Education Decision-Making: Live by Facts, Die by Opinion…

Guest blogger Dr. Howard Maffucci is a retired superintendent of schools who now writes about education and political issues important to New York on his blog, CommonSenseNY.

As a retired school superintendent with 37 years of experience in education, 14 as superintendent, I’m often asked, “What are the characteristics of an effective school leader?” The answer isn’t much different than what describes a good leader in general.

Over the years, I have developed a list of commandments for effective leaders. I started with, obviously, 10.  Thank you Charlton Heston. But there are actually 50 or so.

Before introducing some commandments, it is important to understand that leadership during good times is easy. Leadership during difficult periods, however — whether due to a sudden crisis, budget issue or just bad times in general — is much more difficult. Solid, proactive leadership is what separates effective leaders from the ineffective. Effective leadership is all about making good, informed decisions.

Which brings us to several important commandments. “Thou shall never, ever make a decision without all the relevant information. Thou shall always take into consideration unintended consequences. And, finally, thou shall always remember you can’t solve a problem unless you correctly identify it.”

You are probably sensing where I’m going with this. Effective leadership is all about effective problem solving and decision-making. And you can’t be skillful at either of those unless you have a way to get reliable information about issues and about how your stakeholders feel about those issues.

To put it bluntly, bad information leads to bad decisions. This brings me to another important commandment, “Thou shall always remember that what you don’t know is more important than what you do know.” Hence, if you are going to acquire information, either through research or a survey, make sure you conduct that research or survey the right way.

If you don’t, you will be forced to learn the “Rule of Holes” the hard way. That is, “Thou shall remember the ‘Rule of Holes’: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!”

Difficult issues revolving around school choice, school closing/redistricting, budget/fiscal priorities, or simply the everyday challenges of leading a complex organization — are coming fast and furious. We are entering a period of public engagement about education where good and bad information flow quickly through social media or other websites.

The public perception is that schools need improvement, which puts superintendents and other school leaders in a constant battle to win the public trust. Therefore, good information, acquired efficiently, has never been more important.

This brings me to K12 Insight. They say it best on their website: “K12 Insight specializes in helping district administrators and school boards build highly-engaged and trusted relationships with parents, teachers, students and members of the community.”

There is an old superintendent story called “Three Letters.” On the first day on the job, a new superintendent found a welcome note on this desk from the former superintendent. The note was attached to three letters. The note read, “The first time you get in trouble, open letter one. The second time, open letter two . . . “ You get the idea.

So, the first time the superintendent got into trouble, he opened the first letter. It said, “Blame me.” The second time, he opened letter two. It said, “Blame me.”

The third time, he opened letter three. It said, “Write three letters.”                          

Effective leadership is all about never having to write three letters until you decide it’s time. And, finally, when you have good, well-researched information, “Thou shall remember, others are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts!”


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