School Reform Requires Experienced Leaders

March 3, 2020

By: Ken Spero

Why have so many strategies and interventions to achieve school reform been largely unsuccessful? Research has shown that in most cases, it is because of administrators who, through no fault of their own, lack the breadth of experience necessary for success. In any major organizational change effort, especially in an organization as complex as the education system, leadership is a key. In fact, the role of leadership in education is one of the more daunting positions in any industry.

Leadership can be defined in many ways and different forms of leadership are required for different situations. However, the ability to communicate, coordinate, and make decisions under any circumstance is key to effectively deal with the increasingly challenging problems of practice. What makes these K12 problems of practice so challenging is that those situations are rife with painful trade-offs under the best of circumstances. When it comes to making decisions in dealing with problems of practice, what is a good decision? This is a growing question, especially with respect to problems associated with equity and student safety. With equity-oriented matters for example, the challenge is even greater due to the nuances associated with the issue and the perception of a zero-sum approach. The need for effective judgment is key to navigating through this as perceptions and perspectives are not aligned. Nowhere do we have a situation where the stakes are so high and the decision so complicated.  There is the need to consider the numerous stakeholders involved whose demands are exclusive of each other, even amongst different segments of the same stakeholder groups and where each one can be more irrational than the next. Students, teachers, parents, unions, communities, districts, states, government, etc.- it is nearly impossible to satisfy one without upsetting at least one other. This makes the challenge not just about making good decisions but being prepared for the negative consequences that are sure to follow from one or more of the stakeholders who view the issue differently. The combination of increased accountability at lower levels in districts and schools and of the increased breadth and diversity of the stakeholders, the consequences of even seemingly simple decisions have much greater reach. This is further exacerbated by the ready access to overwhelming amounts of information, both inside the School and for parents/communities.  Available content is filled with both meaningful and meaningless data – determining which is which increases the risk of analysis paralysis – and is intimidating to even the most seasoned leaders and decision makers.

From a leadership professional development perspective, how can we address this challenge in a compelling and scalable manner? Simulations are a very powerful tool because they provide an opportunity to contextualize learning for leaders or those aspiring to lead. When the targeted objectives require real change (either behavioral or skill development) – experience is required. Simulations provide an opportunity for leaders and leadership teams to think critically and exercise judgment in realistic scenarios and to create muscle memory around thinking. Simulations provide opportunities for leaders to encounter consequences so that they can expand their experience portfolios from which they can draw later in real life. They afford a chance to learn through feedback by connecting the available options with outcomes.

Leaders need professional development opportunities that don’t just make them feel good but truly prepare them to face situations when there is no good answer or when the best answer also comes with significant negatives. When dealing with context-driven issues, the challenge is not only making leaders more comfortable with decision-making, but also empowering them with the confidence to make the painful decisions and to address the tough problems. Simulations provide practice making those complicated decisions knowing that even if they make the optimal choice, parts of the outcome may be bad. Surviving those outcomes builds the courage to tackle any issue and the resiliency to carry on.