The Leadership it Takes to Create Smart Cities

“Can a leader in education be innovative, get results and stay alive in their job in today’s public education world of compliance and accountability?” Leadership expert Lyle Kirtman answers, “Yes, but it takes courage, commitment and focus!”

It’s becoming easier to create an academic environment that addresses the needs of each learner and to allow them to progress as they demonstrate readiness. But an innovation agenda requires knowledge of current tools and new ways of learning and working–and that requires a new set of community agreements.

New learning tools and school models improve every month but at this stage it’s still pretty complicated to implement next generation models–nothing works together and everything seems like a big change to constituencies. In fact, the work is challenging enough that it introduces new ways for principals and superintendents to get fired. Most mistakes reflect bad decisions, poor implementation, and/or weak communication.

Effective leaders have always advanced an improvement agenda by coordinating efforts to make the system we have work better. An innovation agenda is about creating new environments that work better for students and teachers–and that’s a different job.

More than tactical blunders, education leaders may simply fail to recognize that an innovation agenda comes with four other jobs:

  • Organizational development: Schools that blend online and face-to-face learning work differently; educators work in teams to extend the reach of the most effective teachers and to support new teachers. Technology helps to personalize learning for students and buys time for teachers to work with small groups of students (see OpportunityCulture for more examples). Along with organizational design comes capacity building and working with a governing board on new policies and procedures that support rather than block the innovation agenda.
  • Technology development. An integrated education technology stack from student information systems to student access devices can be complicated to assemble (even with the Smart Series Guide To EdTech Procurement). The work will take several budget cycles and when it’s done, it’s time to start over.
  • Community development. It’s always been a challenge to build support for public education but now education leaders need to build support with diverse constituencies for dynamic models and practices that may change every few years.
  • Change management. Putting a phased plan together (as described in the Blended Learning Implementation Guide), building organizational capacity, and managing iterative phases.

Each of these roles require fluency in new tools and engagement strategies. Like lean software development, these leadership roles starts with a vision of a better future that delights a constituency and is (frequently) conducted as iterative development–short cycles of action informed by feedback. Community conversations, rather than coding, marks each stage of iterative development. Engagement tools include social media, learning networks, surveys, focus groups, blogs, videos, and lots of good old face to face conversation.

Each stage of iterative development is marked by a temporary agreement–a time bounded agreement about a short term objective and associated and stakeholder commitments. For example:

  • A superintendent facilitates an agreement with teachers and parents to pilot standards-based grading
  • A principal facilitates a faculty agreement to implement a multi-classroom leadership role to extend the reach of a skilled teacher and to provide support to several new teachers.

Both of these examples require organizational design, technology deployment, and the agreement of multiple stakeholders. The nature and scale of both agreements is likely to be adjusted over time as tools mature and lessons are learned.

No Superman. Improvement and innovation takes time to develop and spread in formal education. As noted in our new book Smart Cities That Work for Everyone, sustaining a thoughtful agenda over time is the most important key to expanding quality learning options.

Over the last 20 years, schools in three of America’s great cities–Boston, Chicago, and New York City–benefited from a sustained partnership between a mayor and a K-12 system head. But we are not waiting for Superman–the key to progress at scale is not a china-breaker, it is broad and sustained leadership.

Beyond the elected and appointed officials in these three cities, community partners were key to developing and maintaining the agenda. The Boston Plan for Excellence supported Tom Payzant’s improvement plan in the last decade and is now supporting the Boston Teacher Residency. New Visions for Public Schools and the NYC Leadership Academy supported the development of hundreds of high performing schools in New York. The Renaissance Schools Fund and then New Schools for Chicago played a similar role.

Hillary Clinton said It Takes a Village. Our study of cities suggests it takes an ecosystem–a web of support and opportunity supported by sustained leadership, community partnerships, and aligned investment.

As we began learning more about school improvement ten years ago, there was a trend toward hiring “instructional leaders.” While that’s an important role, we agree with Kirtman that, “Our educational leaders need to broaden, not narrow, their leadership competencies to be successful in today’s world.”

“These high performing leaders embrace innovation and have the curiosity to learn from their teachers, colleagues, leaders in education and even other sectors about building truly creative learning environments for staff and students,” Kirtman added.

Making deposits. An aggressive innovation agenda requires capacity and political capital. For 30 years, the default modality for building political capital has been selling crisis. But folks that have studied engagement, like Nick Donohue of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, have found that, “When people think they are in this kind of crisis they are driven to familiar but counter-productive frames of mind.” He adds, “If you are in a crisis – get out fast and make sure those closest to you make it too.”

Instead of throwing bombs, Donohue suggests dialog about what young people need to know and be able to do. Given new goals and “coupled with an honest assessment of current performance, the public is more understanding, more generous and more adventuresome than we have given them credit for.”

Education leaders make deposits in the political capital account by creating a shared vision, exhibiting trustworthiness, and building support with clear communication among stakeholders. Good leaders cut good deals–they craft agreements that benefit constituents – they do what they say they will do. Great leaders create reliable hope.

For more on Smart Cities, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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