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Leadership Day 2008

Scott McLeod deemed today Leadership Day, and so it is!  And so I go…

If you haven’t watched the video of Chris Lehmann’s presentation at NECC, there’s no question that it’s a must see.  I’m sure I’ll have lots of occasions to use it as a pedagogical tool with my ed. leadership students, especially as a model of instructional leadership.  The reviews of Chris’ preso have been through-the-roof high, and deservedly so.  Will Richardson used Twitter to suggest that we need to clone Chris, and Bud Hunt (aka Bud the Teacher) replied that he had secretly taken a few of Chris’ hairs for exactly that purpose.

For those who don’t know, Chris is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy; a magnet high school in Philadelphia that he founded/started a few years ago.  Because he is extraordinarily transparent (want to visit SLA; just ask!) and collaborative, and for at least one other reason I shouldn’t disclose, I’ve learned quite a bit about Chris and SLA.  And, as best I can tell, we really do need to clone Chris; we can’t have enough principals like him.

THAT ALL SAID, here’s the question…what would happen if we suddenly made Chris the principal of Frederick Douglass High School (NOTE: the school doesn’t even have it’s own website) in Baltimore (the subject of a recent HBO documentary which has been written about by me and others)?

You see, Chris admittedly had the luxury of starting a brand new school according to his (and presumably others’) incredible vision.  He got to self-select a whole faculty.  The school’s magnet status means that the students that attend, at some level, want to be there.  in fact, according to the school’s website,  “[a]dmission to SLA is based on a combination of a student interview at the school with a presentation of completed work, strong TerraNova scores, As and Bs with the possible exception of one C, teacher or counselor recommendation and good attendance and punctuality.” I know many, many principals who would drop everything to be able to select an entire faculty and work with already accomplished students.

But, there’s another thing that separates Chris from the vast majority of his principal peers.  Chris is an unrelenting progressivist and he has a true global, future-oriented vision.  Just read his recent blog post about progressive pedagogy for 21st century schools.

I know that not all schools like Douglass High are destined to fail.  I’ve seen and read parts of this book.  And, I know about the Achievement Alliance’s efforts to document success stories.  But, even there, if you read about the high school they spotlight, the school is unique in its geography and the “success” is having gone from 26% proficiency in one subject (ELA) to 42% proficiency over the course of 6 years.  That’s steady, but slow, improvement; but 42% is not exactly superior.

I’ve also followed closely the research and documentation of the 90/90/90 schools (90% low income, 90% minority, 90% proficiency).  Just about everything I’ve read about those schools (including this by Douglas Reeves) points to a blinding focus on standards, assessment, data-driven decision-making, etc.  For better or worse, there’s NOTHING progressive about those schools.

So, I wonder what would happen if we put Chris Lehmann in the hardest-to-staff schools; schools consistently failing to make adequate yearly progress.  I guess the question I’m asking is: Who wins?  The extraordinary progressive leader or the system?  Can a brilliant, extraordinary leader WITH A PROGRESSIVIST BENT truly reform a severely struggling school within the existing system of public education?

Personally, I think Chris, or someone like Chris, would do wonders in a school like Douglass High.  But, unfortunately, I think that remains an open (empirical?) question.  And, I’d love for us to be able to do that empirical work.  I would love to document the experiences of bright, extraordinary, progressive leaders who have proven successful in more comfortable situations attempting to completely turn around a failing school.  Please note, my interest is not how “good” someone like Chris is.  I want to know what effect “the system” has on someone as “good” and particularly as progressive as Chris.  If you know of any such experiences, let me know.

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5 Responses to “Leadership Day 2008”

  1. Great questions… and certainly, I was given a great opportunity to succeed with SLA. I think all of us at SLA have worked pretty hard to be worthy of that opportunity, but we’d never suggest that we weren’t given a headstart.

    SLA is, still, a, urban school. We have over 45% of our students on free / reduced lunch, and our kids face many of the same hardships that kids at Douglass face. Many of the “things we cannot blog about” journal entries on my computer are about the lives our kids lead, and how frustrated we feel at where our ability to protect them ends.

    All that being said, you ask the right question. I don’t know how I would have done at Douglass. Certainly, if the only thing I was asked to do was raise test scores, I wouldn’t be the right leader for that school. But I look at the success of my friends at places like Bronx Laboratory (granted, another start up) in NYC, and I do believe that we can build progressive schools in our cities that aren’t pure magnets. In fact, I offered to start a school in Philly that wasn’t a magnet because I didn’t want our ideas to be easily dismissed with the “Oh, they’re just a magnet school, it doesn’t work with OUR kids…” comment. (And, sadly, I hear that comment far too much.) But the idea of SLA was magnet-driven, and the opportunity to partner with a institution like The Franklin with its shared focus on inquiry was too good to pass up. So we made ourselves into a “weird magnet,” and I can tell you we’ve turned down kids with perfect Terra Novas to accept kids with low scores because the interview process really matters.

    In the end, though, one of the things I say when I go out and talk is “If you put a good person in a bad system, the system will usually win.” (I stole it from Pirsig.) I believe we are squandering the energy and intelligence of thousands of educators in this country — and especially in our cities — because our systems are badly broken. We need to question what schools should look like, we need to question the way we need to teach today, and we need to question what our goals are so that more people have the opportunity to learn and lead in schools that matter.

    Thanks for the post, Jon.

  2. Jon Becker says:

    Thanks for the comments, Chris. I wish we could setup some kind of experiment (though I don’t like that term since we’re talking about kids) where we took a really struggling school and completely overhauled it in the model of SLA.

    Oh, and do you have a Pirsig reference for that quote?

  3. I think we could look at the work of the small schools in NYC for some models there. There are a lot of places where they’ve broken up big failing school and made successful small schools.

    And the quote is somewhere in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I don’t remember the page number, I’m afraid.

  4. Jon Becker says:

    Do you know if any of those small-er schools oriented towards inquiry and progressive pedagogy the way SLA is?

  5. Hi Chris

    Such leaders can make a difference if if they have permission to organize. When they don’t one gets less than a desirable outcome, e.g., Virginia’s ‘turnaround’ specialist program. Where there is some light is New Orleans and D.C. but they do it by starting from scratch and with permission. While it is very early, these districts are trying to create the conditions for success, i.e., Wallace Foundation studies call for creating the conditions for success as a go-no-go requirement. In all of my turnaround school and district ventures I have had (demanded) permission, created the conditions for success, and used a portfolio of mentor schools paired with high priority schools in a parallel theory of change (Kanter, 1983) to scale success across the district. I’ve done this successfully with communities and schools over several decades. This is not easy nor quick…..the alternative is starting from scratch and I am not sure wholesale change like that is doable across the nation. And in New Orleans and D.C. where wholesale change is at work, they have a start but in my humble opinion not enough resources (partners, money and human capital) to sustain it or scale it across their communities or states/districts. If Louisiana were to use New Orleans as a renorming unit in a parallel theory of change cycling principals, school and district leadeship teams in and out like a top gun school, they may be the first state to scale and sustain a powerful turnaround engine. Maybe……..if any one has the stomach and vision it is Paul Pastorek the Louisiana superintendent.

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