Monday, November 18, 2013

Lead or get out of the way!

A recent Editorial in the Boston Globe has caused me to consider what it means to be a leader. Obviously, this isn't the first time I've considered this topic, but in light of the comments made by Commissioner of Education, Mitchell Chester, I examined once again my thoughts on leadership. The Globe article began with a reflection on the fact that once again Massachusetts scored 1st in the country in reading and math in grades 4 and 8 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It then went on to point out however that the grades for Massachusetts 4th graders fell by 5 points over that time.

According to the article, Commissioner Chester “suspects that the downturn in reading scores relates directly to the loss of elementary school reading specialists over the past few years” due to budget challenges. The article then goes on to state that “[w]hat worries Chester most, however, is that he is starting to hear counterproductive grumbling from school superintendents . They are telling him that requirements to implement new teacher evaluations and incorporate the new Common Core standards are “too much, too soon.” Interesting take on this topic by the individual supposed to be the educational leader in our state.

The current educational environment in which we now operate is unlike any other in history. The schools have seen an unprecedented number of mandates from both the State and Federal governments. Our government is more involved in the daily processes of our schools than ever before to the point where local initiatives are forced to the wayside in order to implement legislative mandates. Just this year schools in Massachusetts will have to implement the Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) initiative, a new Teacher Evaluation System, pilot new PARCC testing to replace MCAS, transition to Common Core State Standards, federal fingerprint checks of all employees, along with other smaller, but no less intrusive top-down mandates that affect our schools. At this point it is truly immaterial whether these initiatives are actually beneficial. When you try to do too much at once it is impossible to do anything well. When superintendents take the time to express their concern about our ability to effectively implement such a large number of initiatives all at once, this is seen as “unproductive grumbling” by the Commissioner of Education. He would rather we simply sit back and do what we are told.

When Massachusetts' superintendents attempted to open a respectful dialogue where they expressed their concerns about the overwhelming number and pace of the mandates coming down from the State and Federal governments, this was taken simply as complaining by the Commissioner. It did not cause him to question the course of action taken to assess whether or not it made sense and was working. Although he has been the Commissioner since 2008 when the NAEP tests were last given, he did not take any ownership or responsibility for the decline in scores. He did not point out that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education repeatedly missed deadlines it had established for the Department to put forth the resources and supports necessary for schools to effectively implement these initiatives. Rather, he said it is our fault.

As the leader of our educational community I take full responsibility if our schools do not make the improvements that we are striving to achieve. If the course we have chosen is not working, I do not blame the principals and teachers, for failing to do the work. Rather I reassess the actions we have taken and determine whether changes need to be made. We then work together to shape those changes so that our schools reflect our common vision. Unfortunately, in this current educational environment I see a large part of my job as buffering my teachers from the impact of these overwhelming mandates.  Working with teachers to determine which initiatives will be the most beneficial for OUR district and then finding out what the minimum compliance level is for those we do not believe in for our community. This is our only chance to effectively move our schools forward with the time and resources available to us.  

The article ends by stating “It might be tempting for Massachusetts educators to ignore the results. After all, the state still ranks at the top for overall performance on the exams. But Massachusetts' fourth graders need their attention.” To that I respond, “Mr. Commissioner, we are well aware of our duty to our students and work daily to give them the attention and services they need. I ask of you, where is your leadership? Where is your advocacy for the resources we need to move our schools forward? Where is your advocacy to work together to change our teaching practices to meet the needs of today’s students? Where is your advocacy to bring together the supports necessary for low income and at risk populations to be able to be successful? Where is your leadership to open a dialogue with educators that can lead to productive change? These are the areas I and my fellow superintendents work to lead our districts in evaluating on a daily basis. In the words of my colleague Brad Jackson, Superintendent of the Holliston Public Schools “Massachusetts Superintendents are ready to join forces and partner with you to work together on real solutions to resolving the performance gap.  Either lead or get out of the way.”