Ignoring the tools at hand

Making sure the trains run on time and on the best possible schedule for the riders (in the case of schools, students) is one of the essential skills for education leadership, and it requires values such as patience, persistence and attention to detail. For example, the task of building the high school master schedule presents a great leadership opportunity for the high school principal. Unfortunately, it’s usually delegated to someone who can be manipulated by adults looking for the easiest schedule possible.

The impact of delegating the high school master schedule is twofold: there’s no innovation (not even good management for the benefit of the students), and the staff who know how important the schedule is become disenfranchised by the leadership’s unwillingness to recognize its importance.

Meanwhile, a 30 or 50 hour time investment developing a brand new master schedule that assigns the time blocks, rooms and teachers for classes results in fewer students losing courses due to conflicts.

Simply reusing the previous year’s master schedule and just making a few tweaks means the schedule moves further and further away from the ideal every year. Most principals just use last year’s schedule and assign to another employee – a guidance counselor, an assistant principal, a secretary – the responsibility of making a few minor adjustments to accommodate changes required by new courses, room renovations, teacher retirements, lunch, etc.

And the task of creating the master schedule usually falls to someone who gains an unnatural level of power that can cause problems. And that’s a leadership failure.
If the calculus teacher wants to eat lunch every day with the band teacher because they are friends they will ask the assistant principal creating the master schedule to ensure this is set in the schedule. If the assistant principal completing the master schedule accommodates this request, a careful analysis of the data will probably reveal that this accommodation increases conflicts for students and three or four students will have to choose between calculus or band or some other course in their schedule.

Ditto for the teacher who wants his prep period at the end of the day so he can duck out early to pick up his son at child care, the teacher who wants her prep and lunch periods together so she can help out at her mother’s place of business in midday. You know the drill.

I’ve met many superintendents and principals who struggle with the intricate analysis of complicated operational, academic and financial data required to make critical decisions in their jobs. Most of them were hired for political reasons and survived by delegating complicated tasks to smart employees who would give them easy-to-understand talking points and key conclusions to guide their communication with students, parents, employees, the school board and the public.

These talking points were designed to hide their ignorance about the nuts and bolts of completing the tasks they had delegated.

Relying on staff in schools for essential detail work has exacted a price paid by the students’ education. The only thing worse than using staff to do this data work is trying to fake it on important data-laden issues, an act I have sadly witnessed on more than one occasion.