AASA School Solutions                               Page 44


The Public Leadership Gap     



On cable TV, social media and coffee shop chatter, superintendents will hear others wrestling with some fundamentals of who we are as a country and where we go next. How do we balance our security and privacy; care for the elderly while expanding prekindergarten; grow the economy but more equitably; welcome newcomers even as we struggle to define anew who we are?

In these public conversations, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, our neighbors, our friends and radio DJs routinely mix it up.

Yet there’s a glaring gap. Most superintendents do not weigh in on the hot-button issues of the day, despite the fact that every significant social policy plays out on the stage of our schools. Politicians debate immigration policy while superintendents develop programs for English language learners. Congress stalls on the economy as educators teach poverty-stricken children. Race is an undiscussable topic for most, yet morally bankrupt proficiency gaps persist.

Reality-Based Perspective
Superintendents work in perhaps our most public enterprise, and their skills and experiences are honed in practices of prudence. As we debate the future of this republic, we urgently need the superintendent’s voice to educate society. Of course, superintendents step out on school issues, yes. AASA certainly does, as do other groups.

Might school leaders engage in the public dialogue more broadly, weighing in on the core, crosscutting issues that affect all of us, joining their professional counterparts from other walks of life?

Historically, they have not — certainly not for lack of interest or insight, but perhaps because they have been trained to remain apolitical. Ironically, education has been intensely political. School leaders occupy a uniquely public role in the reproduction of this democracy. Superintendents possess a rich and rare reservoir of experience that this nation needs desperately. In this hour of dysfunctional politics, we need the voice of grounded public service in real communities.

Why? Because in daily decisions, education leaders take on the awkward balancing acts that exist in the messy middle ground of real lives and communities, distant from those blithely blogging away in places nowhere near the action. Superintendents hold a cache of political prudence, of pragmatic, reality-based idealism, at a time we urgently need to hear a life-chastened perspective.

Society can learn from the pragmatic insights born of intimate on-the-ground experiences with families, communities, local economies and our collective human development.

Mid-Career Training
We need educators to step beyond school walls and show us what they know. Our democracy is fundamentally an educational exercise; those with deep experience can’t be on the sidelines to our core debates.

Universities need to step up and support a broader leadership role for superintendents. Yes, in training, but also in positioning graduates in public discussions where educational expertise can shed light.

At University of Pennsylvania, especially via our executive format doctoral program, we leverage our network and associational ties through online platforms and publications. We proudly collaborate with AASA through the Penn Educational Leadership Simulations Program, a web-based tool through which your practical experiences will inform other leaders across the nation. We also invite you to join leaders from around the world in our monthly discussion at #pennedchat, an initiative of our Mid-Career Innovations Lab. Penn and AASA will co-host #pennedchat this spring. Finally we invite superintendents to join us on any Mid-Career Program weekend and invent with us new ways to engage superintendents in our public debates.

Michael Johanek is director of the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in Philadelphia. E-mail: johanek@upenn.edu Twitter: @MikeJohanek


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