Advice to the New Upcoming Leadership of the New York State Board of Regents

After twenty years on the Board of Regents Chancellor Tisch and Vice Chancellor Bottar have announced they will not be seeking another term. Chancellor Tisch was elected chancellor by her colleagues in 2009 and Bottar in 2012.  I am told that the Board, including the outgoing members, will select the new officers at the March, 2016. The two new Board members, who will be elected by a joint meeting of both houses of the state legislature in March, will assume their seats on April 1.

The last decade has been turbulent, with five different commissioners, Mills, Steiner, King, Wagner and Elia.

With the election of President Obama in 2008 the education community was hopeful, perhaps a reconfiguring of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law; instead the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education resulted in a drastic change, the new secretary used his power to consolidate education policy-making in Washington. From Race to the Top to the Common Core to two national testing consortia (PARCC and SBAC) and  data-based (VAM) grading of teachers, there had been a sea change.

The Board of Regents, in the first years of the Obama years enthusiastically supported the presidential agenda. When Commissioner Steiner unexpectedly left his virtually unknown deputy, John King, was selected as commissioner.

Commissioner King “managed” the Board, with some dissent; Regents Cashin and Rosa voted against the VAM-based teacher evaluation plan and increasingly challenged the commissioner’s agenda. Regents Phillips (who left the Board a year ago) and Tilles, were uncomfortable; however, voted with their colleagues.

Slowly and inexorably educators and parents across the state began to lose confidence in the Board and the Commissioner.

A year ago as the revolt against state testing and privacy concerns grew and grew Commissioner King was basically fired, actually “moved” to Washington.

The archaic structure of the Board and the ineptitude of King lost the confidence of the governor, the legislature and the education community – an example of a failure of leadership.

Let’s take a look at the basic principles of leadership:

Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense for both presidents Bush and Obama has a new book, A Passion for Leadership (2015), his core principles,

People, not systems, implement an agenda for change

People at every level in every organization need to know their work is considered important by the higher-ups.

 At every level, a leader should strive to make his employees proud to be where they are and doing what they do. It doesn’t matter whether you are president of the United States, CEO of a huge company or a supervisor far down in the organization.

To lead reform successfully, a leader must empower subordinates.

A successful leader, and especially one leading change, treats each member of his team with respect and dignity. It seems obvious, but in far too many bureaucracies, bosses at all levels fail to do so.

On Election Day, a staff development day, five hundred teachers met in an auditorium, squirming, waiting to be “talked at” for a few hours.

The superintendent walked out onto the state – with a guitar.  He, hesitantly, explained his hobby was song writing and playing the guitar- and- he had written a motivational song, he’d like to try it out.  It was pretty good! He explained that no one gets better unless they are willing to take risks, to move into new areas, to try new approaches. Risk-taking was at the core of improving as a teacher. Five hundred teachers saw their boss taking a risk.

A contingent of District Office types came to a school to meet with the principal, without an appointment, at the beginning of the school day. The secretary said they’d have to wait, the principal wasn’t available. As they began to hassle the secretary snapped back – “He’s not available, he’s teaching.” The principal taught a phy ed class first period so that teachers could meet in common planning time.

Leadership is earned, titles do not determine leadership: employees and the wider public determine leadership.

Decision-making processes must be transparent with as participation as possible for all the stakeholders.

I would strongly recommend that the Board consider more transparency and to seek avenues for stakeholder and public involvement; for example, the entire Board meetings, including the committees, should be web cast.

  • Stakeholders, especially parents, should have an opportunity to participate in Regents Meeting; we do live the cyber age.
  • Why can’t the State/Regents do a simultaneous translation in Spanish?
  • Agendas should be set at least a week, not days before a Board meeting.
  • The public, through Twitter or e-mails should have an opportunity to participate – to ask questions?
  • High opt out districts encouraged to pilot performance tasks?(See sample performance tasks here)

Rule # 1 of Organization Change: participation reduces resistance – the more parents, teachers, principals and superintendents feel they are listened to, feel that they respected, feel they are part of the process, the more all the stakeholders will be invested in the success of the education system.

Randi Weingarten was speaking to hundreds of teachers explaining why the American Federation of Teachers had endorsed Hillary Clinton. At the end of the talk the first person she called on was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and, at the end of his statement she thanked him and urged him, regardless of the eventual nominee, to work within the union.

For too many parents and teachers State Ed and the Regents are the enemy, the only way to win them back is to include them in the process, to make feel valued.

Hopefully the new Regents leadership will begin the path towards inclusion.

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