This is a post about leadership. Not the mechanics of leadership but the need for leadership… real leadership. Not the kind of leadership that marshals support for doing the wrong things better. No, the kind of leadership that has the courage to confront the need for doing the right thing. We are not doing the right thing with education and we haven’t been for a while now. We been doing the wrong thing and we’ve been allowing the wrong people to tell what to do.
I’m going to share a picture. My picture is not optimistic. You can decide whether or not that picture matches your own sense of our future. My picture is one where our system of public education is under assault and where it is not responding well to the challenges facing it. My picture is about our continued backwards march into the future. It’s a picture summed up by Danny DiVito’s character in the film “Other People’s Money “. DiVito is speaking to his audience of disgruntled employees whose factory, unresponsive to changing markets, is about to be taken over by a larger company. They are proud of what they produce but startled into silence when he tells them, “I’ll bet the last manufacturer of buggy whips made their best damn buggy whip on the day they closed.”
My post is about leadership because we are faced with the buggy whip dilemma. We have remained unresponsive to market needs and conditions.
That’s no surprise. Who knew we were supposed to? We can’t be blamed for not responding to something we didn’t know we were supposed to respond to. But we know it now. And we continue to act as if we don’t. More important than market needs and conditions, we remain deaf to the messages being sent to us by the consumers of our work… the kids. We remain deaf to the declining engagement levels of our kids in schools… a decline which has less than 50% of our kids reporting that they are disengaged in school by 11thgrade. We remain deaf to record levels of reported stress, anxiety, depression and teen suicides. Sure we may read about such statistics and express our concern about the impact of “screen time”, the negative effects of technology, and the almost unbelievable levels of school violence. But rarely do we look at “our own house” to see what school practices, policies, procedures, etc. might be significant contributors to these trends.
We continue to prepare our students according to a story which is dying, if not already dead. What story is dead? It’s the story of the American Dream that deals with education. There are stories of other aspects of the Dream that many would also consider dead but I’ll leave those stories to other chroniclers of our history.
Context for A Dying Story –
Most of us have grown up within a story that shared with us a life plan which included the following admonitions:
- Go to school
- Work hard
- Get good grades
- Do well on the SAT/ACT’s
- Get into a good college
- Get a good job
- Be secure for life
If this story is still accurate why is it that the largest job growth segment in our society is now the so-called “gig-economy” – the economy based on the growth of independent contract workers – workers, moving on demand, from “gig” to “gig”? Workers without pension. Workers without job security. Workers whose productivity has grown while their wages have remained stagnant. Workers, if college grads, with significant piles of student debt.
A recent study completed by LinkedIn (U.S. Emerging Job Report… Forbes, December 13, 2018) lists “The Top Five In-Demand Skills” (Biggest Skills Gap). The report listed:
- Oral Communications
- People Management
- Social Media
- Development Tools
- Business Management
Are we seeing many learning experiences for kids in our public school system intentionally designed to grow these skills? No, you say… but some of these are college level skills. Well, here’s some additional context about college.
It comes via another story which also appeared today, also in Forbes, which asks the question, “Will Half Of All Colleges Really Close In The Next Decade?”. The author of the quote is Clayton Christiensen, best-known for his work in disruptive innovation. In an earlier, more measured description of the situation, Christiensen suggested that there are a host of colleges and universities that are struggling financially. Of these the bottom 25% will disappear or merge with in the next 10-15 years (article written 5 years ago).
And here’s how we’ve responded. Take a couple of minutes and look at the two clips I’ve included here. The first parallels the findings reported in a recent Gallup survey which looked at the engagement of levels of students as they moved through school. The engagement levels dropped from roughly 80% in grade 3 to about 40% in grade 11. Those of us working in schools or who have children in schools don’t need to see these numbers to know he drop off is significant. I’ve heard lots of explanations about this phenomenon, “Kids just don’t seem to care.” or ”They’re not interested in learning.” or “They just want to play on the Smart Phones.” or “Kids just aren’t as responsible any more.” or “Our absentee rate is a real problem.” or “It’s the damned state tests. School’s no fun for them anymore.”
