One Good Question with Kathy Padian: How leadership trumps funding in school system improvement

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Education Equity / One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

The first thing that comes to mind, is the the disparity amongst different communities and their investments.  In a recent meeting about school turnaround, we learned about Camden, NJ, where they spend $26,000 per student in a district with 15,000 students.  The majority of us in the room, our heads exploded.   Here we are, in a very impoverished state and city where housing prices are rising and we’re still investing around $10,000 per students. It’s mind boggling.  When I read that question, I was thinking overall in the US, we don’t invest nearly enough.  Kids should have the ability to go to a classroom or education environment from birth or 2-3 years if they want to (not mandatory).  In Louisiana we don’t require school until 7, which is a crazy law.  There needs to be a much greater investment. We hear all the sound bites about a different type of future and technology based innovation entrepreneurial thinkers etc., yet in many places, (not Camden) we are falling woefully short on the investment side, and education becomes the easiest thing to cut from a budget (especially early childhood education).  We’re not putting our money where our mouth is.  Defense budget is quadrupling in comparison to education.

In the post-Katrina New Orleans education landscape, we’ve seen considerable economic resources invested in outcomes for youth.  Which ones have had the greatest game-changing impact?  Which investments are replicable for other underperforming urban school communities?

From where I sit, the greatest game-changing impact wasn’t specifically economic.  There was no money that changed things.  It was more the ability to restart.  In order to get rid of what was generations of complacency, graft, corruption and no real accountability because the “people who were supposed to be holding the district accountable” were part of the graft and corruption.  In pre-Katrina New Orleans, if you were able to, you sent your kids to private or parochial schools.  If you weren’t able to, there was some relationship between not having the money for private school and lack of grassroots agency to create change.  Pre-Katrina, there were absolutely small pockets of schools and folks who were trying to do things differently, but the mentality was, “I can’t save everyone, so I’m going to save this subset of kids.” It seemed so intractable.

Getting to where you remove the massive money suck at the central office, is probably the thing that was the game changer.  I don’t know how other cities can replicate that.  Does state takeover create that space?  Outsiders think that New Orleans education recovery was flooded with funding, but the funding was targeted.  New Orleans received a federal investment and FEMA supports to rebuild schools. Like everything in Louisiana, we didn’t hire the right people.  We had people with no experience who were hired to manage billion dollar budgets. The money wasn’t managed better, however, or we could have had more buildings or better status for the construction.

So what made the central office different?  You need a mix of veteran and newcomer administrators.  This is one of the five recommendations in The Wallace Foundation’s brief on the role of district leadership in school improvement.  In any existing administration, there are good and hard working team members who, if they had good leadership with visionary direction, they would adapt and be great.  You also need people who are coming from the outside (of the district or region) and who have seen a different way of doing things.  These two cohorts need to work along side each other.  You need that mix: outsiders who come in with some humility and are willing to work with veterans and veterans who want to adapt.  Building and guiding such a team requires really strong leadership to get everyone on the same team and working towards the same goal.

Recovery School District was getting there, but now the pendulum has swung the other way.  We currently have a super young team with lots of energy who are now starting to try “new ideas” that, in some cases, were the same old ideas from before.  Old heads hear these “new ideas” and are loathe to work with the new staffers.  This is maddening because there was an opportunity for Orleans Parish to bring the schools back.  The bridge building that we began could have continued – to bring the fresh ideas and the institutional knowledge together in the same place.  But that’s not happening, and with the new governor, who knows how the legislature will respond. We’re not ready for change, but politics may force the hand.

Kathy Padian LinkedIn headshotKathy’s One Good Question:  When are we really going to make the hard decisions about quality? We have had aggressive expansion and replication of homegrown CMOs and lots of discourse about market share, but it’s been at the expense of quality seats for every child.

Back to my meeting about Camden, I want to know why aren’t there more women CMO leaders and superintendents? There are women running amazing schools, districts, CMOs who are waiting to expand until they reach perfection, while their male counterparts are growing mediocrity.

Kathy Padian has more than twenty years of experience in the field of K-12 public education from her start as a classroom teacher to the executive management of schools, non-profit and philanthropic organizations. She is Former Deputy Superintendent at Orleans Parish School Board and is now senior partner at TenSquare focused on improving charter school quality throughout the U.S.; based in D.C. & NOLA.  She is thrilled to be the mother of an energetic 7 year old and to serve as a founding Float Lieutenant in the Krewe of Nyx (the largest all female parading Krewe in Mardi Gras history).


Background on NOLA schools 2005-2015:

The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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