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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 08/15/2011

The wrong — and right way — to manage a school district

This was written by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, who this year is also taking on the role of superintendent of his small school district. He is executive director of the non-profit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from around the country.

By George Wood

I believe the current conventional wisdom about school district leadership is flawed. Many of the current education “reformers” are betting on what I would call “management from afar.” It goes like this: Find an executive from an area other than education, train them in the business of schools, and turn them loose to cut budgets and drive up test scores. Oh, and keep the old model of district leadership with orders coming from “downtown” and the district leadership knowing little, if anything, about the real life of classrooms.

That may work in some places, and fail in others. (If it does work then we need some similar approaches to the leadership of our medical system, Congress, and the home mortgage and banking industries.) But I am willing to bet that the impact will be limited.

As an alternative, I believe that:

*Administrators who are still involved in the day-to-day lives of teachers, students, staff, and families would better serve districts.

*Leadership should not be “downtown” but should be down the hall

*Administrators should have to experience the consequences of their decisions

*Easy access to district administrators is owed to the public that pays them.

So, with that in mind, this year I am taking on the dual role of superintendent and secondary school principal in our school district. We will see if this model, one that keeps the superintendent in daily touch with everything from announcements to pep rallies, can be effective.

There are three pieces of this leadership model that are crucial: shared leadership, staying connected with the school and community, and understanding that the only job of central administration is to support teachers in helping children learn.

A few notes on each.

First, shared leadership. Of course I cannot do everything a superintendent and a principal can and should do. Even in our small district that would not be possible. But what we have done is taken what we would have spent on a full time superintendent and used those funds to make sure each of our schools had a full time leader. In addition to their building duties they also have some central office functions. So one elementary principal handles federal and state reporting, the other directs curriculum and staff development, and an associate principal at the secondary school also directs the extracurricular program.

This team approach goes all the way to day-to-day building management. When one of us is out of his/her building, the fourth administrator heads to that building for the day and works from there. So some days my office (basically my computer) may be at an elementary school. The point is that we all share responsibility for the education of every child and the support of every teacher.

Second, staying connected. Nothing epitomizes the distance of district leadership from the real work of the schools than the expression, “it came from downtown.” Far removed from the real lives of kids and teachers, bureaucrats make decisions, issue pronouncements, and try to micro manage the work of the classroom—all the time with little or no contact with real kids and real classrooms. Even more notable is the central office isolation from the families that the schools are to serve.

My dual role means I am still involved in curriculum, working with teachers on instruction, meeting with families about kids. In fact, in the past few weeks I have been cornered in the grocery store by a woman wanting to know why we did not hire a family member, I have talked with a laid off staff member about how to manage the new fiscal realities that family faces, and I have written two letters of recommendation for members of the class of 2011.

This contact reminds me that every decision I make has real consequences for people who are my neighbors, and for kids and staff that depend upon us to provide them with the learning environment they deserve.

Third, supporting teachers. I believe that the only reason you have a central office is to support the work of teachers in educating our children. When you are removed from the school, when your degree is in management and not education, you may forget that. The job is not to manage instruction and learning, it is to support instruction for learning. And if you have not experienced the actual life of a school it is nearly impossible to support what you do not know.

I do not believe this will be easy, or that I will always do it well. But I do believe the models of managing schools from afar are seriously flawed and are hurting our schools. We will try managing from up close. I will keep you informed as to how it goes.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 08/15/2011

Categories:  George Wood

 
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