What leaders can (and cannot) learn from scientists 



Back in my teenage years, I hated science. Or, more specifically, I hated science class. As far as I could tell, the point of biology, chemistry, and physics was just to memorize facts and figures, then regurgitate them on exam day. (And while I had no problem memorizing guitar licks or my part in the school play, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the steps of the Krebs cycle or which gasses were the noble ones). Nowadays, though, I can’t get enough science (or, at least, stories about science). I always look forward to Tuesday’s science section in the New York Times, for example. On the weekend, I tune in to Radiolab and Hidden Brain on NPR, and I’m always fascinated to hear about the human drama that goes into every discovery or invention. It turns out that science is all about the journey — and it’s a messier and much more interesting journey than I ever realized, full of trial and error, twists and turns, frustration and resilience. 

As a nonscientist, I’m most impressed by  the scientific methodology. Scientists — or teams of scientists, usually — will pose questions, make observations, come up with hypotheses, argue about them, conduct experiments, analyze the data, and draw conclusions, only to have them tested further by peers to see if the findings can be replicated. Progress tends to be slow, experiments often fail to get results, and it may take years to solve a problem or validate an idea. Still, when it comes to science, people are patient. The public understands that complicated research can’t be rushed. 

When it comes to school and district improvement, though, we tend to rush everything. Typically, the process goes something like this: 

  1. The leader announces a new goal (e.g., improve graduation rates, raise test scores, or reduce suspensions).
  2. The leader announces a strategy to achieve that goal (e.g., a new curriculum, a new approach to professional development, or a new master schedule).
  3. The leader makes overly optimistic predictions to win political and public support for the strategy.
  4. If the program or intervention doesn’t show results within a couple of years, the leader blames poor implementation or a lack of “fidelity” to the design.
  5. Rinse and repeat.

Given how unscientific most school and district improvement efforts are, it shouldn’t be hard to choose a more careful and systematic approach. For example, improvement science — as developed by Tony Bryk and his colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching — provides educators with a range of useful principles and strategies for defining school and district priorities, identifying key problems, designing and testing out solutions, assessing progress, and so on.  

Having served as a district superintendent, though, I’ve seen firsthand that educational improvement requires more than just a rigorous, experimental approach to problem solving (whether one chooses Bryk’s approach or some other model). Far more than scientists, school and district leaders also have to contend with the cultural and emotional dimensions of change, which means that how we communicate about the change process is just as important as the rigor of the change process itself.  

First, educational leaders have to be transparent. Given the range of competing interests that exist within every community, educational leaders should know that their plans and decisions will never be met with consensus, no matter how strong the evidence that supports them. But if they can’t get everyone to agree, leaders can at least be clear about what problem they’re trying to solve, what data and information they’ve used to define that problem, what process they’ll use to solve it, and what opportunities stakeholders will have to be involved.  

Second, no matter how many urgent problems their school or district faces, leaders can’t afford to promise that they’ll address all of them. I’ve never seen a school or district succeed in taking on more than a few challenges simultaneously. Scattershot efforts may produce an impressive flurry of activity, but they simply don’t permit teachers and staff to learn new ways of thinking about and approaching their work. Far better to decide on just two or three priorities and try to help constituents understand why other needs will have to wait.  

Third, school and district leaders have to persuade stakeholders that the given strategy is promising and realistic. They need to make a compelling case that, for example, it has worked in similar contexts, benefited a large percentage of students, and didn’t break the bank, and they need to describe what it will actually require teachers to do and what resources and supports will be available to them  

The advantages of leading deliberately 

Sure, education leaders sometimes need to act on immediate problems. If they see something egregiously wrong occurring in their schools, they must deal with it quickly, even if that means having to put aside, for the moment, the goals of transparency and inclusive communication. For example, when I was superintendent in Montgomery County, Md., I came to realize that most teachers, administrators, and employee associations in the district were deeply unhappy with both the quality and quantity of the standardized tests their students had to take. At the same time, there was a lot of concern about adult culture and whether employees were feeling like valuable members of the team. So I decided that we would stop administering the Terra Nova 2nd-grade literacy test, and we would use the money we saved to implement the Gallup Q12 survey of employee engagement (which, ample research suggests, is directly related to educators’ productivity and effectiveness). This was a relatively easy decision to make.   

But quick, top-down decisions ought to be few and far between. The great privilege and responsibility of school and district leaders is to identify a moral imperative and create a sense of urgency to achieve a new vision for what children can know and be able to do. Their role is to define why things must change. However, the slower, long-term work of solving the how and what problems has to involve teachers and staff. The people who do the work every day must be fully involved in observing current practices, asking questions, generating new ideas, testing them out, and perhaps even challenging the leader’s priorities and vision.  

True, some K-12 interventions and instructional programs claim to sidestep the need for educators to take such a systematic approach to school improvement. Some developers will argue that the science has already been built into their product, and that it will be effective so long as the school implements it with “fidelity.” However, this approach to program implementation — requiring that we adhere to very specific steps dictated by the product developer or the central office — isn’t relevant to most of the important decisions we face in K-12 education. Pursuit of the Holy Grail of fidelity of implementation has led to both an overreliance on the marketplace and a diminishment of local leadership.  

Given the complexity of life in schools (not to mention the complex and competing goals voiced by our many constituents), we simply can’t afford to function as cogs in a machine, faithfully implementing somebody else’s plans. As Margaret Wheatley describes so eloquently in her book Leadership and the New Science (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006), organizational transformation isn’t linear. Seemingly disparate particles can come together and produce a beautiful fractal, just as siloed central offices or departments can collaborate on a project and achieve stunning results that would’ve been impossible to predict. Which means that as school and district, we need to be constantly observing, testing out ideas, measuring their effects, and recalibrating our plans.   


Citation: Starr, J.P. (2019). On leadership: What leaders can (and cannot) learn from scientists. Phi Delta Kappan, 100  (5), 70-71. 

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va. 

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