The Wrong Basic Instincts

By Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader, and author of The Algebra Miracle.

It was a lesson learned on the frontlines of education.

As the 2013-14 school year unfolds across the country that experience compels a retired teacher to repeat the sentiments of Mel Riddile: school leaders will see significant improvement in academic achievement if they trade absolute control for cooperation. The validity of that philosophy delineated by both success and failure can be found at a school that was an aberration in an extraordinarily affluent district.

The fundamentals

The socio-economic demographics of the student body were astounding. The percent of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch was more than the ten wealthiest schools combined.  The mobility, ELL and absentee rates were equally disproportionate. Local street gangs exerted a strong influence within the building. Virtually every measure of academic success matched those negative statistics. Into this difficult situation a new principal made a stunning decision—relinquishing control in the hope that it could translate into improved educational achievement.

The story of this school is chronicled in my book “The Algebra Miracle”. The unwritten chapters of the years that have followed those related in the original story are a powerful reminder of the danger of creating an educational environment based on regressing to the norm.

Less can create more

The fundamental premise of the Miracle was that the school leadership became the clearinghouse of educational policy rather than the originator. The principal, trained as a Social Studies teacher, was well aware of his shortcomings as the arbitrator of the math curriculum. Instead, he solicited ideas from the math department on how to improve student performance. A number of innovative and dramatically different approaches were suggested.  The principal and the math chair maintained a critical unwritten rule—if any explanation of a new program required more than four sentences it was too complicated.

The component often misunderstood in this relationship was that the school leadership did not abdicate its authority. Anarchy did not rule the curriculum. No new plan was put into place without administrative approval. Every approach had to be based on both sound educational policy and within the math guidelines provided by the state. The major change was that many of these ideas originated from those who were actually teaching the subject matter, data analysis was used to judge success and failure and the administration viewed its role as helping to implement rather than that of designing and enforcing.

It would be an understatement to say this was a significant course change in school policymaking. For the first few years many of the teachers were still in a state of disbelief as the process unfolded. More than a few were shocked when comments made in a department meeting morphed into school policy. As time solidified this newly empowering approach, the ideas began to flow.

More importantly academic scores soared. Math test results on the state mandated end-of-course exams rocketed into the upper third of the district. Several years they would hover near the top of the list. The school was once again becoming an aberration only this time it had a positive connotation.

Reverting to the norm

A confluence of events caused a decade of remarkable success to erode. The principal who was willing to cede certain powers to his staff left for another job opportunity. As Jamie Escalante discovered decades before, one of the unfortunate quirks of education is the assumption that surprising success must be the result of unethical practices. This response may be founded in legitimate scandals that have occurred but it should not serve as the default response. With the change in leadership several district investigations were launched into the reasons for the school’s success. Though no unethical activities were discovered the sense of mistrust infected the school.

In addition, the new principal had a very different view of school leadership. Innovation was replaced by imitation. Decrees from district and school leaders demanded that the school revert to the same approaches used at the affluent schools in the district. The role of the teaching staff was now to implement the new initiatives decided by administrative policymakers. Within two years the scores began to significantly drop; after four they were at or near the bottom among the twenty-five schools in the system.

Doubling down on control

Another principal was appointed to halt the decline. The apparent goal was to restore complete control of the curriculum to the administrative wing of the building. Every academic department chair was ordered to resign from their position; all but one was replaced. Ironically many of the educational leaders who were removed had been in place during the school’s most successful years. Strict guidelines were implemented to be followed in lesson planning. This new approach was statistically unsuccessful—student scores have continued to plummet.

A teacher’s request to administrators

This post is merely an echo of many of the writings by Mel Riddile. But relinquishing control for cooperation is far more than simply a catchy phrase. It is the path that can cultivate previously untapped great ideas, improve staff morale leading to better personnel stability, increase teacher leadership roles and ultimately substantially improve academic success. Admittedly, it may run counter to the basic instincts indoctrinated in many definitions of leadership but as I witnessed firsthand a school is functioning at its highest potential when it reflects the best efforts of the sum of ALL of its parts.

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