My friend, Peter DeWitt, is a public elementary school principal in upstate New York. He is a thoughtful and caring person, and I think probably represents the best of his public school principal profession, and I think any of my teacher friends would be happy to have such a leader for their school. He writes a daily blog for Education Week magazine online, and his pieces generally wrestle with trying to be a humanistic educational leader within a bureaucratic system of standardization, high-stakes testing, and other mandates and strictures from above.
School leadership is hard…especially now. There are point scales to contend with, evaluations based on test scores, and budget cuts that result in the lay-offs of teachers and administrative colleagues. Some leaders who have been in the position for a few years have seen cuts to programs, and have a constant need to find creativity in a very uncreative time… On top of that leaders have students living in extreme poverty, an increase in the students with social-emotional issues, and in some cases are expected to take on the role of parents to students…and their parents…
In my most recent piece“Schools: Trying to Balance Coercion, Inspiration and Facilitation”, I put forward that many American public schools are on increasingly shaky ground because they are tasked with at least six very challenging and at times conflicting goals, and are being asked to achieve all of those goals with shrinking budgets. In this increasingly difficult juggling act of doing more with less, the focus is generally on curriculum, teachers, and even at times educational methodology. But I believe the mostly unexamined element in transforming our schools (as well as other institutions in our society) is the governance model – who makes the decisions and how.
Like the cautionary reminder made famous from Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, whenever I think about our society’s developmental path forward and I forget to focus on who the decision-makers are and how the decisions are made, I need to be shaken out of my stupor and reminded that, “It’s the governance, stupid!”
Just as in real estate they say the three key things are “location, location, location”, when it comes to formal institutions like schools, businesses, religious congregations, or even just teams within those institutions, in my mind the three key things are “governance, governance, governance”. Given my obsession, it is nice to see Education Week blogs highlighting both a new study focused on school governance and a very different non-hierarchical model for running a school.
Our fellow travelers on the conservative side of the political spectrum are generally great champions of the principle of liberty, though it seems they often advocate for applying this principle inconsistently in favor of the rich and powerful and their rights to use property and conduct business as they wish, even at the expense of the rest of us. Unfortunately, we on the progressive side are just as guilty of inconsistency in applying humanistic principles like the Golden Rule.
The mismanagement of classroom instruction is the ugly secret and fatal flaw of school reform. Everyone knows that school systems are horrendously mismanaged. The media keep us fully informed and outraged at foul-ups like overspent budgets, computer glitches, bungled paperwork, defective maintenance, and unresponsive bureaucrats. But these failings, as serious as they are, tell only a small part of the story.
Though he does not use the “G-word”, I believe what he is addressing in his article speaks directly to school governance, specifically who is empowered to make school management decisions and what is the process for making those decisions. Continue reading →
As we look to improve our American institutions, including our schools and even our families, I believe we need to get more comfortable with the word “governance” and analyzing those institutions in terms of their governance models. I submit that the governance model often gets short shrift as we look at our institutions and how they can be reformed or transformed to better address life in the 21st Century.
According to Wikipedia…
Governance is the activity of governing. It relates to decisions that define expectations, grant power, or verify performance. It consists either of a separate process or of a specific part of management or leadership processes… [It] is the kinetic exercise of management power and policy.
When I was a young teen I spent six hours a day, five days a week, forty weeks a year in age segregated classrooms where I was often uncomfortable, stressed out, and felt disrespected by many of my peers and even some of the adults that controlled the classrooms and the encompassing school environment. And I certainly was not there by choice, finding every excuse I could (usually illness… real or imagined) to stay away. Looking back I think I was suffering from institutional age segregation and having my rights as a human being given short shrift. Certainly, as a youth and not an adult, I had no guarantee of full civil rights under the U.S. Constitution.
First of all, I will admit to being a bit of a provocateur in that initial paragraph to build my “hook” for this piece. But I am hoping that it is a prescient, though provocative, statement of a step forward in human rights that is still percolating in our future, and the debates to come surrounding the evolutionary trajectory of the human race. Continue reading →