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)

    'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

    Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

    Sponsored by Northwell Health
    • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
    • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
    • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
    Keep reading Show less

    Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

    A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

    Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
    • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
    • The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
    Keep reading Show less

    Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

    Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

    Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
    Surprising Science
    • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
    • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
    • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

    Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

    In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

    (Photo by Andres Pantoja/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
    Politics & Current Affairs
    • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
    • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
    • Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
    Keep reading Show less