How Should Leaders Respond?

Cultivating talent to create what doesn't exist by Rudolph F. Crew

At the end of a century that began when the automobile was still a novelty and ended with the capacity for instantaneous worldwide communication, we face the enormous challenge of educating all children to succeed in a global information economy.

Knowledge is the market currency in today's economy, and we must invest it wisely for this and future generations of students. Far too many children are sent out into the world without the intellectual capital they need to succeed. At a time of increasing diversity in our public schools, too many are still left behind, threatening our democratic society with the creation of a permanent underclass.

The pace of growth at the threshold of the 21st century is swift, and opportunity is passing by vast numbers of black, Hispanic and poor students whose test scores come in lower than those of their white and Asian classmates. These children perch precariously on the wrong side of the achievement gap, their futures held hostage to a system that is failing them.

At the dawn of the 21st century, we can map the human genome. We can detect water on Mars. We can build robots to do the work of men and women. Now we must educate every child for success and enable them to take a meaningful place at the economic table.

Cultivating Talent

The work before us is that of building an education system that will educate every child in every school across this nation to the highest standard, an education system that will guarantee every child his or her stake in the new economy. We must climb this hill for and with these children.

To do this, we must cultivate quality leadership, from superintendents to principals to teachers to school boards. We must build leadership that fosters a professional culture of competence that will transform all schools into high-performing schools. We must develop vertically integrated communities of practice where information is shared and disseminated for building better schools and providing top-quality education for our children.

We must recruit and pay for high-caliber teachers and leaders who will come to this nation's public classrooms every day secure in the belief that their job can be done and that every student is worth teaching to the highest standard. These educators will convey this confidence to their students in their teaching and their modeling.

We must engage the broader community in the enrichment of their public schools. We must bring community members—parents, grandparents, volunteers, business people, the arts community—into a culture of high performance in which their roles as caregivers and caretakers add value and enrich the lives of all children and, in particular, children who have difficulty meeting academic or behavioral standards.

We must use cutting-edge technology to bring models of excellence in education to the far reaches of this nation so practitioners have access to the full array of best practices and no child falls behind or below. Technology is the indispensable tool in the design and dissemination of successful leadership and gap-closing models that can be replicated across the nation. Technology is essential, as well, in our work to extend learning opportunities beyond the school day and year, thus reaching students who otherwise might be left behind.

An Integrated System

School leadership in today's society is a whole new ball game. There was a time when school superintendents were hired to manage what was already in place in a school. Today, that work is about creating what doesn't even exist, about inventing and reinventing.

Superintendents, principals and teachers once worked in silos, each required to know all there was to know about a particular job, each working on a parallel track or in isolation. Those old silos must finally be dismantled and the knowledge from each of them integrated into the act of teaching and the art of learning.

If we are to lead another generation of students into the future, we must teach them how to succeed. Leaders must model for students what adults can and will do to overcome the inertia of school systems that have long since stopped listening to them.

Leaders must engage in meaningful and sustained dialogue about children. They must create new learning opportunities for the adults who teach them. They must mine the intelligence in the field for the full array of strategies and practices to inform the work of educating this and future generations of leaders. They must share what works and what doesn't work.

Education in the new economy must invest every child with a set of core competencies that enable him or her to compete in the global arena, in the employment sector and in personal life. It must move beyond standards of academic preparation and give equal importance not just to being smart but to having a true sense of literacy connected to occupational and civic pursuits. Today's children must leave school with a clear sense of what it takes to build personal adequacy, what it means to be worth something quite independent of income and brand-name clothing.

Educators must recognize and honor a multiple intelligence with which children learn to guide their day-to-day lives by moral reasoning and a clear understanding of the rules for participating in their community, in the economy and in our democracy. We must make sure children leave school with a core set of competencies that speak to their humanity as well as to their academic proficiencies, rather than just a compendium of what they have learned and can repeat on a test.

Chonicled Gains

Teaching and leading all students to succeed in the information economy is a daunting task, but it can be done, and it can be done well. There are signs of promise and progress across the nation as school districts come to terms with what it means to provide every child with a top quality education.

An American Federation of Teachers policy brief in October listed 11 urban school districts that have shown steady improvement for three years running in achieving excellence. Those districts are Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Corpus Christi, Hartford, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The AFT brief, titled "Doing What Works," chronicled successes in these districts that resulted from applying the strategies that have worked for other school districts, replicating them and scaling up.

And what works? According to the AFT, strengthened working relationships between superintendents and unions, statewide reading standards, accountability, professional development from the classroom to the administrative offices and closure and redesign of low-performing schools. The thread throughout is teamwork, the recognition that results will follow if everyone pulls together. No more blame game. No more turf battles.

But let us make no mistake. Time is not on our side. This is a "hurry-up" offense. School choice is driving a market that, not that long ago, was dominated by public education. There are no more excuses. We must act with diligence and with creativity to cultivate quality leadership in education, the brand of leadership that will restore our public schools to their rightful place of excellence.

A recent Gallup poll found a decided preference among the American public for reinvigorating our public schools rather than putting taxpayer money into vouchers. It's the most important work of the decade ahead. The window of time is short. And if we fail, it won't be long before they turn out the lights on public education.

Rudy Crew, former chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, is executive director of the Institute for K-12 Leadership, University of Washington, Box 357985, Seattle, Wash. 98195. E-mail: rcrew@u.washington.edu