Unlearning NCLB 


The era of ESSA will require district leaders to replace their old ways of leading with new approaches. 


Back in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student at Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Not only did we get to study with brilliant scholars like Susan Moore Johnson, Richard Elmore, and Richard Murnane, but our advisors and mentors were some of the great school system leaders of the day, people like Bob Peterkin, Rosa Smith, Carl Cohn, Paul Houston, Gerry House, Peter Negroni, Stan Paz, Larry Leverett, Arlene Ackerman, Tom Payzant, and Rudy Crew. Leverett even agreed to take me on as an intern in the Plainfield, New Jersey, central office, and when I graduated in 1999, he hired me as the district’s director of accountability. 

As an aspiring superintendent, I saw nothing but opportunity ahead. Inspired by the sitting urban superintendents I had interacted with, I was determined to pursue bold ideas for district improvement grounded in the primacy of organizing around teaching and learning through an equity lens. Drawing from the emerging research into organizational change, instructional leadership, teacher development, community engagement, culturally responsive curriculum, formative assessment, and more, I was ready to go.  

And then, in 2002, came No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Suddenly, bold was out; compliant was in.  

I don’t know how many of us remember what it was like to run a school system back in the days before NCLB. (Not many, I reckon. According to the American Association of School Administrators, the average age of today’s superintendent is 52. Twenty years ago, it was unusual to be a 30-year-old district-level administrator, like I was.) And therein lies the rub: Nowadays, thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), school system leaders are once again supposed to come up with creative ways to address local challenges. The shackles are off. Compliant is out; bold is in. Hallelujah! But for a whole generation of superintendents and system leaders, compliance is all they’ve ever known.   

Compliant is out; bold is in. Hallelujah! But for a whole generation of superintendents and system leaders, compliance is all they’ve ever known.   

The question is, what do system leaders need to unlearn after 20 years of NCLB? To take full advantage of the opportunities ESSA makes possible, what mental models do they have to replace? 

No. 1 on my list is to unlearn the idea that the central office exists to impose rules, regulations, and paperwork upon schools. NCLB drew from a much older, Taylor-esque tradition of scientific management in public education, in which district staff were supposed to be cogs in a larger structure of command and control. They were expected to relay policy decisions from on high, dictate procedures, monitor progress, collect data, and dole out rewards and punishments based on test scores and performance goals. But if, under ESSA, states are serious about reviving local control in K-12 education, then that won’t work anymore. System leaders need to unlearn the habit of compliance-driven management and rededicate themselves to helping others do their best work. The kind of accountability we need today is more like the professional accountability that scholars like Richard Elmore urged in the 1990s than the test-based accountability of the NCLB years: Instead of always trying to hold others accountable, the priority of the central office should be to hold itself accountable to the community it serves.  

Second, system leaders need to unlearn the idea that superintendents should ride into town, kick the old sheriff down the road, and lay down the law. For years, the media have fawned over superintendents who keep the district in line and stick to the mission of increasing student test scores. And it is easy for new leaders to pick fights, especially when faced with intransigent unions, hyper-political board members, unreasonable community groups, or shockingly low-performing schools. But the post-NCLB world doesn’t need Lone Rangers and slash-and-burn leaders. Unless superintendents secure real involvement and commitment from a critical mass of supporters — including district staff, teachers, parents, and others — then all their great ideas and plans will disappear with them the day they get chased out of office and run out of town. 

Third, they need to unlearn the assumption that school improvement comes in a package. Given the pressure NCLB put on schools and districts to hit annual performance targets, it’s no surprise that system leaders looked to off-the-shelf programs and interventions to help them boost test scores. But many of them came to believe that the only way to improve teaching and learning is to purchase a program. For example, a lot of superintendents will spend months shopping around for a new curriculum, asking a committee of teachers and principals to review it, making a big announcement, and introducing it with a lot of fanfare. And then, when student achievement remains flat, they’ll blame their staff, accusing them of failing to implement the curriculum with fidelity. But the better option is to rethink the whole mental model: Sure, sometimes it’s helpful to purchase a new curriculum, but if you really want to improve teaching and learning, then you have to do the slow, complex work of recruiting, onboarding, and developing great teachers and principals; supporting them over time; building healthier school cultures; making good use of performance data, and so on.  

Fourth, they need to unlearn some outdated community engagement strategies. Under NCLB, school and district leaders were required to report their performance data and include parents on local planning teams, but these were chores to comply with; they didn’t create any real incentives to listen to the public. For 20 years, then, most of the communication has gone one way. School officials have produced a steady stream of annual reports, tweets, and email updates about their progress. But they’ve mostly gone through the motions of inviting community input. At school board meetings, for instance, they’ll make a show of paying attention while citizens air their concerns, three minutes at a time. And in interviews with local news media, they’ll spin and control the message, avoiding serious questions. However, to the extent that ESSA encourages genuine responsiveness to local needs and challenges, all of this will have to change. Families and community members will want to know what school and district leaders believe and why they make the decisions they do. And stakeholders will expect a real back and forth, not a sales pitch. In short, if NCLB’s top-down style of governance is on the way out, then principals and superintendents will have to be willing to engage in authentic, two-way communication. 

Finally, and perhaps most important, system leaders will need to unlearn the ways they’ve thought about equity. Under NCLB, student achievement data were supposed to drive all decisions about where and how to allocate resources. But while it’s important to keep looking closely at the data and directing services and supports toward the students who need them the most, test scores and graduation rates (not to mention attendance records, school climate surveys, and the other new indicators introduced under ESSA) don’t tell the full story. System leaders ought to take a much broader perspective on the ways our public schools privilege some students and underserve others, looking not just at numerical data but also at the assumptions educators make about children from differing backgrounds, the differing ways in which rewards and punishments are handed out to those children, and all the subtle ways implicit biases enter the classroom. That is, leaders can’t just obsess about closing test-score gaps. They also need to understand how and why we have such terribly racist and unequal school systems, and they need to think creatively about how to treat all children more equitably.   

Unlearning is hard, especially when leaders have been promoted to their current job based on their expertise in a model that may not be useful anymore.

The adage you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is grounded in science. Our synapses decrease as we get older, and it becomes harder to learn new things. I’m a lifelong Yankees fan, and I can still remember when Derek Jeter, the legendary shortstop, spent an entire spring training learning a new swing. As he got older, Jeter’s productivity at the plate declined, so he and his coaches worked to modify his batting stance. But just a week into the new season, he went back to his old swing. In real-time game situations, he found himself falling back on the batting technique he’d developed over a lifetime.  

Unlearning is hard, especially when leaders have been promoted to their current job based on their expertise in a model that may not be useful anymore. If that expertise is no longer relevant, the leader may question whether she is, too. Yet, the best school and district leaders take the risk to unlearn what they think they know about organizational change. Given where we are in public education today, the only responsible choice is to dismantle old mental models for leadership and embrace new ones.  

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

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