The Long and Short Term Investment Struggle of School Leadership

With April comes spring flowers, the crack of the baseball bat, the return of the mosquito, and the release of AYP in New Hampshire…

For years, I’ve struggled with the disconnect between the vision of school leaders and that of the families who entrust them with their children.  While school leaders need to maintain a long term vision on their school, parents’ vision is often only short term.  I’ve often used investing as a metaphor.  The long-term investor (school administrators) are looking for steady growth over a number of years.  The short term investor (families) are looking for a quick turnover with substantial growth over a short period of time.

School leaders have to have a vision of their school that extends years.  Parents have to have a year to year vision for each of their children.  For example school leaders hire new, young teachers instead of veteran (and yes more expensive) teachers with the hope that the time, energy and cost of training a new teacher will result eventually in a better teacher.  New initiatives are often given 3-5 years to show results.  School in Need of Improvement Plans are given at least two years to turn around a poor performing school.  Parents, however, have a much different time frame.  Their child is only a third grade student once, they only have one chance to transition into middle school, if they do not finish Algebra by the end of their 8th grade year they will not make it to Calculus their senior year, and  freshman English is the only time they learn the critical high school note-taking skills they need to be successful.  In effect, the school years are simply a collection of short term investments on the part of families with each new investment dependent upon the one prior.

So, while the school leaders must think long term about the vision and health of the school community, families are hand cuffed by the urgency of short term commitments and while they may support the philosophies of the long term vision, they are scared of the uncertainties that often accompanies early stages of that vision.  This has always troubled me.  As a parent… no as a human, I can’t help but feel for the mother who wants nothing but the best for her child; yet as an educational leader and a humanitarian, I support the long term professional development growth and evolution of education.  It’s a dichotomy that, frankly, I have grown accustomed to, and perhaps one that I have accepted as a learning leader.

AYP, however bothers me in a different way.  As more schools are confronted with the ramifications of not making AYP and/or being named a “School in Need of Improvement”, I am having more discussions with school leaders about how AYP is calculated, what their responsibility is to report it, how to interpret the data, and – here’s the kicker – what can be done between now and next October when the students take the tests that determine the school’s 2011 AYP status to avoid being in the same situation – or worse – next year.  And that, is where I struggle most.  The grand accountability mandate that we know as NCLB turns accountability into a game, one where the leader who can maneuver their school through a variety of test preps, and short term initiatives avoids the financial, personnel and professional development sanctions that come with the School in Need of Improvement designation.  The leaders with the long term vision can often be railroaded by such sanctions.  So once again, as a learning leader I find myself in the push-pull relationship between long and short term goals in trying to keep the focus of other leaders on the long term vision all the while knowing they cannot afford to miss the short term mark because I know if they miss that mark, any long term vision may be on hold for many years.

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One Response to The Long and Short Term Investment Struggle of School Leadership

  1. Cathy Toll says:

    I would encourage you to take a look at Sam Chaltain’s recent book, “American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community.” Among his many insights are a few about creating shared vision in a school, which he supports not only with ideals about democracy but also with research into the functioning of systems and practical examples from real life. I think it might give you a new perspective on the dichotomies you see.

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