I found what I thought was a particularly insightful description of leadership in a book that I have been reading recently. The book, incidentally, is ‘Spinning Wheels: the Politics of Urban School Reform” by Frederick M. Hess. The description is from Tom Kean, a former governor of the State of New Jersey in the United States:
"True leadership takes time. A desert thunderstorm strikes with a flash and a roar, releasing all its water and energy at once. But the flashes quickly fade, and the water is mostly lost in runoff. Effective leadership takes the time to allow efforts and skills the chance to sink in, as opposed to the flash-flood phenomenon of high-visibility attempts at quick fixes."
Sound like a politician near you? If I have one observation about political life in Wellington it would be that the “flash–flood phenomenon of high-visibility attempts at quick fixes” prevails more often than it should. But it’s not politics that I want to write about today, its education. In my time I saw more than a few “flash-flooders” appointed to principalships on not much more than a bit of experience, a management course and in rare cases a bit of charisma. The few that succeeded I remember well and admire. Most I have long forgotten, but they are still remembered by those left behind to clean up the mess. The more I think about it, and I think my views are stronger now than they were even when I was in the job, the more I think principals need one ability over all others. That is the ability to lead in teaching and only comes, in most cases, after years of experience in teaching. I think you cannot get enough teaching experience before taking on the leadership of a school. If I were to look back over my career I would say, with some benefit of hindsight, that in general the best principals were more likely to be those with long and varied experience in schools, first as teachers, deans and heads of department and then as assistant and deputy principals and then finally as principal. In such a context I never thought a period of time outside teaching was of particular significance. Certainly I would never have found time out in the education bureaucracy as being of any value at all. One thing I have learned from getting older is that the age factor should always come down on the side of experience. And in the case of a principal it is the ability to know and recognise what good teaching looks like that counts, and the ability to assist new teachers to grow quickly into very good teachers. I have heard a view expressed and seen examples of a view expressed that the quickest way to improve a school is get rid of an experienced, performing principal and replace him/her with a youngster who has done the right management course and who appears energetic but who just does not have the experience in as a teacher. I would go the other way myself. If a school needs improving put in a highly experienced teacher who knows what great teaching looks like, who can identify the features that constitute good teaching and who can share that with colleagues.
Is it worth quoting Sir Russell Coutts, “I try to do less these days and do it better”?
But back to the “flash-flood phenomenon.” Over 30-odd years I have seen so many reform efforts in New Zealand schooling. Every change of government has produced a new reform effort of some sort or another. Most were “tinker around the edge efforts” which required much energy and effort on the part of principals and teachers (and increasingly boards of trustees). Each has increasingly been marked by an expansion of bureaucracy (and the greatest expansion of bureaucracy of all time occurred in the wake of “Tomorrow’s Schools” (which was actually supposed to get rid of bureaucracy!) and of compliance. In fact is seemed to me that most reform efforts had little to do with making schools better places to learn in (the early post-Tomorrow’s Schools years were great but they did not survive the election of the Labour Government of 1999 – remember bulk funding?) and had more to do with the phenomenon of the flash-flood. Activity for the sake of activity. Activity so politicians and bureaucrats could give the impression of doing something. Activity, being busy, seeming to do things has been taken to be a demonstration of leadership. How much school reform over the years has had more to do with political pressure than it has with what was best educationally? The abolition of bulk funding and the denial of parental choice of the last decade, the abolition of the University Entrance Examination in the 1980’s, the liberal curriculum of the 1970’s. If I really tried I could probably fill the rest of the page with the list.
So why call a book on schools “Spinning Wheels”? Because so much school reform has been like the wheels of a car spinning in mud, spinning faster and faster, lots of mud flying around, a bit of noise and smoke, and no traction – so going nowhere.
Why don’t we just have a rigorous all-embracing curriculum, reliable assessment and great teaching? In my world, not that complicated.