Tag Archives: parent engagement

Leaders Wanted. Sheriffs Need Not Apply.

12 Feb

Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of the Washington, DC schools appeared as a guest on Jon Stewart’s “Comedy Central” show the other night. As she talked about her tenure in the nation’s capital, she sounded more like a wild west sheriff than the leader of a school district. In the westerns I’ve watched, sheriffs ride into disorderly towns thinking the worst of the people who live there, pull out their six-shooters, gun down the bad guys, and quickly establish order. That’s an approach that may work in Tombstone, but it has no place in our schools.

Hired to turn around a failing urban system and armed with a point of view that teachers are our best hope for achieving this objective, Rhee and others with this “sheriff” mindset make the mistake of taking aim at teachers rather than engaging them as one key element of a complex solution to our nation’s biggest problem.
This “shape up or ship out” leadership style assumes the worst intentions of teachers – – that they don’t care about the success of their students, and are content to take their paychecks and go home.

School leaders, who don’t trust the people they lead, or respect their intentions and capability, aren’t likely to earn their trust and respect in return. So from the beginning, the objective of achieving higher academic performance through higher quality teaching is in jeopardy before the extent of a teaching quality gap has been measured. There is no argument that quality teaching contributes to student learning. It is also true—though less well understood—that quality educational leadership contributes to student learning, too.

More and more educational research finds that a well-established fact in business applies equally well to schools: The quality of an organization’s leadership contributes to its performance and productivity. Many of our school districts and schools are in need of leaders who can motivate and inspire people to do their best, appreciate them for their contributions and who know that they need the “soft stuff” that comes from creating a great culture in order to succeed.

Sustained best-in-class teaching can emerge from best-in-class leadership. Despite our best efforts, it’s unlikely to emanate from mandates and laws that decree it to be so. We need leaders with the skills to “sell” their ideas for achieving success to many different groups of people, instead of simply ramming mandates down teachers’ throats. It is not quite clear yet, but while a background in teaching may be necessary to educational leadership, it is insufficient.

Effective educational leadership also requires a growth-oriented mindset that enables one to see the glass as half full, not empty; the know-how to listen to other’s ideas and engage their trust and talents; the talent to create and sell a strategy with clearly defied metrics that tell you when you’ve arrived at your destination; the capacity to establish the structure and processes to align and focus people to the goal and the forte to create an organizational culture that becomes the foundation for achieving the hard results we want.

How much more effective at producing results for kids might Rhee and other superintendents be if their leadership was less about bringing order to an unruly, dysfunctional organization and more about getting people on their side to achieve success? How inspiring might it be to work for an educational leader who believes in your capacity to contribute, who respects you, engages your ideas, is committed to providing what you need to contribute, and shows appreciation for your efforts?

By now you’re probably thinking this is impossible to achieve in publicly funded school districts, to which I have just two things to say: Being a leader who believes in the capability of her people to contribute and who understands the importance of motivating them to succeed isn’t against any union or government law. And what have we got to lose?

FaceBook was recently recognized as the 2013 Employer of Choice. Employees cite trust in the company’s leadership, clear priorities, company culture, perks, and the impact they are making as reasons they are happy to be working at FaceBook. With this in mind, I wonder what a survey of DC and other school district employees might reveal about working in these organizations? The unspoken reality is that we don’t seem to care. But didn’t you hear? There’s a new sheriff in town.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

12 Nov

At a recent gathering held at The Westminister Schools, Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, suggested we stop focusing on testing and focus on how to get all students more excited about learning.  The Westminster Schools hosted Connected Community, a dialogue about transforming Atlanta education featuring Dr. Noguera, a leading authority on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions in the urban environment.

I think he’s onto something, but I’d offer a friendly amendment:  Let’s focus on everyone being more excited about learning – students, teachers and parents.  My suggestion for how we get there is pretty straightforward.  Let’s all behave as if learning is exciting. Seriously.

Where would we start? District and school leadership would have to align all people connected to schools around this purpose. They would have to lead and demonstrate to parents, staff, students and the community what it means for everyone to be excited about learning and why it’s important to the school’s productivity and performance.  Without understanding what and why, these stakeholders aren’t in a position to contribute to the attainment of the result – they’re not on the team.

In case you’re confused, people matter in an organization and schools are no exception. I hope we’re finally on the verge of figuring this out.  And the good news is none of this should run afoul of union rules or education policies. Efforts to unleash positive energy and success doesn’t have to cost a great deal of money.  David Novak, Chairman and CEO of Yum Brands! writes in his book, Taking People with You, Achieve Breakthrough Results, that people want to feel appreciated and recognized for their efforts and they want to have fun, but they are more often overlooked and unappreciated. This is a missed opportunity for too many of our schools.  Putting people first doesn’t mean low standards.

