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Bringing the Fight: School “McLeadership” and the Social Order

by Maiyoua Vang - May 16, 2012

Transformational leadership is not polite. It is political. For school leaders, that assignment exacts a multilevel (individual, organizational, societal) accounting of the congruence between our espoused values and how we choose to live with one another in this democratic project. In this piece, I argue that cultivating authentic school leadership requires nothing short of the politicization of educational leadership preparation curricula and that only through authentic engagement with the political and economic life world can we begin to decipher and challenge the governing apparatus that constrains our very ability to move beyond pedestrian leadership preparation or boutique scholarship toward a project of authentic justice.

A genuine man goes to the roots. To be a

radical is no more than that: to go to the roots.

—Jose Martí

I find no solace in rhetorical projects—left, right, or center. As student, teacher, and administrator, and now as member of the educational leadership preparation “class,” I find it urgently necessary to confront what Counts (1932) so long ago posed: Dare the school build a new social order? Problematizing Counts’s charge, I submit that an earnest response to that project must be rooted and, as such, originate from beyond the walls of schools themselves. And if schools will not go to the fight, it is imperative for those self-styled “transformational school leaders” and “art-house” scholars among us to bring the fight to our very classrooms and to our very institutions of educational leadership preparation. To be radically relevant, to be intellectually honest, demands no less.


Profoundly missing the mark, university preparation programs have, however inadvertently, participated in the “classing” of individuals by privileging a “mind-hand” dichotomy relative to preparation—that is, “Ed.D.” means practitioner and “Ph.D.” means scholar. By implication, such a mental account perpetuates the disconnect between civic, practical, and political engagement, with the larger politically based life world shaping our very institutions, practice, and normative relations of power. Put bluntly, scholarship is nothing if not political. Practice is nothing if not political. And as political beings, we are held to such an account regardless of the alphabet soup following our name.

There are no free passes. Rather, it is this on-the-ground, in-the-real practice of political literacy designed to challenge the current operations of the world we live in that is most in need, and not commodified “boutique” scholarship, however progressively dressed, and not uncritical, unproblematized “real-world” practice, however commonsensically cloaked as more “relevant to the work of leadership at the school and district levels [emphasis added]” (Copland, 2007, para. 1).

It is that economy of thought and lack of political imagination that underwrites the current state of school “McLeadership” (Vang, in press). To critically understand the operations of the system requires positioning our critique of schooling within a larger critique of the operating system(s) that overdetermines it—or to riff off the legendary Otis Redding, to try a little politics. . . . Indeed, critical scholarship “outing” the corporate apparatus behind contemporary neo-technicist reforms (Emery & Ohanian, 2004; English, 2010; McLaren & Farahmandpur, 2005) gives provocative pause to what Counts (1932) argued nearly a century ago: that “our schools, instead of directing the course of change, are themselves driven by the very forces that are transforming the rest of the social order” (p. 3).

Though educational leadership programs are replete with discursive texts on “moral” courage and ethical leadership, conspicuously few and far between are unapologetically “political texts” that provide the very mode with which to authentically challenge materially positioned inequalities. That is, the problem with “morality” as a viable educational change strategy is that morality comes with an economic ceiling, and the field of educational leadership has operated far too long under paradigms that notoriously undercut the level and type of political engagement necessary to critically understand what is truly happening to us and why. Much like Eugene V. Debs (1902) before political consciousness, we have been so “deeply absorbed in perfecting wage-servitude and making it a thing of beauty and a joy forever” (para. 11) that we have seceded from political contestation, uncritically acquiescing to the very corporate strictures of contemporary accountability that have all but subsumed us (Emery & Ohanian, 2004).


Our work is dishonest. As the professional leadership class, we have much to learn from those public intellectuals (parents, students, community organizations, workers) who have always and forever outpaced us in deciphering and contesting the real operations of the political life world (Boyte, 2004; Emery, Gold, & Braselmann, 2008). Glossy platitudes extolling “student achievement” or “transformational leadership” or “systems-thinking” become depoliticized shards when excised from the very governing political project that gives each meaning. Dare we reconcile rhetoric with reality, principles with practice, even at personal and professional cost? Counts (1932) argued as much:

Any individual or group that would aspire to lead society must be ready to pay the costs of leadership: to accept responsibility, to suffer calumny, to surrender security, to risk both reputation and fortune. If this price, or some important part of it, is not being paid, then the chances are that the claim to leadership is fraudulent. Society is never redeemed without effort, struggle, and sacrifice. Authentic leaders are never found breathing that rarefied atmosphere lying above the dust and smoke of battle. (p. 4)

Repositioning my project as political work demands normalizing that “tension” and bringing that fight to leadership preparation. And the curriculum consists of the collective struggles being waged outside our halls, in urban, suburban, and exosuburban neighborhoods surrounding our institutions, in state and national houses, and in the courts and corporate boardrooms that bound our project (and imagination). The recent and continuing demonstrations of public engagement for social justice provide the very raw “political texts” so conspicuously missing from our discipline and yet so crucial to disrupting appropriated school McLeadership.

A critical curriculum entails unmasking corporate school reform by demanding that preservice administrators study the resistance to resegregation policies in places like North Carolina, where Wake County parents and students, Black and White, along with the NAACP, held a local school board meeting hostage to protest the proposed dismantling of the district’s diversity policy in the name of “choice and increased stability for families.” Protesters carried signs that read “History is not a mystery. Separate is always unequal,” and White students, such as George Ramsay declared, “It is shortsighted to ignore the way students like me have been enriched by diversity” (Baker, 2010, para.15).

