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Market Share Dynamics: Superintendent Challenges in Ensuring Safe Leadership

We don’t like to think of our schools as political–and for good reason. But anybody that has ever run a school or school district will tell you that politics exist.

School leadership makes important decisions about budgets, union contracts, even what is and isn’t taught in classrooms. All of these decisions, no matter how small, stand to have a huge impact on students and the local community.

Because public opinion matters, school leaders and board members will, on occasion, feel pressure to make the popular choice, or to play it safe when it comes to innovation.

But that’s a mistake, says school management consultant and former district superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, in a recent commentary for Education Week.

Fischer says it’s this kind of middle-of-the-road thinking that is hurting our schools:

“After serving more than a decade as a superintendent, I have learned firsthand that our education system is often shaped more by the politically safe and less by the fearless experimentation it takes to truly improve schools for all students.”

In an environment where public schools face criticism for not being agile or forward-thinking enough, it’s worth debating whether this kind of thinking has contributed to the rise of competition and choice.

Being THE choice means taking risks

It’s the most common argument made by school choice advocates:

Public schools have had their chances, and they’re failing.

The same critics say that an infusion of competition—be it from charters, private school voucher programs, or other alternatives—will pressure all schools into improvement.

Whether that’s true, (there’s plenty of conflicting data out there), charter and alternative schools are often projected as hubs of innovation and experimentation, while traditional public schools are often branded as uninventive and stuck in their ways.

Fischer says real progress against big problems, such as the achievement gap, demand bold, often unpopular, solutions. Superintendents, whose careers are in the hands of school boards and community members, often steer clear of the controversial policies and programs that stand to have the biggest impact, for fear of clashing with popular sentiment.

Fischer looks back at his own experience in a Connecticut district where he introduced unpopular policies intended to boost student achievement. Though his policies achieved big gains, clashes with the local school board ultimately cost him his job.

“I have no regrets. Compromise on vital change rarely works. School politics too often become the art of keeping your head down and preserving your retirement, but it’s our students who pay the price.”

For districts that want to cultivate innovation and challenge conventional school choice rhetoric, head-down leadership isn’t the answer.

Take informed risks

Fischer might be right: maybe school leaders do need to take more risks. But that doesn’t mean they have to go it alone.

Want more ideas for bold school leadership? Read National superintendent of the year: ‘Engage very student’

The most effective school leaders understand public sentiment on important issues, because they constantly seek and listen to community feedback.

The test of a true leader is what they do with that information.

Bold action doesn’t happen in a vacuum or behind closed doors. The best school leaders lead in the open. They engage in conversation with their communities. And when they do make unpopular decisions, they invite criticism and discussion and clearly explain the reasons behind their choices.

Not everyone has the courage to take an unpopular stance, Fischer says. But in an education environment yearning for bold action, public school leaders need to avoid the trap of popular opinion.

What do you think of Fischer’s approach to school leadership? What bold decisions are your schools making? Tell us in the comments.