Saturday, December 4, 2010

What School Leadership Should Be About

Leaders in education cannot become concerned only with standardized test scores. Leaders cannot afford to mistakenly believe that their schools are islands of learning beyond other concerns. The community of school is bound to the human community that surrounds it, and, by extension, to the rest of the world. The issue of involvement and interaction with the school environment is important, but only as it is a strategy that leads toward social justice.

One unseen issue is that schools are filled with teachers and leaders of good intent, but also with a lack of clarity concerning the real problems of schools. We mostly fail to confront our complicity as agents responsible for the very inequities we rail against. We are complicit and instrumental agents who usher along cycles of social reproduction, even when the model we reproduce is the essence of racial and class hegemony. Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of the Nation calls our education system a kind of American apartheid. I would stretch a bit further and liken it to an Indian caste system, or the Mexican encomienda. In these old-world systems of social hierarchy, the effects of which are still actively being worked out, social status is determined by the nature of your birth. In India your occupation was a copy of your parents’ social level and associated work tradition. There were strong racial and ethnic restrictions built into this system, but all was cloaked in the primacy of religious mandate. The Brahmins, the keepers of religious tradition, not surprisingly, enjoyed the most privileged status. Social mobility was not a provision of the caste system. In Spanish-controlled colonial Mexico, the encomienda system was focused on the individual’s ethnic or cultural birth rights in a more blatant manner. The Spanish born, or peninsulars, were most privileged, of course because they were of the conquering culture. As time passed other social strata had to be created. The criollos, or Mexican born of Spanish parents, were less affluent. The mestizos, or those of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage, were a level further removed from power. The indigenous population, still the bulk of society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, received the least amount of access to the cultural capital of their day. Brought into the fray against their will, the African slave population was the lowest of all.

If some educators would read this, powerful reactions may arise. I’m crazy for drawing comparisons of American education to colonial racism. But am I that far off? America’s history runs parallel with that of Mexico. We are also still reconciling ourselves with our own history of slavery followed by legalized institutional racism. Social inequities in education continue to exist. How can that be unless social reproduction is being continued and managed through our public schools?

Consider the explanations in another light. If “school” is not the problem, meaning the current system of education as practiced commonly today, then gross inequities must be explained in other ways. Poor kids are just too ill-equipped socially, mentally, or are otherwise deficient. They will never “measure up.” Those foreign language speakers just aren’t trying hard enough; they’re faking it anyway. Those special needs kids are hopeless, or they use their disabilities as a crutch. And those black kids just are a mess. They act entitled to everything and argue and complain whenever they’re held accountable for something. Once you see the counter-arguments for what they are, racist, ignorant, and elitist rubbish, then what is it that remains? The system itself perpetuates social and racial inequities. Who fares consistently well while other identified sub-groups lag behind year after year?

And so the leader of the American school first must challenge himself to face this ugly reality eye to eye. Call it by name. A leader in education must think and act like a social reformer. Social justice will never become real by wishing for it. It will never come to pass by waiting for others to make it happen. The easiest path to follow is the one that already exists; this path leads to social reproduction. Those who seek social justice in schools must blaze new trails in the landscape of educational practices.

Creating a school environment in which authentic dialogue among all parties involved is practiced and expected; this should be a high priority of the leader seeking social justice. Raising the level of educational discourse is essential if justice is desired. Anything less is just complacency. Leaders who are willing to engage in the tough and uncomfortable issues that really need to be the topics of staff development meetings; they are the ones who will move us closer to social justice. Leaders who understand that parental involvement takes on hundreds of forms, not just ten or twelve; they will earn the respect of the community. Leaders who take time to understand and appreciate the diversity of their student body; they will inspire students to achieve higher levels of learning. Leaders who speak of social truths and realities instead of test scores; they will earn the respect of their teachers.

Saint Maximilian Kolbe was executed by a lethal injection of carbonic acid at Auschwitz, 14 August, 1941. During the weeks before his execution he was savagely beaten and starved, once left for dead. He continued in this nightmare environment to minister to others, perform Mass, give last rites, and generally share the work of God. He would use smuggled wine and bread for his Mass services. Relevance? Those dedicated to a great and noble cause will do anything necessary to bring about the desired change.

Educational leaders should, indeed, view their position as a privilege as well as a heavy responsibility. Social change will only come when leaders actively seek such change. In the last issue of his publication, The Knight, Kolbe wrote,
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

Those who would be real leaders in education must dedicate themselves to social justice in the same way that religious leaders dedicate themselves to divine missions. In fact isn’t the educational mission another kind of divine mission? Do we not speak of love? And what is love if not an acute and sincere concern for the well-being of others? Social justice must ultimately be based upon a deep concern for the well-being of others. This requires school leaders who recognize the humanitarian mission of education. It requires individuals who will not compromise the educational mission out of fear of retribution or fear of angering teachers and parents. It requires a bravery and dedication usually attributed to heroes and saints. Anyone who moves into a school leadership position must accept this responsibility, or hopefully recognize their own limitations and allow someone else to take up the challenge.

“The most deadly poison of our times is indifference.” Saint Maximilian Kolbe