Monday, December 9, 2013

Bain of Principals' Existence

I have begun to think that I could keep busy just re-christening this blog as the Educational Hip Boots-- I'll wade through the reformy septic system so that you don't have to. So I guess that will be a regular feature here-- giving you the Reader's Digest version of some of what's lurking out there on the interwebs. Today we'll take a slow brown slosh through this article that might otherwise earn nothing but a TL;DR.

Building pathways: How to develop the next generation of transformational school leaders

It comes from the folks at Bain and Company, a heavy-hitting corporate consulting firm based in Boston. They have a presence in 32 countries, but you may remember them better as "that place Mitt Romney worked in the 90s."

It's a hefty brief, so I'm going to give you a quick tour. The brief sets out to address the management shortage in education, and in all fairness, I'm going to tell you up front that it's not all crap.

It starts out with crap, launching immediately into the premise "Education experts across the ideological spectrum agree that we can and must do a far better job of educating our nation’s youth. Too many students leave our public schools unqualified to compete for jobs in an increasingly global workforce. The result is slipping US competitiveness and a perpetuating cycle of poverty" (AKA "one more slice of the same old baloney.")

"We don't really know," the brief goes on to say, "what in the name of God might actually help, and a lot of people are spending time flapping their jaws about it" (I'm paraphrasing here).

And here comes the lede. "What we do know," Bain says, "is that individual schools can accomplish great stuff even when in the midst of terrible poverty etc etc, and that the explanation for this is the presence of transformational leaders." Good to know, and I suppose, in a way, it's true-- if by "transformational leader" you mean "person willing to sacrifice staff, teachers and any students who don't help get those scores up." At any rate, according to Bain, it's replacing and recruiting those transformational leaders that is the secret of Fixing Schools.

Having established our premise, the Bainsters are now ready to move through a four-point take-down. I will give you the gist of their drift.

1.Introduction: A Random Walk to School Leadership

Main point: the path to school leadership is kind of a random drunkard's walk through a dark and confused forest. We illustrate with two stories.

First, Michael. Michael was good potential leader material as a classroom teacher. Fortunately, his principal decided to mentor him, took him under a friendly wing, and made a successful principal out of him.

Next, the sad story of Kevin. Kevin started into teaching as a TFA body who wanted to, you know, "give something back." Though he became a "standout math teacher," he quickly came to believe that he could "magnify his impact" if he became a principal. Unfortunately for all of us, Kevin had no mentor. In fact, his principal, "impressed with his abilities as a math teacher," was more intent on keeping him in the classroom."

The district has no principal track he could jump on, and Kevin "concluded he’d reached a dead end." Got that? Ending up as a classroom teacher was a dead end. The classroom is just a place one passes through on the journey to greatness. (Kevin left teaching, got an MBA, and is now a rising star in a senior management role at a major retailer.

Someone tell me again about how dedicated TFA bodies are to teaching.

Paragraphs later, the Baininator acknowledges that some teachers are best used, most effective, and most happy staying in the classroom. But there is a problem in education-- there is no clearly defined career path for people who want to, or are suited to, leadership roles. And here, I cannot argue with them.

Fortunately, they have done research at twelve school districts and charter management organizations. And they've learned stuff. There are charts.

For instance, the most talented people in schools don't become principals.

2: Strong Leaders Produce Strong Schools

Okay, even I have trouble wading through this part, so I will summarize really briefly:

Blah blah blah charter schools with rigorous expectations create oases of educational awesome in deserts of poverty and sadness, and they totally do it with awesometastic leaders, not skimming the best students and bouncing the low-performing ones blah blah blah we need more of these strong leaders.

3: Identifying the Roadblocks to Success

Roadblocks, that is, to recruiting and retaining transformational leaders.

Roadblock #1. School systems encourage too few high-performing educators to pursue leadership roles. 80% of those surveyed said they didn't want to be principals. That was split halfies between "I am happier in the classroom" and "the principal's job is unattractive." Actual principals said  that their pursuit of the job depended on some mentor convincing them the job wouldn't suck too much.

Roadblock #2. Lack of stepping stone roles. You're either a teacher or an administrator. There are no baby steps from the classroom to the front office.

Roadblock #3. Aspiring leaders don't get coaching or training with appropriate skills. That may be connected to this chart:

Roadblock #4. Leadership roles are not managed systematically, or with some sort of pipeline or track or defined way to get there. This includes the problem of roadblocks-- teacher leaders who don't want to be principals when they grow up. Shame on them. If you aren't going to be a principal, get back in your damn classroom.

Roadblock #5.  Hiring process is disconnected from performance management. Don't know how things are in your district, but in a few I could name, this is dead on. Principals are hired without anyone hinting what the job expectations are, or how they will be evaluated. Plus (Bain keeps returning to this) they are often hired at the last minute from a panic-induced speed-assembled shallow pool of whatever happens to be available right then.

I don't disagree too strenuously with these five, but so far, they've avoided Giant Honking Roadblock Number One. Let's call it "Fifteen years of corporate reform has turned school administration into a battle with the most hole-ridden dike ever imagined, a battle in which principals can expect to have all of the blame and none of the power and have their careers cut short by some reformy bullshit or other." I think that's a roadblock.

4: A Roadmap for Change

That's the short form. The long form is figure out what you want in a leader, build a pipeline, support it and reap the transformational benefits. But hey-- you know who already does a super-duper job at this? The folks at KIPP. We also like the model used by Denver.

Yes, at the end of a small mountain of verbiage, we arrive at another small mountain, laying out for your consideration what some other people already do. Some of these models make a certain amount of sense, but you may find it hard to imagine them working anywhere but in some parallel universe. For instance, the District of Columbia also has a model for developing transformational leadership, and I trust that, because the DC school system has never had any issues with leadership, right?

No, these are some fine models if you are working with an infinite amount of time and money to invest. That would be the last roadblock that goes unaddressed by Bain-- the fact that leadership development in school districts, like everything else, is done on the cheap.

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