American public schools have been under increasing pressure since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. That pressure has ratcheted up continuously over the last quarter century. Under President Bush, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was passed with bipartisan support in 2001. NCLB, among other things, required that states use standardized tests more frequently and in more subjects to assess student learning. When those tests fail to show adequate learning by students, the consequences can include a loss of local control of the school system. While this program was radically different from what had been in place in most states, for Tennessee, it simply mimicked requirements created by a Democrat governor in 1992. The only difference was that our method for measuring gains was far more sophisticated (and far fairer) than that contained in NCLB.
This post, however, isn’t about the pros and cons of NCLB, standardized testing, or what will happen to this program under the Obama administration. This post is about the most effective leadership for school systems under pressure from NCLB from a positive psychology perspective.
Let’s start with basics: “Other people matter,” is Chris Peterson’s summary of the key findings of positive psychology. Further, from the work of Barb Fredrickson and Marcial Losada, as well as John Gottman, we know that positive emotions broaden the thought/action repertoire of and build social, psychological, and physical resources for the future. Further, the positive-to-negative ratio needs to be equal to or greater than 5:1 (84%) to achieve excellence in organizations and relationships, though it probably shouldn’t be over 10:1. (If anyone encounters an urban school system — the part of education with which I am most familiar — that is running at more than 10:1 positive to negative, please contact me. I’ll get on a plane and go visit!)
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with the top leadership of an urban school system about positive psychology. This system is under a great deal of pressure from NCLB enforcement actions. In conversations with both folks in the system and with some working with the system from outside, it became evident that positive emotions are in short supply. Fear, anxiety, anger, and resentment are more common emotions as central office administrators and state facilitators seek desperately to get improvement in student performance on a variety of measures.
It is easy to blame NCLB for these emotions and to argue that public schools either are already doing a pretty good job given all the circumstances, or that they would get better quicker without all the pressure from standardized tests. Again, that’s not where I’m focusing, partially because I think it about as likely that external measurements of student achievement will go away as that the Securities Exchange Commission will quit requiring publicly traded companies to post audited financial reports. As events from Enron to the current debacle of securitized mortgages show, requiring audited financial statements has not prevented disastrous performances by publicly traded companies. And requiring standardized tests hasn’t caused public school systems, especially urban systems, to suddenly improve. But neither is going away, although hopefully both will continue to be improved!
Regardless, what about leaders at systems like the one I have been seeing? My suggestion is that the growing body of both general research in positive psychology, and research targeted specifically at education (Roger Goddard’s work on trust comes to mind), both point strongly toward a strategy of building positive emotions as a clear path toward greater creativity, engagement, collaboration, and success among faculties and between school personnel and the central office administrators. However, this requires a unique perspective and willingness to take public risks from a system superintendent. Many of those involved in the effort to improve public education from the business community and the political realm want to see someone “crack the whip.” Some believe that if teachers would just quit loafing, or start believing that all children can learn, of if the teachers’ union would just get out of the way, we would have great schools (preferably without increasing the amount of funding!). Many of these participants in the process would be alarmed and unsupportive at any hint that a school superintendent in an urban system was trying to increase positive emotions among teachers, leadership, and students! What is the world coming to? “Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick,” is the motto, with a muttered, “We don’t need no stinkin’ positive emotions!”
Robert Quinn’s brilliant Building the Bridge as You Walk on It addresses leadership as a state one enters, not a trait one has. An individual in the state of leadership is
- Internally directed (doing what they know to be in pursuit of their purpose as opposed to that which will win plaudits or relief from pressure from external forces)
- Externally open (paying attention to information about success coming from the environment)
- Purpose centered (as opposed to personal comfort centered)
- Other focused (paying attention to the needs and capabilities of those around the leader)
Quinn suggests that rapid learning is possible as individuals enter the state of authentic leadership. Certainly, rapid learning is needed in urban school systems! A system with not just a superintendent in the state of authentic leadership, but with many individuals at all levels frequently entering and remaining in that state might just be able to sustain efforts to broaden and build positive emotions through a focus on resilience, strengths, and relationships until those efforts paid off in ways apparent to the doubters, e.g., test scores.
I believe that taking some time and effort to help leaders in a system, then others throughout, to experience more positive emotions at work, to build their resilience, engage their strengths, and broaden and deepen their relationships will prove to be far more fruitful than focusing all efforts on curriculum, pedagogy, attendance policies, dress codes, truancy prevention programs, and the many other items that can absorb all the time and effort of leadership. Yes, several of the items in that last list are important, though if you look around, you will find schools with very different approaches to each that are achieving excellent results. However, focusing on such things alone, while ignoring the crucial element of the overall positivity of the culture, is almost the definition of failing to see the forest for the trees.
Here’s to leadership!
Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. Not yet published, but available for preorder.
Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gottman, J. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5 step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.