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Perspectives on Urban Schools - Part 3 - Leadership

by Linda Powell - November 21, 2000

A consideration of leadership in urban schools

So now I'm going to do five minutes on the leadership course based on what we are seeing in the drawings. Let me just say a little bit. I brought every overhead I have because I didn't know what we would need to talk about. But let me share certain assumptions that don't underlie every thinker's work, but these assumptions underlie my work, and Brian said he will get all these overheads so you don't have to write this down.

But first and foremost, people in my field assume that schools are care giving, dependency oriented organizations. Now that's a mouthful. We assume that there is an appropriate boundary between young people and adults and that it is our responsibility to manage them well in schools. We are not talking about touchy-feely caring and high esteem in place of learning. We are talking about it being an appropriate relatedness for young people to depend on us and that it is still our responsibility to manage the organizations well.

Now where you will hear the policy conflict around this is the substitution of business solutions for school problems. And we would argue that as multi generational organizations, business solutions will never work without serious refiguring for school problems. So this is one thing. We assume it's about schools. We assume that young people have the right to be young and that as John Dewey said the organization has to work for everybody in it but that we bear the primary responsibility for helping young people develop. So that's the first assumption.

The second assumption is really pretty obvious but when we go into schools either with policy or other kinds of clinical interventions, we don't know everything. It seems pretty obvious but if you look at many of the solutions being offered for urban schools today, they assume that we know everything we need to know and if we just did it right, the schools would improve. We argued that at all times it's a learning journey. This is my major fight a couple of weeks ago in public with the superintendent of Cincinnati who claims that we know everything we need to know about school reform. I argued that if we did, we would have more districts systemically educating all children well. Since we don't have a single urban district in the top 80 that would say that all children can learn is a reality, we would argue that some part of this is what Peter Sengey would call the learning organization, that districts and states really are in the process of learning how to do this. Now most people who rise to the level of chief school officer or CEO or superintendent or assistant to the governor, they didn't get there by saying that they don't know things. This may be obvious to those of us closer on the ground for school change, and yet the political process does not really reward people who cop to the fact that we're on a journey and we're learning something. Not that they know the answer. So this clearly is a real challenge for people to find the right balance of what they can publically say they know and what they don't know.

And finally we grapple with covert as well as overt group process in school change and policy making.

Now what does that mean? What's a covert process? I know it's getting late, hang with me. What's a covert as opposed to an overt group process?



Linda Powell:

Hidden? Subdued, indirect. Undercover. What we often call them are hidden agendas. And what we very often do with regard to educational policy is we trash the people with the hidden agenda after the project has failed. What we need to recognize is all processes come with covert or hidden agendas. And that the skilled intervention handles those as well as the more overt agendas. Here is my latest example of this.

... in a meeting the men are principals and above, principal and north, and all the women are classroom teachers. And as the conversation goes forward, all the men speak and all the women take notes and the facilitator doesn't notice. What's the covert process there? Guess.


The men are in charge.

Linda Powell:

One way to think about it is the men are in charge at that meeting, right. But what are they trying to say about the principal shortage?

... almost couldn't say that, they certainly couldn't say it. These people all had jobs that depended on their getting along with one another, right? So they couldn't just say gender is a problem for women ascending to the principalship so instead what they did was a covert process that made it apparent but somebody had to call it. So I went to the facilitator at the break and say yo have you noticed this, and he said all I noticed was that the other side of the room was quiet. He hadn't made the gender link. But these processes in policy must be managed as well as the overt processes.

Okay, so what, here are my notes to myself, I want to do two minutes on the leadership course and then tell you a little bit about the small school study. In the leadership course what we really focus on or try to focus on are different kinds of problems. And what I often do is I contrast getting the vote for African Americans, the equal Voting Rights Act, with urban school reform. And those are two different kinds of public policy problems. I'm taking all of this from a book, I'm taking half of it from a book by Ron Heifetz that is called Leadership Without Easy Answers. And Ron described two different kinds of problems. The Voting Rights Act was what he called a Type-1 problem that would respond to a technical solution. So you knew how many votes in Congress you had to have. You knew how to lobby to get them. You knew when you had enough to pass it, and it was successful. Now technical problems are not easier, we are not arguing that at all. But the distinction about technical problems is that we know how to do it. It's been done before, and we know when we have won. That's a problem that yields to a technical solution.

Heifetz distinguishes that from what he calls an adaptive challenge to an organization or to a culture. And an adaptive challenge he defines as the gap between an organization's aspirations and its performance. The gap between your aspirations and your performance.

Now urban school reform is that kind of problem. It's an adaptive challenge. It requires, as Heifetz calls it, a change in both people's minds and hearts and practice. And so adaptive challenges, how you can determine an adaptive challenge from a technical problem, is that an adaptive challenge or adaptive work in an organization requires learning. People have to learn some things they didn't already learn, they didn't already know.

Now part of what this has to do with is that gap between our aspiration, all children can learn and learn well at high levels, however we would define what we think is the goal of urban education and what it's performing now. That gap, closing that gap is where we encounter what we are calling resistance. This is a way to think about the problem. So if we look across the last 30 years of history, David Hornbeck would say that urban education has been designed to fail. It has actually. If you look at it in certain moments and certain times, it looks as if the goal was to assure that children living in cities would not receive a high quality education and it's in that gap that he would argue, and Heifetz would argue, and I would argue that differing kinds of adaptive work need to be done.

There is this whole thing we do in the leadership course about how you can do adaptive work even if you are not the formal authority. If you are just a person who cares and is smart and is savvy and is willing to stay, how can you exercise your informal authority in a system to do adaptive work. And I'm going to talk about that in just a second. I'll use the small school study as an example.


When did you say over how many years?

Linda Powell:



If I question over the last 30 years if people have been, it's been a set up for urban schools to fail or whether it's just schools that have minority children. Because I'm thinking of the community where I'm from where 30 years ago it was flourishing and now it's not so I don't think 30 years ago they were, maybe as white flight when they allowed it to fail. But I don't think anybody at that time, I guess people did sort of foresee it, but it seems like it's specifically schools that are primarily either poor and/or minorities.

Linda Powell:

This is an argument that we have often and it's worth thinking about, that Dick Clarke at the Center for School Reform in Bellingham, Washington, said that the issue is if these schools had had white kids in them for the last 30 years we would have sent in the National Guard. And this is a statement he has made publicly in his evaluation of school reform issues. That it's the color of the kids, or the poverty. The other potential is that we have as a culture de-invested in cities. Which went hand in hand with certain trends that now we would anticipate, especially in Chicago which I'm about to talk about, due to gentrification we'll see some other things happening in the school system. But we have got a mixed set of issues.

The dilemma, one dilemma that I see about urban school reform is we need a far more sophisticated conversation about race and poverty than we are currently capable of having. So that some people would say, I mean colleagues of mine across the country would say, that their adaptive work is to build the capacity to start having those conversations. So in those places where we now have test data desegregated by race, that was an intervention so that we could start having a different conversation than we could have before that. Before it just looked like all 4th Graders were doing badly. And we couldn't really see that young African American males were falling off the scale at 4th grade until the policy mandate was that we will segregate data by race and gender. Now whether we agree with that or not, it made possible a different kind of conversation. You could now think about things that you couldn't have thought about before because you didn't have the data.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 21, 2000
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10657, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:29:24 PM

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About the Author
  • Linda Powell
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    Linda Powell is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Education. Her research includes group relations theory, urban school reform efforts, and professional development and graduate education for educators.
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