What I haven’t heard much of is “I wonder what we’re doing to promote this loss of engagement.” or “What adult behaviors discourage curiosity?” or…
Take a look at “The Power of Questions”
This next clip is entitled “I Just Sued The School System”. It’s a bit (!) more hyperbolic. It’s produced by Ted Dintersmith, author of What School Could Be. Hyperbole aside, can you find some truths? While I’m not a great fan of Dintersmith’s solutions, it’s hard to argue with what he saw as he visited 200 schools in 50 states, observing instruction, interviewing kids and educators. This clip dramatizes his findings.
Here is a comment offered by a teacher in response to seeing the clip.
Comment from “I Just Sued the School System!!!”
My 5th grade teacher and I had a debate on the school system and he said “I have my opinion but I’ll be more then happy of you could change my mind”, I then ask to used YouTube for a video and he said yes, so I turned on the smartboard, hooked up the computer, and played this video. By the end of it he was in tears and said ” Well then congratulations Kiley, you’ve changed my mind, maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself”, he was my favorite teacher, still is.
Unspoken in the comment shared above, is the message, “Maybe one day you’ll change the system yourself.” (italics mine). The implication is clear… Maybe you’ll change the system. I can’t. I can’t try. I won’t. I won’t try.
This is where leadership fits…
This is a critical moment in a series of critical moments. Some have described the events of the past 18-24 months as a battle for the soul of our nation. While not every one might agree with that assessment, it’s hard not to recognize these times as different than anything most of us have experienced.
But what if there is another battle going on? And what if that battle touches each of us who has committed to working as educators. It’s a battle for the soul of our kids. And what if, consistent with our history of identifying problems inaccurately, we have identified the problem as which schools our kids can/should attend (charters, academies, “regular” public schools), which schools we should fund (public, private, charters, on-line) and how should we fund schools (vouchers, educational savings accounts, local taxation)? What if these are good questions if the issue were actuallywhich schools should our kids attend? What if the real question is not whichschool but whyschool? What if the real question to be addressed is what is the purpose of education today in 2019? Is it the same as it was when schools were originally configured and curricula were original organized (1890’s)?
And so leadership…
What if leadership can no longer be focused on “school” leadership? What if leadership is about creating emotionally safe places where we and our teacher colleagues can explore the differences between schooling and learning? What if leadership is exploring for ourselves the extent to which the story of school and schooling is no longer valid? What if leadership is challenging our fellow educators, members of our school communities, members of the boards of education to explore the possibility that the old story of school is dead? What if leadership is helping people unlearn their old story beliefs about schools and schooling – that learning that matters takes place in a school, that school is defined as a building, that that adults impart knowledge to students?
What? But wait! Am I saying that leadership means that we have to explore with teachers that their role (the role they grew up experiencing as students and the role they have tried to perfect as educators) has to change and may require a very different set of skills? That we have to align the experiences that our kids have with a new purpose… a purpose beyond preparation for testing hurdles and credit accumulation? A purpose that is no longer the mastery of content defined over a century ago? A purpose that doesn’t designate schools as the only place where meaningful learning can take place?
This is a time for New Year’s Resolutions. Thinking of my teaching or my district, I always found these relatively meaningless in January. I made my new year’s resolutions in the summer in preparation for beginning my new year. But what if we used the time right now to make one resolution about creating a safe space for kids and teachers in our classroom, school, or district to take risks about learning? What is we used the time right now to explore what policies, practices, procedures we have that might contribute to student stress, anxiety, and depression? What if you filled in the blank with the commitment to explore the conflict between what you believe about student learning and the practices in your classroom, school, or district?
Maybe you could complete the following, “Couldn’t I at least….?