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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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