Updated: Oct 29, 2019
A boy was working on his math homework and turned to his father, asking, “Dad, do you know how to find the lowest common denominator?”
His dad thought for a moment, then responded, “Haven’t they found that yet? They were looking for that when I was a kid!”
As long as anyone can remember, people have been looking for “school reform.” Most people believe that our schools, especially our public schools, need to be reformed. There are many reasons. School safety and poor performance in reading may be chief among them. In truth, we have been attempting to reform schools for over two hundred years and we still haven’t found a way to do it!
When will our schools be “reformed” to the point that we can declare “mission accomplished”?
To reform anything - fundamentally change something - requires taking some level of risk. To chart new, undiscovered territory, you need to take calculated risks. Trying something new and uncertain necessarily invites possible or even likely failure.
Name absolutely anything that appeals to anyone and you can bet it was created by a risk-taker. Your phone/hand computer, your car, the clothing styles you wear - the list is virtually endless. It took people who knew that their concept or idea was, in their minds, so wonderful that they pushed ahead in spite of the naysaying and doubts of others who surrounded them. Think of Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs.
When people talk about great leadership, one of the consistent characteristics is that exceptional leaders take calculated risks. The examples are many, but rather than illustrate this by examples, suffice to say that this is as true as anything could be true.
So why are there so few people who lead public schools described as “risk-takers”?
To reform public schools, you need a school system that permits its leaders, especially its principals, the opportunity to fail. Further, the system must forgive their occasional failures and actually encourage them to take calculated risks.
A leadership culture which encourages risk-taking must also be a culture of forgiveness when risks don’t pay off. That doesn’t exist in public schools. Public school systems tend to marginalize, discourage, or even punish risk-takers. If there is little forgiveness for failures, there will be few leaders taking risks.
On the contrary, out of fear of public disdain for mistakes in an atmosphere of social media that perpetuates half-truth, innuendo as fact, and outright lies, school systems act so cautiously that any risk is a frightening prospect. As a result, finding a public school system that permits failure in its leaders and forgives those who fail is like finding a unicorn.
This risk-taking unicorn leader exists in books written by private industry folks who tell of what it takes to develop strong leaders. As it relates to public school leadership, this is, in reality, fiction. It is fiction because most of the leadership books are written by people who haven’t spent one day working in the public sector. The private sector has both tradition and culture to support risk-taking and forgiveness. The public sector rejects both risk-taking and forgiveness. So what is the result?
The result is we get the public school systems we have always had: systems that protect the status quo, reward those who “play it safe” and punish those who take calculated risks to benefit their students.
Here’s the irony: if those risk-takers take risks and actually succeed, the school system leadership is quick to share in the credit even though the system’s tradition of punishing risk-takers is firmly in place.
But if they fail? They are suddenly a persona non grata, an outcast, a loser. The school system leaders, in their fear of litigation for being considered risk-takers themselves, are quick to distance themselves from genuine risk-takers.
Public school systems expect what I call “perfect mediocrity” from their public school principals. Play it safe, take no chances, and try to become the principal of a public school in a wealthier part of the school district so affluent parents’ incomes - the variable most strongly associated with student academic performance - give the principal good-looking state test scores.
The reason school reform doesn’t succeed is that, as long is there is a culture that does not tolerate failure or forgiveness, “perfect mediocrity” is the result. You will have great principals with exceptional skills (that take years to develop, BTW) who take calculated risks and are then punished for taking those risks. They are humiliated publicly, pulled out of their schools and assigned to unrelated jobs in the far corners of the school system, relegated to obscurity.
What am I asking for?
I ask that our public school leaders come clean and tell the truth to the public they serve. When communities demand reform, school leaders should be clear that reform can only occur with calculated risks taken in an atmosphere of forgiveness. Say something like this:
“We understand the public wants exceptional public schools run by exceptional school principals. But that would mean that we have to encourage them to take risks. We believe that you, the public, really don’t want us taking risks. Out of our fear of your low risk tolerance, we actually find ways to punish those principals who do take risks. Even though this stifles true school reform, we think the public is more comfortable with competent but mediocre leaders, not exceptional ones. Reform requires risk and risk requires forgiveness. Since you don’t forgive, we leaders don’t either. You can’t have it both ways.”
Amazing and talented people are sometimes seen as oddballs in their public schools. If Einstein, Edison and Jobs had been public school principals, they would have been removed from their schools and banished to cubicles.
Principals are not allowed any margin for error.
So now you know what stifles genuine school reform in public schools: a culture where perfection is the expectation of principals whom are given little genuine support and no forgiveness.
True school reform will remain out of reach as long as principals are quick to be blamed by teachers, communities and their supervisors, walking the high wire with no net, while district administrators and the public they serve are free to wag the shaming finger.
NO FORGIVENESS + NO RISK = NO REFORM.
©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.