School Reform's Greatest Challenge: Leadership

Instead of waiting for superman and playing the usual blaming games, true education reformers should begin by improving public school leadership.
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"Blame tenure for bad education!" That is the claim made by a charter school leader in the controversial education documentary Waiting for "Superman". And he is not alone. For decades, education reformers and union critics have blamed the tenure system for making it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers. How to save our students from failing, if we can't flunk bad teachers? It seems like simple math. But it's not.

While children in Finland and Singapore are world champions in math, reading, and science, the American children rank alarmingly low. The United States, the global economic and military superpower, ranks only 25th in math and 21st in science. This is another "inconvenient truth" the Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim has put in the center of the documentary Waiting for "Superman". Michelle Rhee, the newly retired superintendent of Washington, DC schools, appears in the movie as one of the hard critics of teacher tenure -- a right to job protection and academic freedom teacher unions has defended since their birth in 1887! When Guggenheim asks Rhee "Do you think our children are getting a crappy education?" She responds, "Oh, I don't think. I know."

Tenure doesn't guarantee lifetime employment, but it does make firing teachers a complicated and costly process. One "that involves the union, the school board, the principal, the judicial system and thousands of dollars in legal fees. [...] In most states, a tenured teacher can't be fired until charges are filed and months of evaluations, hearings and appeals have occurred. Meanwhile, school districts must shell out thousands of dollars for paid leave and substitute instructors." In his documentary, Guggenheim vividly visualizes another problem named by California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as "the dance of the lemons": The buck-passing process that occurs in many districts that simply transfer low-performing teachers from school to school because firing is too costly.

Are the failing schools in America really to be blamed by the "torture of tenure"?

A groundbreaking research project including several hundred schools in Chicago exemplifies the complexity and reveals the key drivers needed to improve schools. Led by Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the research group concludes the most importing factor is not-tenure vs. no-tenure but leadership. Principals' ability and capacity to exercise leadership plays a significant role in organizing schools to make progress. In fact, Bryk and his research teams conclude that quite simply, school improvement is highly unlikely to occur in its absence. Unfortunately too often the challenge of lacking leadership is overlooked.

Improving the technical core of teaching and learning -- such as firing bad teachers -- is important. Other key technical components for successful schools reforms include the professional capacity of faculty and staff, a student-centered learning climate, and an instructional guidance system. However, real leadership lies in the ability to engage teachers, parents, and community members in working together to improve schools. No one can lead alone. And the challenge to build strong ties to parents and community is a key component principals must integrate when planning strategies for school reform. Technical solutions will not solve the problem of failing schools alone. They rest on the social base of the school community. In fact, some of the most powerful relationships found in Bryk's research is the level of trust as lubricant for school reform. Without trust, schools reforms are likely to fail.

Principals play a critical role in initiating and sustaining the necessary changes to improve student learning. They have to nurture trust to the community by actively listen to others' concerns and align their own actions to the school vision. In this regard if certain teachers are unwilling to commit themselves to do the hard work and align themselves to the mission, they should be fired. For this purpose, yes, tenure should be removed when protecting bad teachers. However, as Bryk's research team concludes, principals must take the lead and extend themselves by reaching out to others. Instead of waiting for superman and playing the usual blaming games, true education reformers should begin by improving public school leadership. Firing bad teachers is not enough. That is simple math.

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