article related to educational leadership I’ve picked up recently talks of “managing mindsets” and installing “grit” into our students. The discipline of educational leadership seems to simply on the lookout for the latest fads promoted by business and psychology gurus available. It even contradicts itself as well. You hear educational leaders talk about the importance of authentic learning experiences in one breath, then in their next, they're cutting the arts, music, drama, which are the most authentic learning experiences we can provide our students.

With all this negativity about the discipline of educational leadership, I do acknowledge that there are ideas from other disciplines that we can learn from. The borrowing has not been all bad. Still, there needs to be more critical examination within our discipline and its practices, including those borrowed. In his book, Masters of Management, Wooldridge points out: 

“Modern management theory is no more reliable than tribal medicine. Witch doctors, after all, sometimes got it right—by luck, by instinct, or by trial and error.”

Educational administration can't afford to engage it its form of "tribal medicine." Educational leadership can’t afford to “sometimes” get it right when it comes to the lives of our students. When we adopt any practices—those procured from the business world, or those sold to us by the latest educational leadership guru—we have a moral obligation to avoid harming the present lives of our students and our teachers as well as everyone else in our buildings. We also have a moral obligation to not harm nor hinder our students’ futures. There’s no more noble task for educational leaders than that.

Wooldridge, A. (2011). Masters of Management: How the Business Gurus and Their Ideas Have Changed the World--For Better and For Worse. Harper Collins: New York, NY.

What Do Education Leaders Really Learn from Business Leadership and Management Gurus?

"...Management theory is an immature discipline, unusually open to charlatans, or semi-charlatans, and congenitally prone to fads." Adrian Wooldridge, Masters of Management

Wooldridge (2011) writes that “management theory is an immature discipline” (p. xviii). This is true also of educational leadership or educational administration as a discipline. It too, is still an “immature discipline” as well, in spite of its existence since the turn of the 20th century, It lays claim to being a positivistic, emancipatory science very often, but at its core, it still struggles with a means to tell the truth about itself and about how to lead schools. It longs for first principles, but they are scarce. 

And, like management theory, it too is “open to charlatans” and fads. Administrators at every level of the educational system often jump on the latest fad that crosses their desk, uncritically and without question. Just look at the educational administration literature that's coming out. There's books that tell administrators how to win with "mindsets," "grit," "empowerment," "teacher-leaders," etc. What's missing is a true critical examination of these ideas as well. Leadership also requires forcing those selling these wares to go beyond their comments of being "research-based" or "proven-to-work." After all, the snake-oil salesmen of the 19th century made those claims too. There needs to be much more critique of these fads, educational leadership literature, and even our still immature discipline.

What’s even worse, in their quest for short-term goals, such as increases in test scores, they do not adhere to these faddish ideas long enough to really make a difference. When administrators obsess over short-term measurement, they turn their institutions into institutions powered only to exist in the short-term.

The truth is that often there are administrators whose vision is more about their own careers than about seeing their schools through innovations and changes that can have impacts beyond their own lives. That might explain why most administrators don't stay in the same place very long. Our education system mirrors the business environment in this sense. Its innovation and creative endeavor is expended on what can raise test scores in the short term. Short term, non-visionary strategies like eliminating the arts, music, and true authentic learning are too often looked upon as valid strategies. These become casualties in the ever insistent search for higher test scores so that administrators can feel like they are having an impact. In truth, every educator who has had an impact on my life changed me in some ways that became evident much, much later in my life. 

Like management, educational leadership is going to remain an “immature discipline” as long as it continues to borrow so heavily from management theory. It is going to remain focused on short-term visions and goals, because the business world is mostly incessantly focused on short term profit and share-holder interests in the now, not making an impact that outlasts us. I submit as well, as long as administrators remain focused, as business CEOs and managers often do—creating their personal path to professional nirvana—there will be no maturity ever in our field of educational administration. True leadership is sometimes realizing our endeavor as educators reap benefits far after we're gone.

Wooldridge, A. (2011). Masters of Management: How Business Gurus and Their Ideas Have Changed the World--For Better and For Worse. Harper Collins: New York, NY