The REAL Accountability Issue: Incompetent Leadership

“Effective leaders in education apply strategies of democracy, they listen to and collaborate creatively with those they hope to inspire and influence. Successful administrators share power, encouraging others to take on leadership positions and responsibilities. They include all members of a community in the development of a shared vision and well-designed plan, grounded in research, unique to each school, adapting also to the individual needs of children..” ~Christopher Chase

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In December, the U.S. Department of Education’s leadership will be handed over from Arne Duncan to the former Commissioner of Education in New York, John King, Jr. Most teachers and parents who have suffered under the Duncan administration are not expecting anything to change. I think progress and a radical shift in policy is possible, but it would have to begin with at least two fundamental changes:

First, President Obama and John King, Jr. must do something that Sec. Duncan never did, look VERY closely at the actual research on effective education reforms, and see what that tells us.

What they will find is that a rigorous curriculum, strong leadership, research data and higher standards are indeed part of the “recipe” of successful reforms, but only if implemented with a holistic understanding of the essential factors that make schools effective. See: “The Essential Supports for School Improvement” – a landmark research study completed in Chicago, released during Arne Duncan’s tenure there as head of Chicago Public Schools.

What they will NOT find in the research is evidence supporting reform strategies that emphasize common national “core” standards, school closings, teacher accountability (through VAM measures) or continuous standardized testing as primary policy strategies.

The focus on top-down education reform “solutions” was a recipe for disaster, evidence of the incompetence and shallow understanding of the Duncan administration. These strategies are not grounded in research, have not helped struggling schools, and sabotage teacher autonomy in communities where students are already doing well.

1618663_713695901995575_540537023_nSuch policies are based on a factory approach to schooling, first developed in the early part of the last century as a way of mass-producing consumer products. While this model is still popular with some business people, professional educators now understand that the endless “objective” data collection and measurement this approach demands of teachers and students can hinder and/or sabotage the crucial “subjective” (social, emotional and motivational) factors that support effective teaching and a love of learning.

This is why there has been a nation-wide pushback from teachers and parents since these top-down test-driven reforms were first introduced with No Child Left Behind, during President Bush’s tenure.

Such approaches are especially destructive when used with children and schools that are already experiencing difficulties, because they corrupt the social relationships, motivation and trust that is needed in order for students to focus on academic learning. As a student put it, in Linda Darling-Hammond’s book  The Flat World and Education:

“School should not be mass production. It needs to be loving and close. That is what kids need. You need love to learn.”

What the Chicago Report and related research in the field of education tells us, is that to transform “failing” schools successfully, reforms must be part of a broad and holistic strategy of compassionate democratic leadership and grassroots community transformation.

Teamwork-5-people-holding-puzzle-piecesThis requires a strengthening of community relationships, a safe student-centered learning environment, support of teacher collaboration (and professionalism), and attention to research findings that help create these changes- not imposed standards and data collection that seeks to measure, rank, reward and punish individual differences between teachers and students.

To implement such changes successfully begins with democratic and inclusive leadership. This is where the issue of accountability truly lies, and where its been ignored for the last 7 years (15 years if we include President Bush’s tenure). In order to be effective, it is the responsibility of leaders to listen to suggestions and incorporate the ideas of the people they are trying to assist and lead. The Chicago Report describes such leadership this way:

“Inclusive Leadership- Under this framework, leadership does not rest solely with the school principal. Instead, improving students’ learning and performance requires leadership from the faculty, the parents, and the community.. In two previous studies, we observed that in schools that were actively restructuring, the principal often helped to stimulate, nurture, and guide faculty members and other staff. Principals articulated a “vision-in-outline” for the school and invited teachers and parents to further elaborate and shape this vision. Such work requires principals to vigorously reach out to parents, community members, and faculty, inspiring and enabling them to assume leadership roles. Recently, scholars have begun to characterize such leadership as “distributed” throughout the school community: multiple leaders carry out leadership tasks.”

In other words, the second change the President & future Secretary need to implement is more competent and accountable leadership, beginning with themselves. What we now understand is that effective leaders apply strategies of democracy, they listen to and collaborate creatively with those they hope to inspire and influence.

Successful school principals and administrators share power, encouraging others to take on leadership positions and responsibilities. Communication is decentralized, fluid, democratic and continuous. Competent leaders do not sit alone in their offices, telling teachers, parents and students what to do without being aware of the impact of their demands. They include all members of a community in the development of a shared vision and well-designed plan, grounded in research, unique to each school, adapting also to the individual needs of children.

Secretary Duncan did not take this approach. Neither did President Obama, many state governors (such as Christie, Walker, Bush & Cuomo), mayors such as Rahm Emmanuel or state Department of Education officials such as John King, Jr. Supported by financial backers in the charter school and business community, they acted in a dictatorial, authoritarian and tyrannical (rather than democratic) fashion.

But change is possible, change is required. Change is what President Obama promised us, back in 2008, and its what he still has a year to deliver. Many American researchers, principals, superintendents and professional teachers understand now (better than ever before) how to create a decentralized and democratic educational system that can lead the world in effectiveness and innovation. All the President needs to do is support educators with the resources needed, and ask them to help lead the way in their local communities.

