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Ten Questions to Ask Educational Leaders

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Recently the Hawaii State Board of Education heard from grassroots teachers and principals of their dissatisfaction with a proposed teacher evaluation program. Both administrators and board members seemed to be saying: Oh, we had no idea you felt that way. We did not know we needed to revise or adjust our proposed system.

This reaction was after being lectured by legislators back in January for expecting more time and paperwork from principals than are possible within a normal work day, or week, or year -- and with no request for additional funding. This also after an almost constant stream of school level comments and concerns -- all objecting to not only the details, but the process of a perceived top down -- we know what is best for you -- approach.

Because our State Board of Education is a part-time, volunteer service organization, busy members often rely on the Hawaii Department employees to be their eyes and ears, their filter, their windows to the educational world. Their corporate or professional lives can only squeeze limited time and reading into their lives. While this is understandable, the reality of running a complex public education system might lead us to ask for a better process for making major decisions.

As Director of an educational policy center, and former State Legislator, I have attended dozens if not hundreds of meetings and hearings where the same concerns, the same frustrations, and the same lack of responses are repeated over and over. In spite of decades of trying to respect communities and decentralize appropriate power down to the school level, this just has not happened.

I have seen many an idealistic, reform-minded new Board of Education member slowly but inevitably be drawn into the DOE bubble. With so much to learn, and so many to hold accountable, and so little personal time to devote, it is natural that the educational world shrinks. Large amounts of time at each meeting are spent talking and engaging in Q & A sessions with key staff. And staff must spend a lot of time away from other tasks just preparing for presentations to the Board.

We should assume that everyone is sincere, dedicated, diligent, and conscientious. The burden of educating the next generation of citizens falls heavy on the desks of staff and Board members alike. We should be more appreciative of their devotion, and thank them more often.

That said, something needs to change if there is to be effective, systemic innovation. Over the years I have kept track of lists of questions and issues that are persistent. If these questions had been asked BEFORE the teacher evaluation system was "rolled out," perhaps we would not be busy revising it.

Here are ten questions I wish education leader in any state would ask more often.

1. Before you make a major decision, or change a policy, who do you consult who is NOT an employee?
2. Before you make a major decision, how many people at the school level do you consult? Is it always the same people? What outside research do you rely on?
3. How often do you ask teachers, principals, students or community members to make open-ended presentations to you without controlling the agenda?
4. Why are you surprised when an imposed state level decision is made and there is strong resistance?
5. Before you ask principals or teachers to add administrative tasks, do you have a policy to also remove other, less important tasks?
6. How often do you visit schools, and meet with parents and community members to listen to their concerns?
7. How many non-instructional support staff are there for each classroom teacher? For each school?
8. How do you encourage creativity, innovation and risk taking among your state and district level staff?
9. When you adopt a strategic plan, does it also tell you what you are not going to do?
10. Why is it assumed that "the public," including researchers, need only three minutes to tell you all you need to know. Put another way, why are you not interested enough to give more time?