Friday, September 2, 2011

Blazing New Trails: Preparing Leaders to Improve Access and Equity

Dr. Gary W. Kinsey, NCPEA Past-President    
California State University Channel Islands

This summer’s NCPEA conference theme --Blazing New Trails:  Preparing Leaders to Improve Access and Equity in Today’s Schools—emanated from a suggestion by the 2011 Summer Conference planning group that consisted largely of member representatives from the Oregon Council for Professors of Educational Administration (OCPEA) and their universities.  As this nation’s early westward expansion extended to the part of the country that served as last summer’s conference site, it occurred primarily via the “Oregon Trail.”  Monumental challenges and much adversity faced those pioneers who were daring and persistent enough to make the journey to a frontier where their hopes and dreams could be realized.  The 2011 conference theme reflected the desire to explore new trails and not just the well-traveled paths in respect to how we currently view and support our public schools.  We need to be pioneers that will challenge the present day assumptions about how students best achieve and also prepare our leaders with this same mindset.
We are currently on a trail in this great country, that I fear is taking us completely the wrong direction as a means to improve access and equity for all children.  There is indisputable evidence about the effects of poverty on both family life and student motivation that is completely contrary to what policymakers and the public have been hearing so pervasively.  As presented by Diane Ravitch (2011) in her recent writings, there is a clear “need to reverse the increasingly narrow focus on testing and accountability.”  What is remarkable, is that Ravitch was once a proponent and key player in the current accountability movement that we are so caught up in.  She provides a few suggestions as policymakers look to ESEA reauthorization:

1)     Given the remarkable progress in math that schools serving poor and disadvantaged children have made, we should use data collection as a tool to figure out what has worked well – such as improved curricula and class size – and to help schools and teachers improve, rather than as a weapon to punish schools and fire teachers, which further destabilizes already fragile communities.
2)     The current system forbids us to say openly what we all know: Students who live in poverty and isolation face tremendous hurdles to learning, and they bring those problems with them to school every day.  If schools are to succeed, and students to reach their full potential, teachers, principals, and parents need to have the necessary resources to help them do so. This means helping all students arrive at the kindergarten door ready to learn through quality early childhood education, parent education, targeting scarce resources of money, small classes, and the best teachers to at-risk students to maintain those early gains, and linking schools to the range of community supports, such as after-school and summer programs and mentoring opportunities that middle-class children already enjoy.
3)     The federal mandates in No Child Left Behind that require schools to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress in reading and math embody a utopian goal that no state or nation has ever met: 100% proficiency on state tests. This has resulted in accountability measures that narrow the curriculum, especially for poor children, and game the system rather than helping students learn more. Measures that help schools, teachers and administrators determine how well they are serving their at-risk students require: enhancements to NAEP that will allow it to provide disaggregated data in more nuanced ways and to assess a much broader range of subjects; additional tools to assess children’s health, values, civic engagement, and other curricular and societal goals; and state flexibility in designing accountability systems so that a range of models can be tested to meet district needs.

In order to put us on a different trail that will allow all children to achieve their hopes and dreams in our present day and for the future, we need to be the new pioneers tenaciously blazing the trail to a strategy of building a strong education profession and attending to the conditions of young people's lives.   Our efforts should be changed from the current punitive approach of rankings, score comparisons and “races to the top.”  We should instead be taking steps to recruit, support and respect those who work in our nation’s schools.  Rather than ignoring poverty and its negative consequences, we should be designing programs to help families and children achieve social justice in education.  As McKerrow and Shockley-Lee (2005) so adeptly point out, “social justice is defined not only by what it is but also by what it is not, namely injustice.  By seeking justice, we anticipate the ideal.  By questioning injustice we approach it.  Integrating both, we achieve it.”
In our leadership programs we have an obligation to equip school leaders to pursue social justice and undertake a change of direction from the trail we are now on in respect to the overemphasis on assessment and accountability.  As Marshall and Oliva (2006) state, “…educational leaders are the people who must deliver some version of social justice and equity” (p.1).  As stated in her message to the NCPEA membership in 2007, Past-President, Linda Morford, commented “that many critics of school leadership preparation contend that many of our programs have failed to produce credible leaders capable of addressing the complex demands placed on contemporary schools.”  In fact, we “have a clear choice.  We can continue to defend ourselves against detractors such as Arthur Levine (2005), the business community, government and others, or we can …create an epidemic in our profession where we summon the will to work with others to address issues facing schools and, thus, improve our preparation programs.”  I encourage you to pursue the latter and be among the new pioneers and “voices of reason” pursuing a change of direction in achieving a new frontier of equity and access for all our nation’s schools.

Levine, A. (2005).  Educating school leaders.  The Education Schools Project.  Retrieved on April 1, 2005 from .
Marshall, C., & Oliva, M. (Ed.). (2006). Leadership for social justice:  Making revolutions in education. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.
Morford, L. (2007).  President’s message.  Lancaster, PA: ProActive Publications.
Ravitch, Diane (2011).  We must change the narrative about public education.  Edutopia.  Retrieved on May 2, 2011 from
Shockley Lee, S., & McKerrow, K. (2005, Fall).  Advancing social justice: Women’s work.  Advancing Women in Leadership, 19.  Retrieved March 25, 2006 from