Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition: A Matter of Leadership

As you consider the comments that follow, first ask yourself:

Can you imagine where our country would be today if George Washington or the Constitutional Convention had been swayed by opinion polls or pressured by Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform? Or if our Constitution Convention had been shaped by ALEC, the National Rifle Association, the Oil and Gas Industry, or other of today’s high-spending, high-pressure lobbyists?


A Meeting of the Board

A Meeting of the Board

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:

What you do speaks so loud I cannot hear what you say.

In 1991 I wrote Crash Landing – Surviving a Business Crisis. My writing the book was driven by a devastating experience from the mid-1980’s business meltdown. I sought an answer to the troubling, overhanging question:

What blinds smart business people from the warning signs of potential business crisis?

After exploring the why’s and how’s underlying business crisis and our built-in set of “Black Hole Blinders,” Crash Landing digs into leadership. Section VI is about crisis leadership. It’s title? “Doing the Right Thing.” The quotation framing the section could have been Emerson‘s; but, it’s from Leaders, by Bennis and Nanus.

Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.

The late Thomas R. Horton, former CEO of the American Management Association, taught us in his 1989 “Beyond Charisma,” that there are eight leadership “C’s” beyond charisma: Character, Courage, Capabilities, Consistency, Communication, Collaboration, Commitment, and Credibility. These “C‘s” define themselves without need for further explanation.

When leaders do the right thing – live by the 8 C’s – they focus on reaching for the right goals and using the right means to reach those goals. Do ends “justify” means? Certainly not in the Machiavellian sense (“A prince wishing to keep his estate is very often forced to do evil”). When means are merely expedient, allow us to misbehave, involve doing less than the right thing, we have deluded ourselves as to our goals, and should abandon our mission.

The late Supreme Court Justice, Louis D. Brandeis, threw out a warning we should heed today – not only as it applies to the justice system but to all of our endeavors:

To declare that in the administration of criminal law the end justifies the means – to declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure conviction of a private criminal – would be terrible retribution.

By doing the right thing, the leader blazes a path to our soul and becomes a hero for each of us, setting ethical boundaries we dare not cross, motivating us, giving us hope, firing up our courage, our willingness to perform beyond our own expectations in the face of difficult odds.

An illuminating study of leadership in the context of our nation is Garry Wills’ Cincinnatus, George Washington & the Enlightenment. One of Washington’s soldiers who rode with him into battle wrote home,

Never have I seen such a man!

Washington could have been our perpetual president, our emperor. But like the ancient Roman, Cincinnatus, who laid down his plow to lead the defense of Rome, and then, when victory was achieved, returned to his fields, Washington likewise resigned his commission when the Revolution was over, became a prime sponsor of our Constitution and after two terms in office surrendered his presidency with his never-to-be-forgotten Farewell Address, his letter to the American People. Among his admonitions:

Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.

Now, you may ask, “What does this discussion have to do with Getting Our Kids Ready for the Competition?”

Certainly, Getting Our Kids Ready requires strong leadership within our schools. The importance of teachers to a successful education is beyond doubt. Same with principals. Not much happens for the good within schools without energetic, courageous principals, particularly in high-poverty schools. Simply put, leadership has a strong influence on student learning.

But I equate the leadership of teachers and principals to the fearless leadership provided in battle by platoon leaders and company commanders in Washington’s army. School Boards? Battalion Commanders. Each hands on. Vital. Essential. Medal of Honor kind of stuff.

But to win Revolutions, and to educate Our Kids, leadership at the higher – and at the highest – levels is essential. Where? State Legislators and Governors – Education’s Division Command Centers. And at our nation’s Command Central itself: Congress, our nation’s Commander-in-Chief and the Administrative Agencies. For it is at these levels over-arching strategies and requirements – war plans of a sort – are mandated, and resources are committed or denied in ways that promote or limit opportunity.

So – if we’re going to get Our Kids Ready for the Competition:

“What kind of leadership do we need, and have a right to expect, from the prime policy-setters and resource providers, our leaders at Education’s Command Centers and Command Central?”

Each of us, I am sure, will reach our own conclusion in regard to that question. But, permit me to pose a few additional questions and thoughts to encourage exploration of the elements that, in my view, shape the ultimate answer.

1. What is Education‘s Objective: to “Teach” Kids or for Kids to “Learn?”

Following our last blog, Getting Our Kids Ready for the Competition: Great Conversations and the 32,000,000 Missing Words, I had a dialogue with David Boulton of the Learning Stewards about the purpose of education, where he questioned and commented:

Nature’s Ultimate Patriarch

Nature’s Ultimate Patriarch

What are we trying to bring forth in children? What are we trying to do for them? The trap is that we fall back into thinking that what we think they should learn is more important than how well they can learn. That can’t be true yet the whole system is organized as if it is. … Today’s parents and educators are faced with an unprecedented challenge. In any long view, everything depends on how well we meet it. Today’s young children will become adults in a world profoundly unlike any world any human being has every lived in. … How do we prepare children for a future in which how well they learn – in ways and about things we didn’t teach them in school – will determine their success? Obviously, there is much we must teach them, but just as obviously, there is nothing more important to their futures than how well they can learn when they get there.

Professor Tony Wagner, in his The Global Achievement Gap, outlines 7 “survival skills” Our Kids need to meet the competition. The first is “critical thinking and problem-solving.” Why,” Wagner asks,“is it that the longer children are in school the less curious they become?” His conclusion:

Today’s strategies of teaching for the test is an epidemic in schools, and deprives students of their ability to be critical thinkers.

No wonder 72% of Our Kids teachers don’t see standard tests as valuable education tools.

