Sunday, May 03, 2009

Good to Great: School Edition II

In the first post discussing the connections between Jim Collins' book Good to Great and schools, we examined the principle of getting the right people on board before casting and pursuing a path towards excellence.
Certainly quality leadership serves to promote an environment ripe for success. I chose to cover leadership, as discussed by Collins, second because even when leadership in a school lacks ability, if the right people are in the classroom, the school can still succeed. It is much like teaching a group of honors students. A low quality teacher does not have a detrimental effect on those who already possess great skills. However, in order for schools to be great, they do need the "Level 5 Executive."
Collins describes one Level 5 Executive, Darwin Smith--who rebuilt the old paper company Kimberly-Clark, as "an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will" (21). He quotes Smith as saying, "I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job" (20).
While I have great outsider respect for what leaders like Chancellor Rhee are attempting in long-failing systems like Washington D.C., I have to wonder whether these leaders are more concerned with personal ambition or developing a long-lasting success plan.
Leadership and the right people are the foundation of lasting success in schools. With a Level 5 Executive at the helm (in both the Central Office and at the building level), the right people feel a sense of security and purpose. Without the right people, the Level 5 Executive will feel the need to "manage" people instead of guiding them (56). At the building level, the need to manage people serves to lessen the culture of success needed for all purposeful reform. And if the right people must endure leaders who jump from one initiative to another or are clearly out to make a name for themselves, the culture of success is again undermined.
Unfortunately in public education, the ability to find Level 5 Executives can prove troublesome. First, many within the establishment believe that the best principals or superintendents must come from within the field of education. Second, those in the field of education who have the potential for Level 5 leadership are often discouraged by a pervasive "us vs. them" mentality. Not wanting to be "one of them" means those potential leaders remain in the classroom--which isn't always bad. This also plays out in the manner in which other teachers view other teachers who take on leadership opportunities within the building. If a colleague is perceived to be a mouthpiece for the administration (even if that leader is effective), other peers quickly begin having lunchroom conversations about their friend.
However, if we are going to turn around failing schools, we absolutely must have independent and creative thinking Level 5 Executives.


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