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Get Ready for What's Next: A Leadership Imperative

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It is important for leaders to keep listening. Rumblings from afar often portend the future in its earliest phase. While leading and keeping our eye on what is close, it is very important not to become so focused we miss what the horizon's telling.  An essential facet of successful leadership rests in the ability to know, understand, and do what is necessary on a local level to ensure a successful school year.  That includes assuring schools are safe, maintaining a healthy social/emotional environment for everyone, scheduling the right courses, providing the right training for teachers, keeping abreast of all mandates as they change and know how to implement them, developing the budget that will sustain growth...the list goes on. It is equally important to pay attention to the national picture while we are attending to our daily work in which we are both engaged and impassioned. Let us learn from the past.

There remains a lot of controversy about charter schools. Certainly, they came to be because of our perceived failure to educate all of our students. Maybe there was also the factor of the private sector wanting some of the money spent on public education. Did we overlook that our failings were becoming so clearly black and brown and poor? And it wouldn't or couldn't have happened had we been able to make inroads to address the challenges some of our schools and cities have faced. We have seen no long-term evidence that charter schools are successful at a rate different from our public schools. But, in our work, we rarely see things go away.  Rather, we see things added.  Now that we have charter schools, they are likely to stay. Hold that thought.

Several things are happening on the national scene right now.  One appears to have nothing to do with education, and one does but we contend they both do.  Comcast is potentially acquiring Time Warner.  Last year the New York Times reported that a group filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against Comcast that was "thrown out" by the Supreme Court.  It was not thrown out because it had no substance. The court split on whether or not the group "failed to meet formal legal guidelines for how to certify that evidence of wrongdoing was common to the group and that damages could be measured on a classwide, rather than an individual, basis." The argument became whether or not the suit itself met guidelines required to be considered as a case for the Supreme Court. But the court was split on whether that was so. So now, a year later, the march toward monopoly continues and it looks like the pendulum has swung.  (Let us not forget the demise of Ma Bell in 1984).

At the same time, the February issue of American School Board Journal reports, "Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft's Bill Gates have donated $9,000,000 to the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway.org to help bring Internet infrastructure to every school in America." That will be a great benefit with potential for getting high-speed access to all students even those in urban and rural schools where access has been spotty at best. Yet, there are hidden signals for educators that we cannot afford to miss in both of these occurrences.

While the field of Internet providers narrows, and the capacity for access to the Internet broadens, what do you suppose the public's expectations for their use will become?  The first thing we should take note of is the willingness of mega business to donate $9,000,000 for this effort.  In individual school budget terms, it isn't much if it were to be spread across the nation.  The Center for Educational Reform reports there are 13,588 school districts in the US. That means, in dollar terms, each district would receive approximately $715, had it been given directly to the districts. Truthfully, not every district needs it; many already have internet infrastructures and have had for years. What is embedded in this donation is an expectation that schools are going to use this technology to improve instruction, perhaps have a more global application of blended and flipped learning, or even distance learning.  After all, they will be giving some of us the tools with which to accomplish this.  The $9,000,000 must be followed with more millions of dollars to provide time and training for the educators who will be using this new capacity.

Dean Patton, executive editor of Yes Magazine wrote an article outlining his view of the reform agenda's history and how big business sees selling the failure of education as a way for them to step in and make big money. If this is so, what is the message to educational leadership?

Charles Darwin said, "It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change." Leading change involves watching the horizon. It is a difficult thing to do with our attention pulled, always, by the tasks at hand, the knocking on the door, the list of things to accomplish, and always, always, the emergencies.  Not as a lone leader, but as a group, it is important, even essential that we watch the field unfolding.  This is a time for leadership to reach out to colleagues and develop a louder voice. We know how difficult it is to undo expectations and beliefs that have had time to form.  Here is an opportunity to stand up and speak out before we are subjected to public expectations that, in some cases, are unrealistic for us to meet.  Now is the time to speak up with expressed gratitude about what it really takes to make a school, any school, ready to receive and use this new capacity.  Now is the time to speak out about what is really needed to minimize this social inequality, our concerns are growing. $9,000,000  is a drop in the bucket toward solving the problems of inequity. The new frontier of technology will have a single provider and greater access. The impact is far away. But what is the intent? Neither Comcast's new national reach nor the dollars of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg will solve the limitations of students living in poverty. 

But for those poised to take advantage of the combined new capacity, they can help.  We need to be the prepared ones or the private sector will most certainly jump in. Virtual charter schools supported by the world of technology or public schools connected and active...these questions arise. It is important for leaders to watch the rumblings going on. 

American School Board Journal. Feb. 2014. (p.9) Vol. 201, No.1

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