Having fun or experiencing satisfaction at work is a theme echoed in an Education Trust report entitled, Building and Sustaining Talent.  It shares howthe conditions for teaching and learning are critical to teacher satisfaction and results in increased learning for students in high-poverty/low performing schools.

And students are people who matter too. Clayton M. Christenson, the Kim B. Clark Professor at Harvard Business School writes in his book Disrupting Class, that despite our appeals to children that education is the key to their futures, the fact is that school is not most children’s first choice of places to be – past elementary school anyway.  In order for school to become a top choice for kids, they need to feel a sense of accomplishment and they want to have fun. Working hard and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive and in many cases, it’s really okay to have fun while you work.  Ask the folks at GE, Target, Southwest Airlines or Yum Brands!.

It’s pretty well understood that children learn best when they are excited about and engaged in learning and this aligns with their need to have fun and succeed in school.  Likewise, teachers experience more satisfaction in their work and are more productive when their efforts are appreciated and recognized, and when they too have a little fun.  When children come home more excited about what they’re learning in school and are more knowledgeable, their parents become curious, excited and interested to learn what’s happening at their child’s school – or maybe they’re in shock.

Take this example of how a teacher inspired her students to learn offered by Dr. Noguera during his remarks. The teacher brought a hermit crab into her classroom to teach her students about the crab and its habitat.  As the children had never seen one, it made the hermit crab real and unleashed a level of excitement and curiosity in them to learn about the crab that the teacher hadn’t quite seen before. Voila! With this small innovation, the teacher produced excitement and a deepened engagement in learning from her students. I don’t know the results of the paper, quiz or test she likely gave, but I’m confident these  more deeply excited children did a fine job of demonstrating what they learned about a hermit crab.  Given the students’ positive response to her inventiveness, I’m hopeful the teacher became more inspired to look for additional ways to excite and engage her students.

My question is, what if anything did the school leader do to recognize and celebrate her inventiveness, the children’s enthusiasm for learning and parents’ curiosity about what’s happening at the school?

When we recognize and celebrate the creativity of teachers, enthusiasm for learning from students and interest from parents, leaders take an important step to act on what is valued and add meaning to what all the people connected to the school care about.  Actions always speak louder than words.

Etienne R. LeGrand is co-founder and president of the W.E.B. Du Bois Society

Are black parents ready for the “parent trigger”?

29 Sep

As thought leaders, administrators and educators explore a myriad of solutions for what we all agree is a looming state of crisis in American education, the subject of parental engagement has made the short list of proposed strategies.

In a NY Times editorial last week, author Peg Tyre elevated this dialogue to another level when she raised then option of the “parent trigger”–a concept that is being proposed in more than 20 states to recognize and increase the impact of engaged parents and, I would argue, possibly bring another layer of complication.

According to Tyre, California was the first to adopt this trigger. Here’s how it works there: “parents whose children attend a failing school can band together. If 51 percent of them sign a petition, they can demand, and the district must provide, a new set of administrators to run the school. Alternately, the disgruntled parents can ask that a charter school operator be brought in to take over.”

On the subject of parental engagement in a child’s education, the research is clear: parents matter…a lot! Research consistently shows that parent involvement—in the home and at the school—has a significant influence on student achievement. Literature shows that students whose parents are involved in their children’s schooling have increased academic performance and overall cognitive development. For most people, that’s somewhat of a no brainer.

And while the notion of institutionalizing and operationalizing parental engagement has some appeal, how would it work in communities and districts where parents are systemically disengaged, uninformed and, themselves, undereducated?

Several research studies highlight the differences in the parental involvement of African American and Hispanic parents as compared to their white and Asian peers. This topic has also been reflected in discourse among educators and administrators. This phenomenon was reinforced for me recently when I encountered African-American parent who had no clue that her child had been truant for three weeks.

There are several reasons and barriers that inform this reality, but in many school districts, it is a reality nonetheless. If parental engagement is to elevate as the next big “it strategy” for reforming public schools, then attention must be paid to this racial/ethnic gap in parental engagement, and to getting more black parents up to speed to ensure this does not become yet another area where glaring disparity is perpetuated. If ever there was a case of “be careful what you ask for,” this is it.

I don’t propose to have a silver bullet either. In all honesty, it is a phenomenon that has left me at times dispirited in my work with African-American students over the past decade. But, I do think it has to start with this conversation. With juggling the various barriers and limitations in everyday life, many parents simply don’t have time or know how to support their child’s academic success…simply don’t know where to start.

We are trying to help with our parent-student contract that enables parents and children to talk about expectations for success in school and the behaviors that lead to it, and to hold themselves and their children more accountable to communicating and staying actively engaged during the school year. It’s a good start at helping parents express their commitment to their children, incorporate incentives along with consequences, and to set specific milestones for monitoring their child’s progress.

If you are a parent who is not fully engaged, or if you know one, let the discussion and the move to change start with you. How can you commit to ensure that, as parental engagement becomes a part of our public policy to reform education, minority parents are not left behind?