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Great leaders keep the focus on student learning

7.16.10 – Public education is crying out for leaders. This may seem strange when there is no shortage of people in leadership positions. They have attained degrees, certification, experience, and titles that qualify them to direct and supervise other educators. But not all people in leadership positions are leaders.

Many believe their primary role is to keep the public school system operating efficiently. This is important, but leaders not only keep school systems afloat, they keep a steady hand on the tiller, skillfully guiding public education to a more productive destination.

Public schools exist, or should exist, solely to prepare all students to become independent, self-sufficient adults and helping them develop particular knowledge and skills. This requires engaging all students in high-quality educational experiences while also providing them attention, care, and social-emotional support. Of course, this proves to be a highly complex process.

Without effective leaders, public education is often a maelstrom of competing interests. Attention and effort can shift from students’ needs to responding to the most powerful or persistent adult voices. School system leaders understand that one of their roles is to modulate and, in some cases, resist these demands, ensuring that the system’s focus remains on student learning. This is often exhausting work and certainly not the reason most leaders chose public education as a career. Nevertheless, leaders prepare for and embrace this role, understanding that their success directly impacts student performance.

School system leaders’ effectiveness depends on their skill to inspire, mobilize, and support front-line practitioners. Their vision is shaped not by the latest education trends, but by a simple resolve that the school system must work to the maximum demonstrable benefit of all children. They organize and deploy the school system’s financial, human, and technological resources to enhance the intensity and effectiveness of students’ instruction. Leaders know they cannot do this alone, so they identify and cultivate allies, from the board room to the classroom, with whom they collaborate to make student learning the priority.

Solving problems is always a major role for school system leaders, and it is important they meet this responsibility with creativity, deliberation, and patience. But problem solving can also become a refuge from taking initiative to prevent problems. If an educator defines his or her role as that of a problem solver, there certainly will always be problems to solve. Leaders, on the other hand, define their roles as pursuing an aggressive agenda to raise levels of educator and student performance. Because they are conscientious in attending to operational and educational issues to advance that agenda, they are able to manage problems rather than vice versa.

School system leaders are in demand because public schools are not educating all students effectively. Educators in leadership positions who focus almost exclusively on implementing prescriptive procedures, rules and regulations, and making sure others do so, are not leaders. There is an appropriate role for such individuals, but as long as they dominate, school systems will continue to function as they do now, with the same results. If school systems and communities want to improve academic outcomes for all students, they must expect educators to lead, prepare and support them, and, most importantly, must permit them to do so.

Hayes Mizell is NSDC’s distinguished senior fellow.


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