The View From Here

Local Leadership Makes The Difference

by Jim Butterworth

Responsibility for education has historically been shared by state governments and local school boards, with the federal role limited to protecting young people’s civil rights.  In recent years, this balance has been dramatically altered as federal and state governments assume greater control to ensure that all kids have the same educational opportunities, treatment and outcomes.  But, try as they might, one problem remains—you can’t educate students or fix schools from Washington or Albany.

Federal and State Policies Are Necessary But Not Sufficient

State and federal policies are necessary.  Educational policymakers almost always focus on the right issues.  High property taxes, school violence and incompetent teaching are bad.  Student achievement, school attendance and 21st century curriculum are good.  Through statute and regulation, these officials identify what appropriately requires our attention and rightly compel us to improve.  The bad news is that they rarely stop at this point, usually continuing on to dictate exactly how the identified problems are to be remedied.  As a result of this overreaching, matters often go awry since those operating at the 30,000 foot level have little or no understanding of the complexity and variability of conditions on the ground where people actually live, teach and learn.

Local leaders are acutely aware of policy implementation problems which often go unrecognized at the federal and state level.  Policymakers operate under the assumption that you can successfully mandate what matters; school leaders know you can’t.  State officials believe that everything that is important can be measured; local leaders know that not everything that’s measured matters and not everything that matters can be measured.  Government officials place great stock in the new APPR system; most educators probably agree with Linda Darling-Hammond when she observes that you can’t fire your way to school success.

And, unintended negative consequences usually accompany new state and federal policies enacted with the best of intentions.  The accountability program which requires schools to demonstrate capacity to educate all children well leads to fear and efforts to game the system.  The assessment program seeks to learn whether students have attained state standards but results in reduced attention to school subjects without state tests.  Certification rules designed to guarantee that pupils will have highly qualified teachers results in fragmentation of the school day and serious coordination problems.

Local Leadership Makes The Difference

Since they often don’t know what they don’t know, government officials generally believe that all local educators need to do is to comply with new requirements and success will be virtually guaranteed.  Local leaders, of course, know that the solution is much more complicated and elusive.  The priorities of parents and community members may not be the same as the state’s.  School boards may object to unfunded mandates.  Teachers may view new requirements as harmful to currently effective programs.  Disengaged students may not respond enthusiastically to new initiatives. Very real resource constraints in the form of time, space, money and people may preclude full implementation.  And on and on.

Without the professional efforts of district and school leaders who understand their local communities, implementation of state and federal policies, mandates and requirements would be minimal at worst, haphazard at best.  It is odd and sad then that government officials treat their local counterparts as so many clerks to be micromanaged from afar.  This myopic attitude seems to be at the heart of the despair, frustration and anger which so many local leaders feel in reaction to recent state and federal changes.  This sense of powerlessness leads in turn to a variety of ineffective administrative responses to new requirements—rejection, opposition, paralysis or halfhearted compliance.  Of course, all of these approaches are demoralizing for school adults and unhelpful to students.

Though state and federal officials may provide the initial push for improvement, they ultimately depend on the will and skill of local leaders for success.  District and school leaders need to avoid feeling like victims, martyrs or functionaries and must reclaim their rightful role in helping all children to achieve.  They can do this in a number of ways.  They can defend the spirit of new requirements and use new mandates as a force for good, essentially saying, “If we have to do this, let’s do the very best we can for our kids.”  They can embrace priorities in their local school communities, recognizing that state requirements are the floor rather than the ceiling for their efforts.  Not waiting for or wanting state direction, they can use their professional judgment to make the changes in their schools and districts which will make a real difference for kids.

In improving schools, both government and local leadership have a role to play.  Your school leadership is vital; don’t cede the field to state and federal officials from afar.  They work on behalf of humanity; you work for children who have faces, dreams, potential.  Noble work.  Don’t let anyone take it from you.

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