Why transformation requires bold leadership
Sheff v. O’Neill is a story that has come to define the narrative of how leadership—past, present and future—can make a difference in the lives of the teachers, students and parents in a school district. The Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case began in 1989 with a lawsuit filed by parents that named then Gov. William O’Neill in challenging the racial and economic segregation and inequalities between Hartford, Connecticut, schools and those in its mostly white, more affluent suburbs.
The case originally resulted in a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that said Hartford’s schools were racially, ethnically and economically isolated in violation of the state constitution. In response, the state legislature created a network of magnet schools and school choice options to attract a mix of city and suburban children.In 2022, a settlement was reached focused on resolving the issue by providing more options for Hartford students. The ruling expanded on a 2020 agreement that made more magnet school seats available to Hartford students and committed the state to increasing its investment in magnet schools.
Christina M. Kishimoto, EdD, always refers to this landmark case as the time when leadership rises to the top. The former superintendent of the Hawaii Department of Education and CEO of Voice4Equity firmly believes that while the role of today’s school superintendent has become increasingly more complex and challenging, opportunities like this to lead a movement of change remains.
“The risk in this environment is to give up or to become jaded, but keep in mind that some of the most impactful equity policies in education have been borne out of the opportunity to present the counter-narrative,” says Dr. Kishimoto. “This case most importantly challenged the mindsets of what students of color are capable of. Leadership demanded a constant look at decisions through an equity lens, and believed in the power of student and parent voice to determine their own futures.”
If you want the truth, Dr. Kishimoto, who also is a clinical professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, will give it to you. As she so boldly states, the U.S. education system has outlived its design. “We typically talk about this in terms of its basis in the industrial era when we needed to educate all students for work in an economy designed around achieving greater outputs of sameness, i.e., the factory model. Leadership today needs to know how to manage knowledge development opportunities within a technologically rich, innovative economy within a culturally responsive construct.”
In application, this means education leaders must have the skills to deconstruct systems that were not designed for our diverse population, and introduce new learning designs that flex how, when, where and with whom students are engaging, designing, discovering and learning.
“The challenge for today’s leaders is demagnetizing the powerful force of the status quo—that system that is a counterforce to diversity of thought and innovation,” Dr. Kishimoto says.
Seizing the moment
One general agreement across the board in today’s educational landscape is that the pandemic made the impossible possible. Policies became changeable—everything from how students were provided access to meals, to how teaching occurred, to digital devices becoming an essential school-distributed resource, and medical and mental health services provided using distance technology.
To ensure the U.S. remains competitive, the other prevailing thought is that our education leaders should be leveraging technology to transform the teaching and learning process. In his 30-plus years of working with school superintendents, Tom Davis has had the opportunity to observe myriad leadership philosophies and styles.
Davis, Director of Business Development at The Center for Educational Innovation, breaks down the styles as follows:
Top-Down/Autocratic — “My way or the highway”
Team-Oriented — Collaborative coaches
Status-Quo-Transactional — “Don’t rock the boat” leaders
Transformative — Bold leaders who are not afraid to be change agents or of the outcomes of their decisions
“Given the notion of bold leadership, one has to be willing to transform the current organization and not be afraid of being let go,” Davis says. “In public education today, with school boards getting more and more political, it appears that they are running the school system and not the superintendent. Everyone is exhausted after having gone through the pandemic. Everyone in the system is tired. With more teachers and administrators leaving the field, we are in a state of emergency. Teachers and leaders served as first responders.”
In his book, “Dancing with the Bear,” Dr. Ralph Baker says that the cornerstone to quality education is effective Board-Superintendent Teamwork, where roles are defined and direction is clear. Constant communication with all education stakeholders, and setting proper expectations before you take the leadership position are paramount to being an effective bold leader.
“Bold leaders keep at the center of their attention the needs of children,” Davis says. “The proper education of the child should be the focus of every decision being made by adults in the learning community. We need to get back to the concept of allowing superintendents to lead the school system, and school boards to set policies and guide the district with bold governance.”
While it may be difficult to pinpoint what the right leader in education is for this time of economic and political strife, Dr. Kishimoto says there are four key takeaways for PK-12 leaders.
The first is that leaders who take bold steps of change as equity leaders must remember that this work cannot be done alone. Build a strong internal and external network of influencers to help with the call for action.
Second, bold innovative equity leaders must develop Teflon shoulders, not a Teflon heart. Leaders must quickly learn to let comments that feel highly personalized slide off of them, while remaining steadfast in their equity agenda.
Third, bold change leaders must keep reminding their partnership, constituents and even naysayers that the status quo is powerful because it is comfortable, but too many students are falling short of their potential because we as adults are not moving fast enough.
Finally, bold education leaders need to develop policy and political astuteness. This is a politicized time, and we must be just as politically involved and savvy as those who are interrupting diversity of thought at the table.
As for the educational leaders who remain committed to the fight, Davis says the path forward is simple: leadership matters. “In any situation, smart leaders know how to adapt their style to their working environment. Read the room and decide what is needed. A leader needs to be an expert in all leadership styles and have the ability to move from one style to the next seamlessly.”
That remains the one sure-fire way to lead the charge.