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Searching for Searchers

It is widely accepted that educational leadership has great influence on student outcomes, and effective leaders can bring about positive changes even to troubled schools. Leadership is second only to teaching among school influences on student success. Some leaders are said to be “transformational” in their abilities. Thanks to the work of Leithwood and others, we now know that such school leaders are able to orchestrate a critical mix of skills which include setting direction, developing people, and redesigning the organization. Our principal preparation program at the University of Kentucky is explicitly designed to develop school leaders who can operate in a transformational capacity and who understand the science of program implementation. Our aim is to produce school leaders who can recognize opportunities for positive changes in schools and take those changes to scale.

Our future graduates, whom we hope will act in the form of what William Easterly refers to as “searchers,” will face challenges in the systems they enter. The challenges will be due in large measure to the fact that many school systems are populated with a searcher’s nemesis:the  “planner.”

Described in depth within Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden, planners and searchers are briefly as follows: 

  • Planners announce good intentions – but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out.
  • Searchers find things that work and get some reward.
  • Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them.
  • Searchers accept responsibility for their actions.
  • Planners determine what to supply.
  • Searchers find out what’s in demand.
  • Planners apply global blueprints.
  • Searcher adapt to local conditions.
  • Planners believe outsiders know enough to impose solutions.
  • Searchers believe only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions.

Lest you remain unconvinced that an economist like Easterly, whose focus is international, aid could have a handle on a framework that can describe schools, let’s look at an educational reform issue that’s near and dear to CASTLE's heart, 1:1 laptop initiatives. Here’s a situation as a student of mine in a recent graduate course in educational reform described it to me:

One district I know had a clear reform plan for 1:1 computing. The leadership purchased computers for their secondary level students; however, they did not have the full support of the teaching staff. The computers arrived only days before school began, thus the year began with no professional development for the staff and minimal instruction for the students. The planners believed that if they handed a teacher and a student a computer, they would automatically know how to use the various programs contained on it and be able to effectively utilize it as a learning tool. The planners also believed that students would be better prepared as a result of the presence of the computers and problems such as failing grades, absenteeism, and classroom management would improve substantially. A few searchers emerged among the secondary level faculty, mostly newer or younger teachers who were skilled in computers. They had the advantage with students by making their classes more inviting. The searchers would use their laptops to work with students based on their needs, test new ideas, and ask students to problem solve using technology, while the older or veteran staff tended to dislike the change, and stayed with their worksheets, lectures, and textbooks. The planners did not foresee how much this initiative needed to be front-loaded so as to best understand the needs of the intended users, both teacher and student.  As in Easterly’s notes, planners believe in handing out a solution with hopes that someone will make it work, while a searcher believes solutions must be more “homegrown” and developed by those it affects the most.

Does this example seem far-fetched, or is it more in line with what new leaders may be entering into? Perhaps you could comment on this.  For instance, can planners be turned into searchers? And if so, what’s the best way to do that? I have a few ideas on how we might go about that, and I’m eager to hear what some of your thoughts are as well.

Photo credit via Flickr: One Laptop Per Child (cc)

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