The New DEEL Mission Statement
The mission of the New DEEL is to create an action oriented partnership dedicated to inquiry into the nature and practice of democratic ethical educational leadership through sustained processes of open dialogue, right to voice, community inclusion, and responsible participation toward the common good. We strive to create an environment to facilitate democratic ethical decision-making in educational theory and practice which acts in the best interests of all students.
“No Ordinary Times”
Call for Democratic Ethical Educational Leadership!
By Steven Jay Gross
April 17, 2012
For the past several months it has been my privilege to attend State Board meetings and to have the opportunity to share my views with you on key problems facing Vermont and its educational system. In every instance, I have been treated with respect and I hope that I have shown the same to each of you, whether or not we happened to agree on a particular issue.
Now this State Board stands at a cross roads with likely change in the governance of education in our state. To borrow from the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s famous book about the home front in World War II, these are No Ordinary Times. Moments like this come only once in generations. While my previous comments have centered on individual policy questions, I think it would be most helpful today to think about the larger context. Specifically, there is a need for democratic ethical educational leadership as you move into the future.
What do I mean by Democratic Ethical Educational Leadership?
Facing politically inspired attacks on education and lock-step accountability laws in the US and beyond, university and practitioner educators around the world decided to take action. Inspired by the democratic school administration movement of the 1930’s and 1940’s and current scholarship in ethics, we started a movement called the New DEEL (Democratic Ethical Educational Leadership). Our mission is to create an action-oriented partnership, dedicated to inquiry through sustained processes of open dialogue, right to voice, community inclusion, and responsible participation toward the common good. New DEEL leaders include faculty, students, staff, parents, administrators and community members. It certainly should include boards such as yours. In other words, everyone owns a piece of leadership and everyone bears responsibility.
Since our inception in 2004, we have grown with hundreds of colleagues from over thirty universities as well as numerous school districts in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Hong Kong, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Jamaica. Results from our work include scholarship, new graduate programs, 5 successful international conferences, and support for emerging leaders in the K-12 system and in higher education. I serve as the Founding Director of the New DEEL Community Network at Temple University.
How is a New DEEL Leader Different from a Traditional Leader?
At the heart of our work is what we call the New DEEL Vision for Leaders that covers five qualities that we feel distinguish a New DEEL leader from traditional leadership. But if I had to select just one to apply to the current situation, it would be the first:
Whereas the traditional leader is driven by the external pressures of accountability to those above in the organizational and political hierarchy, the New DEEL leader is guided by an inner sense of responsibility to students, families, the community, and social development on a world scale.
This means not being satisfied with mere accountability. I grant that is a shocking statement because it sounds as if I am advocating irresponsibility. But that’s completely wrong. Accountability only means obeying a set of orders and stopping there. In the words of my colleague Professor Joan Shapiro, it comes from an accountant’s ledger and is misapplied in education. I have the great fortune to be married to a wonderful woman who is a superb accountant, so don’t get me wrong! However, that profession is not a very good model for our work in schools. Think about it this way, of all of the great work any of us ever did, were we ordered to do it or did it come from some deeper part of us? You who serve on our State Board, were you ordered to do so by some accountability program or did you respond to your own sense of responsibility? That is why we urge educational leadership to come from a place of inner responsibility. We know we are asking for a great deal but we believe that this is the only way to get the job done.
More specifically, what does it mean to have responsible educational leadership in this era? It means leadership that is connected, not silo’d; holistic, not piece-meal. The educational leader must reach beyond the confines of the school, or the Agency, to make alliances with those in health care, in commerce, with community leaders, with leaders in our religious communities, and with those in the arts. Our children are alive before 8 am and after 3 pm so we must have leadership that is aligned with that fact. It is no longer possible to say with integrity that schools can do their job as islands apart from all of the rest of society. The problems are simply too complex and too interconnected. So that sense of inner responsibility that drives us to make connections is critical.
But what about the person who has the title of educational leader?
Some have said that educational leaders should come from outside of education because we need to have new perspectives. Others counter that we need the expertise that can only come from years of successful experience. To me, this is a false dichotomy. Education is a profession and needs professional leadership just as we expect the Attorney General to be a well-accomplished lawyer and we expect the Surgeon General to be an exemplary physician. But that’s not enough. Our leaders should also have superb experience in other fields that will enrich her or his thinking. These times require a strong professional with a world-wide perspective and a dynamic sense of what’s possible here in Vermont. Some have complained about a paucity of leaders for our system at all levels but I contend that if we challenge potential leaders with something inspiring rather than the dreary business of managing what amounts to a testing factory, we will get a new kind of leader. It is analogous to President Kennedy’s challenge to Americans to serve in the Peace Corps, because it is difficult and because only through such difficult service can we answer our inner call to be responsible. There are leaders like this all over the nation, we work with them all of the time, and they will respond to such a call from you.
The Turbulent Waters Ahead:
This advice is heartfelt because I believe turbulent waters lie ahead that will rock Vermont’s education landscape just as Irene rocked so much of our physical landscape. There are a number of causes of the severe turbulence I expect to see but let me focus on the one that concerns me the most and that is the specter of the Common Core Curriculum.
This is hardly a new approach, its roots can be found in the scientific management theories of the early 1900’s and later refined by William Bagley’s philosophy of Essentialism in the 1930’s. The Common Core Curriculum promises to ensure fairness by creating national uniformity. But with such uniformity, how will innovation and local initiative survive? Knowledge in our time no longer simply morphs, it explodes in ever more rapid intervals. So why should we lock ourselves into a fixed set of ideas? People rightly cherish their community schools here in Vermont. Will they still care as much when the educational programs are all pretty much the same in every school? The Soviet Union collapsed under the burden of a command economy. Isn’t a national curriculum, joined at the hip with a national test, nothing more than a command economy for education? People speak of thinking outside of the box but isn’t this Common Core Curriculum really just a box from which little creative thinking can escape? This tired concept failed in the past as it is likely to fail now. And yet, the Common Core Curriculum is a reality that we have to engage.
Coming out of this era, Vermont’s values of democracy and unity must be intact and passed along to the next generation. Only strong leadership from this board, the new Agency, the education community and the general public will get us through the Common Core challenge and all of the others that lie in our path. It is a tall order and the pressure to cave in to something less will be fierce. I hope that the concept of Democratic Ethical Educational Leadership will help you navigate.
Again, my deepest thanks for allowing me to share my ideas with you over these months.