Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Public Schools, Leaders and "The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations"

In the last week, I've had the opportunity to attend meetings with two leaders in the public sector.  One was the Superintendent of a large urban school district; the other the Mayor of a large East Coast US city;   After listening to them and reflecting a bit, it strikes me that there are some similarities....and some differences....in effective leadership in the public sector.  I'll deal with the school superintendent first and then the other one in a subsequent blog.

For my readers outside the US, attendance at public schools is largely dictated by where one lives. Students are enrolled in the school appropriate to their age, closest to their home. In many large US cities, wealthier people live in suburban communities and commute to the urban areas by automobile or public transportation for work. Hence, the school districts serving the city residents often are serving the children of the poorest residents in the overall metropolitan area.  Mike Miles is the Superintendent of just such an urban area...the Dallas Independent School District in Dallas, Texas.  To give you an idea of the scope of the role,  there are 230 schools, 157,000 students and over 20,000 employees.  Of the 157,000 students 70% are Hispanic, 24% African-American, 5% white, and 1% Asian.  Mr. Miles manages a $1.5 billion dollar budget for this school district.

Miles and his Board of Trustees  have agreed a vision, destination and set of core beliefs that you can find at this link.  I'm restating the core beliefs here for emphasis.
  • Our main purpose is to improve student academic achievement.
  • Effective instruction makes the most difference in student academic performance.
  • There is no excuse for poor quality instruction.
  • With our help, at risk students will achieve at the same rate as non-at risk students.
  • Staff members must have a commitment to children and a commitment to the pursuit of excellence.
To the point I made a couple of weeks ago about using data as an influencing skill, Superintendent Miles used data very effectively to make his points in a presentation I attended.  He compared his school district to both state and national scores on standardized tests.  He also had the data by individual school so that it was easy to identify high performing schools(three of the schools in his district were listed by the Washington Post as among the best five in the United States) and distinguish their performance from others. In spite of isolated instances of excellence and a track record that showed improvement, the data showed a significant gap between his school district and others in the state and nationally.  He also used trend data to show that although there was improvement over time, the performance gaps weren't actually closing.

He had stories from his own experiences as a minority student who had a speech impediment and the role two teachers had in helping him overcome those challenges to achieve excellence.  He also once served as a custodian in a school district for six months and knows first-hand about appropriate maintenance standards of performance.  He doesn't accept that instruction should be compromised because there was a gang shooting or overdose in the neighborhood, or that expectations should be lower for those from single parent households.  Powerfully, he used Michael Gerson's term "the soft bigotry of low expectations".

He closed by re-framing and elevating the conversation making it clear that no matter what the employees of the school district did, the school district would not improve unless the community demanded excellence.

Whether or not Mike Miles will succeed is an open question.  He's been in his role nine months.  He's making school principals accountable for the performance of their schools and made it clear under performance won't be tolerated.  He established a Leadership Development Fellows Academy to prepare aspiring principals   He's implemented a new teacher evaluation system whose elements are to identify excellence, help every teacher improve, and create lasting impact.  He's also established service level agreements for standards of performance for central office functions.  Among a number of imposing challenges, two things stand out as particularly difficult leadership challenges for someone in Miles position.  One, I'm hard pressed to think of an example in the private sector where stakeholders wouldn't support holding leaders accountable for improved performance, yet some parents and members of the Board of Trustees aren't happy...they are comfortable with their long-tenured principals and teachers and are resisting the change in performance evaluations....in spite of data that indicates chronic under performance.  Some are happy to celebrate the achievements of a few high performers and accept under performance for the majority.  Another factor is disagreement plays out in public media...newspapers and television reports.  While leaders in public companies have shareholders and annual shareholder meetings have their own dynamic, it seems to me there is a difference between an annual shareholder meeting and having your leadership decisions analyzed daily in the public media.

Best of luck to Mike Miles.  He clearly knows how to lead.  As he himself stated, his success is dependant on the community he serves demanding excellence.

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