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Thompson: What Do "Influentials" Think They Are Doing?

Department_of_Education_-_NCLB_doorI know it’s weird, but I still have a strange curiosity about what education policy-makers think they’re doing.  Eduwonk’s Whiteboard Advisors Education Insiders Survey provides some clues, albeit complicated ones. 

The latest survey of movers and shakers concludes that collaboration and team building, risk taking, and decision making are the most important leadership skills. I agree with two of them, but I’d argue that the most important leadership value should be “first, do no harm” to the children you want to help. 

The survey determined that the three most important technical skills of policy leaders are content expertise, communication skills, and research, analysis and evaluation. Several volunteered comments about the value of actual teaching experience, however. The bottom three answers, however, were project management, strategic planning, and implementation management.

The Whiteboard Advisors then asked the astute question of what three skills they should have focused on at the age of 25.  Those answers were the opposite!  The majority wished that they had focused on real-world skills involving planning, management, and implementation. All three, by the way, are skills that effective teachers and administrators practice. In doing so, many or most practitioners become more risk-adverse.

Then, the survey’s finding really got complicated. When asked the three most overrated skills, strategic planning, project management, and research and analysis were the most overrated!

Perhaps the most intriguing comments to that question were related to project management.  I have long complained that policy analysts seem allergic to playing out the chess game, anticipating predictable and contradictory responses to new policies, and thinking through ways that they are likely to interact with each other. Two commenters saw project management skills as very valuable, but they also saw the exercise of them as a potentially dangerous endeavor, especially when done by persons who lacked content expertise. 

The comments, along with the survey answers, seemed to reveal an antipathy to D.C.-style policies from 30,000 feet. Reading between the lines, they seemed to value real research skills, analyzed by persons with content expertise, not just quantitatively sophisticated presentations. I hope this means they are open to a new era of eclectic research, balancing quantitative with qualitative evidence. Perhaps, they even seek data presented in a longitudinal manner or even informed by a sophisticated historical consciousness.

Nobody polled me but, personally, I’m glad that as a 25-year-old I was focused on the fundamentals of historical research.  The people skills that I most value could only come with maturity.  Plus, experiencing defeats was a much better preparation for teaching than enjoying successes. Having been a 39-year-old rookie teacher, I’d say that working brutal blue collar jobs might be the best background I’d recommend for a policy person. It should disabuse the big dogs of any assumption that systems work rationally or that power doesn’t corrupt.

I’d argue that policy types, like practitioners, need the skills that basketball and football coaches teach their players.  Regardless of whether you are a teacher, an administrator, a researcher, or a policy analyst, job #1 should be “play your position.” You then must learn when to “help out on D,” i.e. become a team player.

First, teachers should teach, administrators should administrate, and policy managers should manage policy implementation.  Second, they should learn when assistance should and should not be offered to fellow players in the team sport that is schooling.  One-man teams, like Michelle Rhee and John Deasy who want to improve schools through “disruptive” and “transformational” change, should be cut.

Perhaps the Whiteboard Advisors should survey successful coaches. Those that revel in risk-taking don’t last long. Winners cut down on unforced errors. Like Coach John Wooten taught his players, the key is learning to “be quick, but don’t hurry.”-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.


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