Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

From K-12 to higher ed, we need significant, meaningful changes in the way our schools are run

There’s a leadership crisis in administration from K-12 to higher education. Citing business-model reforms, the carefully cultivated authoritarian leadership quickly screams “budget catastrophe” while blowing up administrative and consulting expenditures and shouts “failing schools” while implementing the very tactics that create failures. Moves toward privatization in public schools always create fewer winners and more losers. That is the nature of capitalism. Suggesting that market-based reforms will do otherwise is insincere.

Photo by Jason Miller, Franchise Graphics and Photography
Nicole Helget

Without significant and meaningful changes in the way we run our schools and in the way we select our leaders, blights such as achievements gaps, opportunity disparities, and institutionalized racism and sexism will get worse, not better. These kinds of administrations undermine public schools, move toward privatizing curriculum and schools, scapegoat teachers, and dilute creative and critical courses. These styles of administration also hide behind women and people of color while implementing education reform that ultimately hurts women and people of color. Putting a woman or a person of color in a position of power should be an opportunity to explore a new leadership style, one that may be more lateral or communicative or democratic or inclusive or collaborative. But, in education reform, it too often means that that person is being used as a puppet operated by a puppeteer who’s hiding up in the rafters. This is a symptom of institutionalized racism and sexism.

While there’s a lot of talk about (and expense for) research-y powerpoints and consultants, they’ve provided no evidence, none, that proves the market-based reforms geared toward work-force needs have ever led to a more educated populace or an improved economy. The consulting groups operate as laundering services by professionalizing unproven restructuring models. And, for some reason, the real research, which proves that market-based reforms lead to wider achievement gaps and opportunity disparities, is wholly ignored. The real research — which proves that inclusion and small, intimate class sizes with intelligent and empathetic teachers who feel secure and valued and trusted and empowered by their administration raises student success — is suppressed.

Same old top-down structures are perpetuated

The misuse of language is ubiquitous. While bandying about phrases such as “national searches” and doling out lots of money for hiring firms to discover top talent for its top leadership roles, school systems quietly plant predetermined people in those positions who replicate the same top-down structure as the system itself, and who fob upon the teachers, students, and communities the predetermined plan. And, in too many cases, the selections bring with them a résumé full of garbage, academic fraud and lax integrity. Maybe the hiring firms should try galaxy-wide searches.

Teacher and student inclusion in the creation of the education reform is a ruse. The hiring searches are a ruse. Out of centralized offices come decisions about the studies and futures of people the systems have never met and have no understanding of. Penetrating the insider’s circle to ask questions or get answers or provide tried and true research is impossible. The controllers make decisions behind the administrative fortress. No one is accountable.

These are not school systems. They are kingdoms.

Insight from communities is needed

Our schools, community colleges and universities need insight from the communities they serve and not only new leaders, but new leadership styles. We have to change the culture of education. Children and students are not products or inventory or merchandise to be shipped. Our goal in education includes preparing people who can work, of course, but our goal in education is to prepare people to adapt to all the changing aspects of our world and to help build the next economy, not become slaves to the current one.

Nicole Helget is a writer, an alumna of MnSCU, parent of an MnSCU student, former teacher at MnSCU, and current MPA candidate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Dan McGuire on 12/23/2015 - 03:32 pm.

    Leadership crisis in education

    Thank you, Nicole.

    Designating the principal and various roles in a central office of a district as ‘educational leaders’ is not proving to be effective. The educational leaders are the teachers. Public schools work best as collective, democratic organizations and fail when hierarchical control is applied. Principals and central office staff are needed for administrative function, not for leading the instruction and assessment.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 12/24/2015 - 04:54 am.


      Yes your points have been laundered many, many times. There is some truth in what you say, but to write off all Principals as pawns is wrong. Many Principals have been excellent teachers who have moved into leadership roles because they felt that they could accomplish more for students and fellow teachers in that position.
      A quality staff needs a quality leader. This holds true in any organization. Do not equate Principals with ‘central office staff’. A quality Principal will make a quality staff better by working with them and in addition, serving as a buffer to that dollar conscious ‘central office staff”.

      A side thought…..why did the U/M keep popping into my head as I read Nicole’s great article?

    • Submitted by R Erdahl on 12/24/2015 - 09:31 am.

      schools work???


      What about those of us who have spent hundreds of hours (maybe thousands) over the years in faculty meetings debating whether or not we are going to allow soda in the classrooms, whether or not kids can wear hats, or whether or not kids can park in a certain parking lot? I was on one building leadership team that, after a year of debate, finally decided we would host one baby shower per faculty member. If you had a second kid, you were on your own. We never got around to improving instruction because, I believe, there is no incentive for teachers to improve instruction, only principals and central office staff. To imply, as you do, that schools somehow work if left to faculty leadership is either charmingly naïve or purposely disingenuous. Schools work when EVERY teacher lives out the conviction that EVERY child can achieve. If we can get to that point, teachers will innovate, create, work hard, develop relationships, all the things we want and we can dispense with many of the district-wide initiatives that are likely to keep coming if we continue hiring and retaining teachers who don’t live out this conviction. The superintendent and, sometimes, the principal can lose their jobs if they can’t move the needle. How is it that you don’t understand that they have every incentive to impose change?

  2. Submitted by David Groos on 12/24/2015 - 03:06 pm.

    Nice overview

    Thanks Nicole. Quite frankly I’m surprised/shocked to see this analysis published on MinnPost.

    After having taught for 2 dozen years, in different schools in the MPS, under many different leaders at different levels and with many groups of colleagues, my assessment of the ‘weak links’ of our system has evolved. Furthermore, the ‘solution’ is not to focus on weak links, whatever they might seem to be. The solution is to focus on growing (aiming to increasingly emerge as) a leadership-rich community. I believe that’s what Dan M. is talking about, above.

    Nicole has done a nice job describing our nation’s current trauma-inducing process of assigning top educational leadership. She also emphasizes that we must flatten-out leadership structure; the control-by-steep-structures is an idealistic fantasy. In our next leaders I hope that they take this ultimately proactive, rich-leadership agenda. Every one of us is called upon to improve our community. Right, galaxy-wide searches will make no positive difference.

    The potential of educational communities such as the MPS is truly awe-inspiring. Let’s continue to connect!!! Eschew the fatally-flawed reform-visions. Aim towards inclusivity and beauty and richly growing worlds only achievable with the type of leadership mentioned in the article above.

Leave a Reply