At the close of the 2022-23 school year, the educational school bus returned to its depot with the engine smoking and its wheels falling off. After all, it was quite a post-Pandemic year with a record drop in school enrollment, declining achievement, and massive resignations from teachers and administrators. If those data points weren’t enough to shake the public’s faith in public education, issues involving curriculum, inclusionary practices, and gender policies had parents questioning if their opinions were valued by school districts in the decision-making process.
Having observed this chaos, there appeared to be significant disconnections between teachers, administrators, parents, and board members as to how to move forward in a post-Pandemic world. Shifting perspectives regarding roles, responsibilities, and expectations as to what schools should look like in the 21st century have left many practitioners and schools in a state of emotional and social fragility. Over 300,000 teachers have “packed their bags” for other professions citing concerns for their mental health. Others cited feeling “burned out,” overwhelmed, and unsupported by a system that demanded too much of them.
Principals and administrators are also leaving the profession in increased numbers compared to previous years. The pressure to balance the expectation of increasing student performance through instructional initiatives such as social and emotional learning, along with quelling parental reaction to curriculum changes and political activity by board members, has pushed the concept of instructional leadership to its limit. Unfortunately, students who inherited this tumultuous climate found the focus on learning and performance a secondary concern.
The recent release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores which indicated a drop in student achievement in both reading and mathematics when combined with our mediocre international PISA scores, is a “red line in the sand.” We cannot continue randomly improving our schools with a “Whack-A-Mole” strategy. When achievement issues are viewed alongside the many climate issues festering under the surface, a “business as usual” attitude will not suffice. Therefore, schools must open the year in a strategically positive position to fend off distractions and diversions from their instructional mission.
First, begin with a survey such as the Schools Systems Crosscheck which focuses on systemic alignment, atmosphere (climate), accountability, and leadership. By focusing on processes that identify areas of disjointedness, the survey will laser-focus the organization on goals that will produce results. Utilizing strategies that employ analytics, collaboration, and proven research is the pathway to stabilization and growth, but realize that it will only occur when a “critical mass” endorses the road forward. “Attitude does equal Altitude.”
Ultimately, it is not about money or even resources but our “collective willingness” to get the job done. In our “land of plenty,” there can no longer be excuses. Our success or failure rests squarely with us and those chosen to lead us.
Vincent F. Cotter, Ed.D., is a former Superintendent of Schools, professor, consultant, the American Society for Quality’s Juran Medal recipient, Co-founder of the Exemplary Schools Organization, and author of three Rowman and Littlefield books on school leadership: Performance is Key, Igniting School Performance and Leaning into the Future, as well as contributing previously to Smerconish.com