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Teacher Prep

Business Knows It, the Military Knows It and Now It's Time We Know It in Education: Leadership Matters

We’ve seen it happen too many times to count. Every two to three years, state and district education chiefs across the country step down and, with no succession plan in place, a mad scramble ensues, often termed a “nationwide search.” Students, teachers, administrators, families and advocates all pray for a leader capable of the colossal task before them, not confident they’ll get the hero our students deserve. In business, sports and the military, this gamble on leadership is unheard of. In their schooling at West Point, cadets are trained in leadership and select mentors who coach them toward the “knowledge and attributes needed to lead soldiers in the most trying of circumstances.” The cadets develop short- and long-term personal development plans that will bolster their strengths and close skill gaps. This ensures they are fit to command a platoon, and eventually a company or a battalion. And, should they leave the military, their skills often transfer well to managing government agencies, corporations or other roles as future leaders of society. Similarly, strong businesses devote significant resources to preparing its next generation of leaders with each management and leadership role in the corporation having multiple heirs apparent, and these lists are reviewed on a regular basis to ensure strategic execution in succession planning. Major-league sports teams are some of the best known for developing leaders through carefully crafted coaching trees that have seen generations of new talent. Look to some of the greats—Tony Dungy, Dean Smith, Greg Popovich and Mike Tomlin—to see a multitude of examples of great coaches who’ve developed scores of diverse talent. In education, as in the military and business, leaders’ skills have major consequences. That’s clearer than ever amid new evidence, laid out in a report my organization released last week showing that sustained, visionary, diverse leadership translates directly into learning gains for kids. The clear takeaway is this: For far too long, we’ve under-invested in both succession planning and in developing more diverse senior level talent in the top rungs of our state and district education systems. When leaders land in these top roles, they are often isolated and without access to the top talent needed to see their vision through. This comes at a tremendous cost to the students, families, educators and leadership in our systems. That’s why at Chiefs for Change we’re working to create a new normal in education system leadership—one in which we systematically invest in and draw from pipelines of well-prepared, bold-thinking, diverse chief candidates. And when they land in those top system leadership roles, we are working to accelerate and sustain their impact to help ensure long trajectories in the communities they serve. We launched our Future Chiefs program as a way to take already strong and inspiring systems leaders and prepare them for the next level by building on their strengths and exposing them to a network of successful leaders they can learn from and lean on. For female leaders and leaders of color who have historically been shut out of the top positions of power, this network of leaders, mentors and supporters is key. Indeed—to an astonishing degree in a female-dominated profession—education leadership replicates the old boys’ club mentality, in which mostly White, wealthy men perpetuate their own power through exclusive, privileged networks. It’s no wonder only 8 percent of district chiefs and 10 percent of state chiefs are leaders of color, and only 25 percent of district chiefs and 43 percent of state chiefs are women. The systems that we exist within have been built to reproduce the status quo over and over. That’s why Chiefs for Change has committed to launching cohorts of Future Chiefs that aim to be at least 75 percent leaders of color and 50 percent women. Diversity not only strengthens organizations and makes them more profitable, it also directly benefits students, leading to higher expectations for kids and subsequently higher achievement levels and long-term life outcomes.

A New, Better Kind of Leadership

So what would an education system that truly valued leadership quality look like? It would look like Future Chief Cohort 2 member David Hardy Jr.. Hardy prepared to hit the ground running as CEO of Lorain City schools through his relationship with mentors like Desmond Blackburn, superintendent in Brevard County, Florida, and Chief in Residence Pete Gorman. It would look like Future Chief Cohort 2 member Dr. Donald Fennoy, recently selected to succeed his mentor, Robert Avossa, as superintendent of Palm Beach County schools (and who is the first African-American to ever lead the district). For Hardy, Fennoy and others, their path to leadership was not an accident. It took years of cultivating meaningful coaching trees, intentionally investing in skill development and systematically developing relationships with mentors that hold unwavering belief and commitment to the power of diverse leadership. We must build pipelines of diverse, capable leaders who are prepared to take on the challenge of running large education systems. Business knows it, the military knows it and now it’s high time we in education know it: Leadership matters.
Julia Rafal-Baer is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. A former assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department, Rafal-Baer earned a Ph.D. in education policy ...

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