When last we checked in with the massive testing scandal going on in the Atlanta Public Schools district—as well as those occurring in other school districts across the country—we were struggling to find a way to explain the disturbing revelations of widespread cheating. Some were implicating government policies like No Child Left Behind. Teacher incentive schemes were being criticized. Others accused legislators and school-system officials of not treating teachers like the professionals they are and should be.
But while the undercurrent of all of that finger-pointing was that there was a problem of leadership, few came out and actually assigned much blame to the leadership styles of the people in charge. Now, seven months after the pervasive cheating was made public last summer, we can see that while all of these problems may have played a part, the lack of effective leadership likely played the biggest role in bringing the school system down — and the presence of good leadership looks to be what’s now reinvigorating it.
On Sunday, the New York Times spotlighted Errol B. Davis, Jr., the new superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools. The piece, which profiles the approach Davis is taking to turn around the school system, is an illustrative look at the difference a single leader can make. While Davis’s predecessor, Beverly Hall, was chauffeured around the city with an entourage, Davis stops by 8 to 10 schools a week, going into every classroom to thank teachers for what they do. Hall and her top aides had six administrative assistants; Davis and his aides have three. And while Hall pinned up graphs of test scores on her office walls, Davis (the former chancellor for the University System of Georgia) pins up photographs of students.
These contrasting details may seem like small matters in a public city school system where the challenges, whoever is in charge, are tremendous. Many children come from low-income families. Budget cuts have been chronic. And now, the school system must play an even harder game of catch-up for all the students who should have been receiving remedial help, but whose falsified test scores meant they didn’t.
Still, such acts of kindness, accessibility and humility are critical factors in setting the tone for a place where corruption has been pervasive and where trust has been broken. The story reports that the local teachers’ union president has called Davis a “breath of fresh air”; the state’s investigator for the scandal praises him for bringing “order to chaos.” Davis’s zero-tolerance policy for wrongdoing—he immediately fired a teacher who had given students answers to a test—is also essential for rebuilding the kind of standards and expectations we should all have for our children’s education.
Stanford professor Bob Sutton calls this “eliminating the negative,” quoting a 2001 research paper out of Case Western Reserve University that studies why leaders who focus on getting rid of the bad are more effective than those who focus on accentuating the good. “One of the hallmarks of leaders who scale excellence,” writes Sutton, “is that they ‘make way’ for it by removing bad behaviors and emotions that interfere with and turn attention and effort away from doing good things.”
Perhaps the most important part, however, of the approach Davis is taking to repair the Atlanta schools is his unwillingness to assign blame elsewhere. He repeatedly tells his principals: “education is the only industry in this country where failure is blamed on the workers, not the leadership.” Who knows how well Davis will do at turning around the test scores in a low-income school district or at stamping out any future cheating scandals. But by recognizing that it is leadership, first and foremost, that will change the problems we have in public schools, he has as good a shot as any.
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