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Not all effective school leaders are alike

By Robert Maranto Sometimes, professional educators like myself are too focused on theory and research. As a result, we overlook the very human lessons the best practitioners in our field have to offer.

By Robert Maranto

Sometimes, professional educators like myself are too focused on theory and research. As a result, we overlook the very human lessons the best practitioners in our field have to offer.

Case in point: Recently, more than 14,000 K-12 educators and education school professors like me met at the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). This is the oddest of academic conferences, with its mix of statistical wonks, politically correct professors, and politically conservative coaches who landed in school leadership posts.

Hundreds of AERA presentations this year concerned educational leadership, a matter of vital importance, as demonstrated by the recent headlines regarding Philadelphia's school cheating scandals, which involve both district and charter schools. According to AERA's leading lights, there is one right way to lead schools: Great principals suggest rather than direct, and take care to never hurt anyone's feelings. As Frederick M. Hess writes in Cage-Busting Leadership, conventional consultants worship the "five C's" of the education leadership canon: collaboration, consensus, capacity, coaching, and culture.

However, Hess notes that none of the leadership gurus mention contracts or collective bargaining. Few note the need to hire teachers who support the school mission, and none address how to fire folks who are just not working out. "Five C" consultants seem to believe that the laws of human nature don't apply in schools, where everyone is a saint and no one would ever cheat. All teachers teach well, so long as they are properly trained, certified, and led. No kid will act up unless his or her self-esteem is crushed by rules and discipline.

Of course, outside the ivory tower, things get messy. Leadership styles that work in some schools fall flat in others; thus this former Philadelphian thinks AERA missed out on what could have been an amazing field trip. Within a half-hour of the conference site are two of the best and most different school leaders I have seen in 15 years of field work.

One is Anne Heffron, who has led Merion Elementary on the upscale Main Line since 1996. She knows every kid in the building. Great teachers want to teach for Heffron, so over time she built a staff like her, one seeking to build trust with every parent in a low-key, often humorous, way.

Merion is a public school, but also a school of choice. Many parents choose to pay big bucks to buy homes nearby. A few years back, all hell broke loose when the school district considered moving a few dozen students to a perfectly fine neighboring school. Parents bristled at the thought of leaving the community Principal Heffron had nurtured through years of collaboration and coaching. It takes a lot of work to satisfy picky Main Line parents, but Merion meets the challenge.

Anne Heffron proves to skeptics like me that, in upscale communities, the right leader can make "five C" style leadership work wonders.

But just a few miles away as the crow flies lies a school that is completely different, but every bit as good.

Boys Latin Charter School in West Philly, co-founded and co-led by my friend Dave Hardy, is in a rough part of town. The first time I visited, the neighborhood had 14 murders in the prior five months. Yet, inside Boys Latin, all was well. I left my laptop unattended in a lunchroom with 200 kids. That reflects Dave's leadership. Boys Latin has a dress code, clear rules, and kids focused on preparing for college. The school is peaceful but, should the occasion arise, Dave Hardy can get in your face in a way that no Main Line educator would.

While Heffron and most conventional school leaders hire certified teachers with AERA-approved training, Hardy prefers newbies from Teach For America (TFA). The reason, he says, is "we can teach you how to teach, but we can't teach smart and hard-working; that's what the TFA brings."

It takes a lot of work to get kids who start out academically behind college-ready, but Boys Latin meets the challenge.

Heffron and Hardy are great public servants with much in common. Both are smart, dedicated, and know every kid in the building. Both model integrity - no cheating scandals at their schools. Both put their teachers ahead of themselves and their kids ahead of their teachers. Both have built great teams. Both admit that his or her school is not perfect, and look to improve. Both Anne and Dave have been there for a while and aren't going away any time soon.

But in style and personnel, these two great leaders could not be more different.

I wish the ivory-tower theorists and consultants could admit that in school leadership, like almost everything else, there is no one best way.