With schools winding down the year, the debate over the future of education is winding up. Collectively we face what might be the challenge of this decade: to rethink and revitalize education at a time when the life we are preparing students for is changing as fast as our budgets are shrinking. The political leaders and education pundits make a case for investment in education as the key to a strong economy and vibrant society and a glut of ideas compete for our national priorities.
But before we infuse more resources, we must ask ourselves if we are fully utilizing the resources we already have, especially the talented teachers and school staff.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling for investing in early childhood education, arguing that programs like Head Start offer a 7:1 return on investment. The Schools and Libraries program seeks to invest $2.2 billion in schools and libraries and pay for wireless networks across U.S. campuses. Just last week, three separate education reform bills emerged in congress, each proposing a set of policy investment that will raise academic performance.
But, does investing in greater resources result in better outcomes? According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics 2012 report, "The U.S. spends over $2,826 more per student than the average industrialized nation but many of these nations outperform the U.S." They further claim that, "The United States' education outcomes most resemble Poland's, a nation that spends less than half on education than the U.S." and asserts that "The gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible -- even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K-12 public education."
Meanwhile we may be systematically overlooking our most vital resource. Based on our research for the book The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, we know our schools are replete with leaders who, so focused on their own ideas for solving problems, overlook the full capability of the people they lead. Drawing on three years of research and a study of more than 400 educational leaders, my co-authors and I found that many leaders (whom we call "diminishers") utilized only 40 percent of the intelligence and capability of others. In other words, these leaders invest a dollar and return back only 40 cents of value to the community. Some frustrated staff inevitably quit, but the vast majority "quit and stay," creating a disillusioned culture that also diminishes student achievement.
Other leaders we studied (whom we call "multipliers") used their intelligence to amplify the capabilities of the people around them. Around these leaders, ideas flow, people get smarter and surpass expectations, and, because they're given space, permission to think and are challenged to do their best work. These leaders use their smarts to make everyone around them smarter and more capable, and they get nearly 100 percent of people's capability.
Perhaps we don't need more resources but rather to more deeply utilize the people and resources we already have. When principals, superintendents, and deans operate as Multipliers, educators and school staff are able to contribute at their fullest. These educators then create an environment where students are challenged and inspired to achieve at their fullest.
Our schools must now solve problems for which they were not built. But instead of looking to our nation's capital for leadership, we should be asking if we have the right leadership in each of our schools. We need to reject the notion that a heroic leader, a lone innovator, or a single brain at the head of a school can solve our most complex problems. To solve our biggest challenges, we need the intelligence of all our educators.
We can't afford schools that operate on a fraction of the intelligence inside them. We need more than just a core curriculum for our schools; we need a new curriculum for our leaders -- one that teaches them to fully use our core assets -- smart, capable educators. We need leaders who can invest in their staff, multiply the intelligence of those around them, and put it to work in service of real progress in educational outcomes.