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Louisiana School Board Association

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Hear the Echoes # 4 - Friday, January 7, 2011

Hear the Echoes 4


Misguided Reform?

In the debate on improving schools, most attention goes to teachers, even though studies show that teaching explains only 10 to 20 percent of student achievement. Although there is no evidence to support it, policymakers believe teachers will perform better if motivated by money. Increasing salaries for teachers may attract more qualified candidates, but it will not motivate teachers to teach better. Dedicated professionals are motivated to perform meaningful work when it is supported, recognized and appreciated.


The principals of failing schools are likely to be administrators, not academic leaders. They neither support teachers nor gain their trust. In their response to leadership, teachers are not so different from other professionals--they're best led by someone who has walked in their shoes. The most effective health-care organizations, such as Mayo Clinic and Kaiser-Permanente, are led by physicians. Lawyers lead law practices. The list goes on. No one suggests bringing in former business managers or army officers to lead these professionals, and it's no better an idea to put them in charge of schools.


Instead of throwing money at a discredited, and insulting, theory, let's study the factors common to the best schools and figure out how to replicate them in different contexts. If we do this, it will become clear that developing teachers with leadership ability to become principals will be an essential part of an effective policy.  (Washington Post 12/21/2010 Michael Maccoby, noted anthropologist and psychoanalyst and a world renown expert on leadership).


The ongoing parade of education "reform” leadership has, in recent years, come from the non-education ranks.  Like Santa Claus, they descend bearing the gift of leadership but in a scant few years they depart San Diego, Chicago, Washington, New York City, Philadelphia, and soon New Orleans.  Does their reform gift leave behind a marvelous transition to the promises?  In most cases there is no clear evidence that children are much better off.


In many cases the financial decision to throw money at the problem comes from business leaders who are fancied able to solve all kinds of problems…yes even teaching children. 


It is clear that throwing 80 percent more money at New Orleans RSD school children’s education is not yielding nearly 80 percent improvement in academic achievement.  Much evidence can be found that it is doing little better than was done in Orleans schools pre-Katrina.


One has to question why comparing remade post-Katrina schools, which lost many of its worst performing students, should not reflect astonishing results.  Yet fully 20 percent of RSD schools have to be omitted from the district performance tally in order to show positive results.


Hardly anyone would quarrel that classroom teachers’ performance plays a very large role in helping to shape children’s future.  However, no teacher stands alone.  No teacher can make lasting reform without the support, encouragement, and guidance of the building leadership nor can a principal provide the silver bullet results of education reform without district leadership that provides a vision, and the resources that are commensurate to achieving lofty goals.


District superintendents often are recruited from distant communities and come to their new challenge with little knowledge of the local culture and past experience.  That is where a properly functioning school board makes its most important contribution.


Gov. Bobby Jindal and his lawyer-nee superintendent of education may have demonstrated accomplishment in their field of endeavor, they have little experience or knowledge of how children learn let alone how to motivate district leadership, building leaders, or teachers to make "reform” work.


In reviewer comments on the failed Pastorek Race to the Top proposal, one can read a clear conclusion that it was lacking a clear path to long-term implementation of the proposed strategies.


That, it seems, yields the conclusion that top down visionary expression must be incapable of responding to the educational needs of a wide variety of community children whose needs are not likely to be met by a cookie-cutter or silver-bullet reform.


Real reform begins with a vision, that is true, but lasting reform swells upward from the grass roots as in the 1960s Civil Rights movement.


Failure of current business-oriented education leadership to grasp this, will likely lead to still another generation of children being left behind.


Don Whittinghill

LSBA Consultant


(NOTE:  For over 35 years, Dr. Maccoby has been consultant and coach to leaders in corporations, unions, universities, the World Bank, and the State and Commerce Departments of the U.S. Government. He has worked in 33 countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.)