Moreover, the number of community uprisings inside and outside school board meetings continues to grow (and to prove instructive to my charge as a member of the leadership preparation class). In late fall, a New York Times piece reported how parents, teachers, students, and activists disrupted New York City school chancellor Dennis Walcott during his planned presentation of the Common Core Assessments as a part of the district’s ironically named “Parents as Partners” week. In responding to community complaints about being excluded from the decision-making process, Walcott offered, “Why? Why would I want to talk to them? This is a meeting about Common Core. . . I don’t have to have a special meeting to talk about whatever the issues they’re raising are” (Phillips, 2011, para. 9). Perhaps the chancellor will talk to the Brookings Institution, which, not so long ago, brought us Chubb and Moe’s (1990) Politics, Markets and American Schools and which has, just now, released the always highly esteemed Brown Center Report on American Education, a report that has ironically dismantled the Common Core Standards on scientific grounds.

And in Chicago Public Schools, parents, students, and activists have taken to direct action to oppose the district’s long-standing Renaissance 2010 plan of “turning around” economically impoverished neighborhood schools by converting them into charters. A video post of a frustrated parent at a recent December 14, 2011, Chicago Board of Education meeting illustrates the anger against both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and current schools chief and Eli Broad Academy graduate Jean-Claude Brizard:

We see through the sound bites. You have betrayed the public trust. You have failed Chicago’s children. You pray at the altar of greed and dare to call it education. We value people over profits. Every life is precious. Our children our not products. . . . Mayor Emanuel, you should be ashamed! Brizard, you should be ashamed! You should both be fired! Stanford University says you have failed! The University of Chicago says that you have failed! The Chicago Tribune says that you have failed! (Krager, 2011)

Other demonstrations of public engagement in Chicago include parents illegally occupying a school scheduled for closure and demanding an audience with Mayor Emanuel (Esposito, 2012), and parents and students conducting a silent march past the mayor’s house with the word “Excluded” taped over their mouths (Holmes, 2012).

Closer to my own backyard, Detroit, a critical curriculum means bringing in guest speakers who bear the real battle scars of urban school reform, like the principal of Catherine Ferguson Academy High School, which made national headlines because it was an overperforming school that the former Detroit Public Schools chief and Eli Broad Academy graduate Bob Roberts slated for closure. Can we be real about the work that we do, please?


As a member of the professional leadership class, answering Counts’s (1932) challenge to me means stepping out of self-imposed practitioner and intellectual ghettoes; it means committing scholarcide. It means having the courage to pose inconvenient questions, to be directional, to welcome ridicule, and to recognize that what we choose to engage and not engage in our programs of study has profound implications for the political life world that conditions are very habits, scripts, and institutions. And as I have argued in this piece, a first step in choosing reconstruction over social adaptation demands a critical surveying of the life world for political texts (which run a plenty) that serve to instruct and to repurpose not only our preparation programs but also our civic identities and our lives in this public imaginary. And unlike the parents and students we profess to serve, we are regrettably as a “class” yet again historically and forever behind the arc of justice.


Baker, M. (2010, July 21). Racial tensions roil N.C. school board: 19 arrested in school busing protest reminiscent of 1960s. Lewiston Morning Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.lexisnexis.com

Boyte, H. C. (2004). Everyday politics: Reconnecting citizens and public life. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Copland, M. (2007). Where’s graduate studies going? Tackling problems of practice in the Ed.D. The School Administrator, 64(7). Retrieved from http://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=6614

Counts, G. S. (1932). Dare the school build a new social order? New York, NY: John Day.

Debs, E. V. (1902). How I became a socialist. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/debs/works/1902/howi.htm

Esposito, S. (2012, February 18). Parents occupy school. Demand to talk to Rahm. The Chicago Sun-Times, p. 7.

Emery, K., Gold, L., & Braselmann, S. (2008). Lessons from freedom summer: Ordinary people building extraordinary movements. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

Emery, K., & Ohanian, S. (2004). Why is corporate America bashing our public schools? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

English, F. W. (2010). The ten most wanted enemies of American public education's school leadership. Education Leadership Review, 11(2), 59–72.

Holmes, E. (2012, February 20). CPS parents take concern to mayor’s doorstep. Retrieved from http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=8550464

Krager, A. (2011, December 15). Disgruntled parents take over board of education meeting [Video]. Retrieved from http://progressillinois.com/quick-hits/content/2011/12/15/disgruntled-parents-take-over-board-education-meeting-video

McLaren, P., & Farahmandpur, R. (2005). Teaching against global capitalism and the new imperialism: A critical pedagogy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Phillips, A. (2011, October 25). Walcott event disrupted by protesters. The New York Times SchoolBook. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/schoolbook/2011/10/25/walcott-event-disrupted-by-protesters/

Vang, M. (in press). Forty acres and a mule: A critical audit of California’s Williams legislation implementation and the implications for educational leaders. Journal of School Leadership.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 16, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16770, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:06:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Maiyoua Vang
    University of Michigan - Dearborn
    E-mail Author
    MAIYOUA VANG is an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Her research interests include school leadership under a social justice framework, educational policy and economic justice, and revolutionary multiculturalism.
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