Arizona’s education system is failing our students, with “85% of high-growth, high-wage jobs in Arizona [requiring] some form of higher education and work experience” (Expect More Arizona, 2014) yet “53% of Arizona’s graduates do not qualify to enroll in our state’s public universities (Expect More Arizona, 2014). It is clear that drastic changes need to be made to Arizona’s education system but where do we start? The key to excellent schools is exceptional leadership at every level: administration, teachers, and students. Yesterday, I asked a colleague, who is a leader at a local Title I school district, about the successes and struggles at the schools in his district. As we discussed the nineteen schools, the conversation continuously circled back to a dialogue on strong leadership at all levels. If the success of students depends on leadership, what qualities do academic leaders have to possess?
Due to my passion for Title I Arizona schools, I am going to focus my discussion on the leadership of schools that contain a large population of low-income and minority students. First and foremost we need our educators to re-evaluate how they perceive our students, according to Tara Yosso in her 2008 article, “educators most often assume that schools work and that students, parents, and communities need to change to conform to this already effective and equitable system” (p. 75). Unfortunately, this is not the case and many of our schools are underperforming and lack the leadership required to offer an excellent education to all students. We need to have an approach to education that is culturally relevant and views our students as culturally wealthy learners. In order for a change to be made all educational leaders must possess the following qualities: ability to understand different cultures and the capital they bring to the table, competence to help others achieve success by recognizing individual strengths, capacity to give all people a voice, faculty to help create constructive moments of uncertainty, and ability to create an environment that is positive and culturally relevant to allow all to achieve access, excellence, and success. If these leadership skills begin at the district level, I believe there will be a trickle down effect into school and classroom leadership. Each of the qualities is relevant in the support and growth of a diverse staff and student body.
Outstanding leaders are able to put aside a deficit approach to thinking and begin looking at the cultural capital, which is the “accumulation of cultural knowledge, skills and abilities possessed and inherited by privileged groups in society (Yosso, 2008, p. 76), that all of our students and staff possess. According to Yosso (2008), we need to begin empowering people of color to recognize their cultural capital and use it as a resource to assist in higher achievement. Administrators, teachers, and students of color come with a significant amount of “cultural wealth through at least 6 forms of capital such as aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial, and resistant capital” (Yosso, 2008, p. 77). It is in the best interest of all leaders, whether it is an administrator, teacher, or student, to recognize the extraordinary advantage that cultural wealth can offer to the school and assist individuals in the process of recognizing theses traits. A great leader strengthens the community they are working with by empowering all parties to utilize all traits that they possess. It is time for our leaders to “restructure US social institutions around those knowledges, skills, abilities, and networks” (Yosso, 2008, p. 82) that all individuals possess.
Strong leaders not only empower individuals they work with to explore and utilize their cultural capital, they also make a conscious effort to give a voice to all members of the community. Encouraging individuals to have a voice, leads to innovation, thought provoking conversations, and progress in the school system. If all parts of the community of practice feel as if they are heard, they will continue to discuss important topics and help push towards positive change.
Along with valuing cultural capital and giving all individuals a voice, leaders must also be able to manage uncertainty, especially if they wish to see growth, progress , and innovation within the educational system. Uncertainly is defined as “an individual’s subjective experience of doubting, being unsure, or wondering about how the future will unfold, what the present means, or how to interpret the past” (Jordan & McDaniel, n.d., p. 3). Managing uncertainty is important to problem solving and community building, which makes for a stronger community of practice. Leaders must “generate productive uncertainty when they [encourage others to] problematize disciplinary content and actions” (Jordan et al., n.d., p. 5) in order to assist in the learning and growth process within a community of practice. If there is a high level of confidence in regards to problem solving, a greater number of individuals in the community will attempt to address issues and take positive action steps towards solutions.
If our education system saw an improvement in leadership at the district, school, and classroom levels, we would see a higher level of academic excellence, access, and impact. If we are to improve our education system we must start with the leaders and ensure that they possess the skills required to help all community members reach their maximum potential and continuously strive towards excellence. When leaders are equipped with the skills necessary to empower participants of their community of practice, we will begin to see higher levels of student engagement, encouragement of all individuals to use their cultural knowledge, and more culturally relevant material in the classrooms.
How it Affects us. Expect More Arizona. Retrieved 06, 2014, from http://www.expectmorearizona.org/learn-more/how-it-affects-us/
Jordan, M. E. & McDaniel, R. (in press). Managing uncertainty during collaborative problem solving in elementary school teams: The role of peer influence in robotics engineering activity. Journal of the Learning Sciences. doi: 10.1080/10508406.2014.896254
Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. New York: University of Otago Press
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community and cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 1(8), 6991.
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