Consider: Professor Wagner‘s caution: “Teaching kids the history of the electoral college doesn’t make them good voters.”

And ask: Why are our prime education policies and efforts patriarchal, with results measured, and funded, against “Father-Knows-Best” regurgitation of information soon to be obsolete and ultimately of minimal importance, and not Socratic questioning and creative learning? Following unquestioned dictates from a patriarch may have been vital for our survival when we lived on the Serengeti – but today??

2. Who’s in Charge?

David Riesman’s classic, The Lonely Crowd, was a product of the 1950s and 1960s. Written during the early years of television, long before the internet and the research provided by today’s sociologists and cognitive scientists, The Lonely Crowd remains a remarkable resource for its observations and trend-spotting, one important for our discussion: Veto Groups dominate our politics.

The Lonely Crowd

Veto Groups, Riesman contends, control the direction of America. And when we join a Veto Group we shed ourselves of personal responsibilities – we hide behind the Veto Group’s opinions.

Our Founder’s carefully crafted governmental balance of power seems to have become powerless. How bad is it? Consider the destain for good government in Grover Norquist‘s speech at the CPAC, The American Conservative Union:

All we have to do is replace Obama. … We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. …

Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.

The deeper problem is that the legislation has been prepared – not by our legislators – but for our legislators by the Veto Groups. Education Week reports about the “lengthened shadow” cast by ALEC:

In nearly 40 years of legislative advocacy, the American Legislative Exchange Council—a free-market, limited-government group now drawing intense scrutiny for its support of a controversial self-defense law—has had a significant influence in K-12 education through its model legislation and work with state lawmakers to promote such policies as private school vouchers and “parent trigger” laws.

Among the items in lobbyists’ “broad agenda” is a rapid move to digital textbooks – in Florida a favored subject of its former governor, Jeb Bush, who may be leading the Cyber Attack on Public Schools. By 2015, Florida’s school districts will be required to provide students with digital textbooks that connect to the Internet. Yet, Florida Next reports, 11 percent of Florida’s homes won’t have internet access. Should we be concerned? The Report continues:

The legislation’s backers say not to worry. Kids who can’t connect to the ‘Net at home can access it at McDonald’s or Starbucks, which have Wi-Fi.’

Ironically, at the Waldorf School in Silicon Valley, where the geeks send their Kids to school, there is no high-tech, simply pen and pencil and good teachers. The rationale, as reported by the New York Times:

Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. … Real engagement comes from great teachers with interesting lesson plans. Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.

I cold go on, but, ask yourself: Can we Get Our Kids Ready for the Competition when our governments – and our education systems at the highest levels – are run by lobbyists and other Veto Groups? Can we continue merely as faces in the Lonely Crowd?

3. How Should the Education Bill be Funded?

Remember Washington’s Admonition?

Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.

As we consider whether the policies adopted at education’s Command Centers, should include sufficient funding from taxes, review our blog, So-Will We be “On the Charts” or “Off the Charts?” We don’t lead the world in education today but we do in prison population – and the lack of a solid education is a key ingredient for a life behind bars. Not only is the cost of caring for inmates about 2 ½ times that of educating one of Our Kids, the net result is a tremendous lack of economic productivity and absolutely no chance of creating Washington’s enlightened citizenship.

Yet, today, the message from our Division Command Centers and Command Central is that we must reduce our collective investment in education, privatize our schools and increase the cost of student loans [making them tools for the elite and not the many]. I have often wondered – when a law student or medical student graduates with a quarter-million dollars in student loans, is his or her advice warped by a need to repay the loan [not dischargeable by bankruptcy] or shaped by professional ethics? Of course professionals are not alone in being burdened by the cost-shift from society to students.

4. What Are We Going to Do About It?

Above all if we are to survive as a nation and to prepare Our Kids for the Competition we need leaders who are inner-directed, guided by principle, who, like Washington, will be heroes for Our Kids and for us all. We can’t tolerate zombi-like, “rubber-stamp leaders” in our legislators or highest state and federal offices, as Grover Norquist advocates. We can’t be led by Veto Groups.

Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were strong leaders, guided by principle. That is the leadership we need today.

What we need in the characteristics of our leaders who shape our education system that prepares Our Kids for the Competition are the same, fundamental principles Our Kids have the right to expect from us as parents and grandparents: Character, Courage, Capabilities, Consistency, Communication, Collaboration, Commitment, and Credibility.

Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, we agree:

What each of us does speaks so loud Our Kids cannot hear what we say.

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I very much appreciate your site, thank you for making the posts!

To ignore the education of our children and grandchildren is to ignore the future of our country. Of all of the programs that can be cut from federal and state budgets education should be the last on the list. There are two competing visions for our country and it will be interesting to see which one voters pick come November. I’m betting that people with children, grandparents, and those who think beyond sound bites will make the right choice. Dick’s blog is always informative, fair, and thought provoking. It’s a pleasure to read the words of someone who makes sense,… Read more »

I was just listening to a conversation on NPR about how schools, faced with huge budget shortfalls, are now depending upon parents and PTAs to fund basic courses, pay teachers and substitute teachers, repair school equipment, etc., so of course, schools attended by poorer students fare poorly in comparison to schools attended by wealthier students. So are we abandoning the idea of a public education for all??? Are some more equal than others? I despair.

We do need leaders and we need them now. I loved reading about The Lonely Crowd and really liked that concept – so much so that I looked up the article about David Riesman in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fascinating. The Waldorf school in Silicon Valley that the geeks send their kids to where they use pen and paper and have good teachers is surely different than what is being pushed. I’m so glad that you and others are posting challenges to the current shift before everyone rushes like lemmings over the edge. As we educate ourselves we will… Read more »