Time to Lead by Outrage

By George A. Goens/School Administrator, May 2015
Open any newspaper or magazine and you’ll see stories about the failure of public schools. And accompanying these harsh assessments are silver-bullet proposals to change the schools in some ways that would destroy them.
    Corporations and foundations eagerly fund charter schools, curriculum proposals and other so-called reforms. Bromides like standardized testing, simplistic teacher evaluation schemes and expanded technology, along with eliminating unions and diminishing local school board control, are offered as cures.
    These are crazy times, frustrating times, dangerous times. Silver bullets coupled with media bias and corporate influence place public education and teachers in the crosshairs.
    So what does this all mean for school leaders? I say it’s time for superintendents to lead by outrage. No, not by running around with their hair on fire or using brute coercion like a professional hockey enforcer on ice. It’s deeper than that.
Challenging Evaluation
Leadership by outrage is a symbolic act that highlights what is principled and right when proposed policies and practices are detrimental to children and to the institution of public education. Speaking out and standing up for what you believe and acting on your convictions takes moral courage.
    One case in point is teacher accountability and evaluation. So-called reformers and special interests propose assessing teachers using student achievement tests.
    The question here is one of ethics and proper practice. Teachers have a right to be evaluated through principled assessment systems. Should schools implement a process of teacher accountability that is wholly unsupported through research, insensitive to the conditions beyond teachers’ control, vacuous of the psychometric issues of reliability and validity and indifferent to the effects of poverty, family conditions, nutrition, parental support, community safety and other factors?
    Standing against these evaluation proposals is not without risk because the media and some political interests have advocated testing as a simple solution to a complex circumstance. Political expedience can collide with ethical decision making and professional practice. Taking a stand requires fortitude because some special interests have political power and have an economic or personal stake in these proposals.
Principled Actions
Superintendents must not just manage. We must lead and stand on professional ideals and ethical standards. We must develop programs based on a standard of care for children. We must move beyond short-term metrics and focus on the long term based on the welfare of children and the institution of public education. We must challenge politicians and special interests in defense of education and the common good.
    Acting on principle is at the heart of leadership. Public education needs leaders who stand up for the underlying vision and values of education in our democratic society and culture. We must be committed to the purpose of public education, its history, security and underlying values and commitments to children.
    Leadership carries with it a moral imperative to stand up for principle and speak the truth to power. Leaders do not kowtow on the basis of politics, finances or political favor when the education and care of children are endangered or compromised. There are hazards politically and professionally to leading with integrity. But standing silent when reform proposals are destructive to public education is not honorable leadership.
    Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley stated that leaders “should change us to think anew, remind us of the goodness that lies within each of us, and inspire us with the courage they demonstrate by telling us the truth.” The late Tom Sergiovanni once suggested public-sector leaders have a duty to “lead by outrage” when things are amiss. Historian James MacGregor Burns, in his seminal book Leadership, says leaders “do not shun conflict; they confront it, exploit it and ultimately embody it.”
Destroying Credibility
Leaders must do what is right. Stand up and speak out for what is ethically correct to provide a well-researched professional standard of care for our children. To remain silent or accept financial carrots to move ahead with professionally or ethically questionable proposals destroys the credibility of educational leaders and shatters the ideals of public education.
    We must stand on and for professional values, ethical practice and quality research so that our children have the care and opportunity to learn and grow and meet their potential. If superintendents do not do it, who will?

George Goens, a former superintendent, is an educational consultant in Litchfield, Conn. E-mail: Twitter: @GeorgeGoens