If the President asks John King, Jr to continue on the same course as Secretary Duncan he will most probably find himself with a surging Opt Out movement and nationwide protests in the Spring. The ball is in their court now. They can continue holding to the present course, or shift in a new direction.

The President has said in the past “the data doesn’t lie.” Actually, data can lie, if it is being cherry picked and is not looked at in the context of the research findings that it supports. I hope the President and his new Secretary will consider these issues deeply, and examine the research that the former Secretary ignored.

If they do, they can help to transform the education received by children in our poorest and most suffering communities. Charter schools have not been effective with children who have the greatest needs, because their approaches are not grounded in research. But successful public school approaches do exist, and could flourish if they had support and funding. To do so could help to end the school to prison pipeline, having a profound effect on those children’s lives, as well as America’s social and economic future.

President Obama’s legacy depends upon the decisions he makes in the next year. I for one, am hoping that he will realize he made a mistake by trusting in Duncan’s leadership and not distancing himself from the hidden agenda of Duncan’s charter school supporters (See: Fraud at the Heart of Current Education Reform).

The President has one last window of opportunity now, to work with Secretary King (and the teachers and parents of our great nation), to bring about lasting and effective grassroots change in America’s schools. And if not, they shouldn’t be surprised if future generations and historians hold them accountable, for not doing what they had in their power to do.

~Christopher Chase~

Teacher helping student with school work

“All in all, for a long time educators have known “what works” for kids in schools and we have not been allowed to do what we know kids need and prosper from because most kids “have to be prepared” in school for a lifetime of compliance and subordination at work and in society.” ~Ira Shor

“I never blame teachers or schools… But there is this deadly culture of standardizing, that’s being pushed on them, politically. My core message here is that we have to personalize education, not standardize it. That all children are different, and we have to find their talents and cultivate them.” ~Ken Robinson

“The ending of recess, the ignoring of arts and crafts, of shop and music— are signs of peril—Peril to human intellect, and grandiose as this will sound: threats to democracy which rests on both intellectual skepticism and empathy—the two underpinnings as well of play. Yes that’s what play is all about! If our purpose is to prepare a generation of citizens equipped to respond skillfully to difficult and complex and, above all, novel situations-it won’t do. Focusing on test scores is the wrong prescription. It cannot and does not respond to what either academia, democracy, or in fact, a healthy economy requires of its members.” ~Deborah Meier, Schools for Democracy

“Testing is not how we measure success. Our mission is to create a learning environment anchored in multiple intelligences. Student voice and passion are embedded into the curriculum. Using design thinking, students explore issues within their community that frustrate them and conduct research into how to create solutions to identified problems. Our city needs more public schools that serve the whole child without an obsessive focus on tests. Only then will our children truly feel at home. This is a cause worth rallying for.”Jamaal Bowman, Principal Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx.

“One of the most distressing characteristics of education reformers is that they are hyper-focused on how students perform, but they ignore how students learn.” ~Diane Marie

“Research from both within the United States and other countries suggest clearly that high stakes testing does more harm than good… We should completely abandon the idea of test-based accountability, that is, get high stakes standardized testing out of education, do not use it to evaluate schools or teachers. Second, we need to return autonomy to local schools and teachers. Let educators do their job and provide support. The government, both federal and state, should work on providing equal funding for schools and eradicate poverty, instead of interfering with teaching and learning, and adding bureaucratic burden on educators and students. Finally, we should invest in education innovations to encourage educators and local schools to seek creative ways to deliver an education for the future…” ~ Dr. Yong Zhao

“What is education for? Is it for pouring facts and formulas into students’ heads, or is it for creating learners? Research shows that an environment that emphasizes evaluation and testing creates a fixed [achievement] mindset. That is, it sends the message that intellectual abilities are fixed and that the purpose of school is to measure them. Students come to see school as the place to look smart and, above all, not look dumb— not a place to create and learn.” ~Carol Dweck, Ph.D.

“The purpose of the school is not just to raise test scores, or to give children academic learning. The purpose of the school is to give children an experience that will help them grow and develop in ways that they can be successful, in school and as successful adults. They have to grow in a way that they can take care of themselves, get an education, take care of a family, be responsible citizens of the society and of their community. Now you don’t get that simply by raising test scores.” ~Dr. James P. Comer; Comer School Development Program

“Given that the education system is seen to be in trouble, there is a tendency to think we need “better management” or “tougher management”, where “management” is assumed to be the factory model of management. It is assumed to mean more top-down management and tighter controls, and more carrots and sticks. It is assumed to mean hammering the teachers who don’t perform and ruthlessly weeding out “the dead wood”. The thinking is embedded in Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind. These methods are known to be failing in the private sector, because they dispirit the employees and limit their ability to contribute their imagination and creativity; they frustrate customers, and they are killing the very organizations that rely on them. So why should we expect anything different in the education sector? When the problems have been caused in the first place by introducing the practices of “management”, then a more rigorous pursuit of this type of “management” only makes things worse…” ~Steven DenningForbes magazine, 2011

“The factory model was developed to ensure quality control and produce identical “consumer” products cheaply. It is NOT an approach that should be used with children. Modern researchers and professional educators have come to understand that the human brain is wired for learning, and that the most effective methods of education are aligned with how children naturally learn.” ~Christopher Chase

Special thanks to Stuart Rhoden for calling attention to the 2006 Chicago Report


About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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