J. Jacob Kirksey
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership Policy
I was once told by my 8th grade teacher, “Education is a common denominator, no matter where you come from.” Despite the issues with diversity and equity a simple statement like this overlooks, I certainly believed this to be 100% true for the rest of my school years. Reflecting now, I think the notion of the common denominator- or rather, the complexity underlying this idea- is a useful metaphor for articulating my vision for educating the next generation of educational leaders, particularly as educators focus on ensuring schools are indeed responsive to the needs of all students.
My vision for educating current and future leaders in education draws from the same framework I operationalize in my research: understanding who is affected by educational policies, what are the potential outcomes, and how do we mitigate unintended consequences. As reflected in my policy and methods courses that I have taught for school leaders, my vision begins with the simple question, “What do we hope to achieve with this particularly policy?” Typically, this question elicits more debate and discussion than is expected, but this lays the foundation on which to build layers of constraints, spillover effects, and other possible limitations. Similar to how one would develop a mission statement or collective goal in a professional development workshop, we develop a policy or objective. Then, we identify all stakeholders and audiences with respect to the policy, which often includes general education teachers, various subgroups of students in schools, students who are not attending school, and parents. It is important to then identify all possible pathways in which a policy affects each audience and satisfies each stakeholder. Finally, the initial policy or objective is revisited and revised to create more positive implications and mitigate negative ramifications for audiences and stakeholders.
Each step in this process is part of the cycle I have developed as a framework for policy or program evaluation. Similar to an action research cycle, I ask educational leaders to engage with each step in the process in order to develop a routine in their regular practice. One example of using this framework occurred with administrators with one of my partnering school districts. I initiated a partnership with this school district to evaluate and redesign policies and procedures used to identify and address chronic absenteeism and truancy in their schools. We began our discussions talking about the problems district leadership was attempting to address. Then, we identified what policies were in place to address chronic absenteeism and truancy. The cycle progressed to arrive at the conclusion that culturally and linguistically diverse students and parents were being disproportionately penalized by the district’s procedures for addressing absenteeism, which primarily relied on discretionary decisions made by the Student Attendance Review Board (SARB).
The underlying mechanism of decisions made by school leadership often involves this use of discretion, and discretion can engender both positive and negative impacts for students as I have noted in my research. Thus, my vision for school leadership is comprised of reflection. As I have experienced in both my own practice in schools and in my own research, school leaders are best left to do their jobs, because leaders and the teachers and students they serve know their schools best. As a teacher of teacher educators and school leaders, I view my job as simply illustrating how to properly reflect, critique, and change policies to be sustainable and impactful for the audiences for which the policies were designed. Let the cycle do the work.
Similar to most educational policymakers, stakeholders, and practitioners, I believe that education could be a common denominator: a determinant of upward mobility, a factor of one’s personal happiness, a global indicator of progression. Though, I am concerned with whether educational policies have facilitated the creation of a common denominator, or instead, focused on the typical, the average, and the accepted. My vision for future leaders in education is to meet the needs of all students, and through this, eliminate policy backfire that is all too well-known to current educators.