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Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Part 2 of a series on leadership in the time of COVID.

In Part I, A Superintendent's Response to Crisis: Authenticity, I identified authenticity as a brand of leadership that is highly valued during a crisis. But leadership styles don't define leaders; leaders define leadership styles. Authentic leaders act on values, not interests. They are driven by passion. No challenge is insurmountable. They embrace projects that they believe in and pursue them with impassioned fervor, not merely eager interest. In leadership circles it's commonly referred to as project passion.

Authentic leaders eschew the social contract that tethers them to the norms that perpetuate the status quo. Their normative appeal is not as important to them as doing what's right, while others are satisfied simply doing the right things. Authentic leaders set up systems, but they don't let the system think for them.

The current PK-12 system is set up for failure. How do I know that? Based on results. Systems get exactly what they are designed to get, often unintentionally. The adage about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is an example of system failure. Einstein is credited with coining that concept. But if you want to go to the Einstein well for inspiration or advice, get drunk on this one: "Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value."

Our educational system gets exactly what it is designed to get: inequitable outcomes. The system is firmly established and deeply rooted and is evident in district policies, practices, and behaviors that amount to discrimination, to be frank. Speaking of Einstein, it's not rocket science. Educational policies and practices mirror society. COVID-19 has shone a light on that reality. So has the civil unrest that broke barriers and sparked a revolutionary spirit in the summer of 2020 amidst the pandemic.

Persistent inequalities are persistent for a reason: they are designed to be persistent. Think of the concept of planned obsolescence. It's a calculated act. The results are predictable. There's lots of examples of persistent inequalities. And educational practices replicate them all, in America and practically everywhere else around the world too. The most obvious examples are distribution of wealth, recognition of constitutional and civil rights, access to social provision, and respect and recognition of culture and language, to name a few.

Numerous studies have identified a number of potential reasons for the gross inequities in education, all of which reflect society. Among them, unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and stereotyping are most commonly cited.

Make no mistake, students in many schools are beating the odds. Incredible work is being done by incredible people making a difference in the lives of children. But as we've learned when schools abruptly shut their doors in March, 2020, districts and schools that are beating the odds are the exception, not the rule. Why aren't more districts, or all districts beating the odds? It's a good question. The best answer is cited in the research on inequity: unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and stereotyping are most commonly cited. The Haves have cultural capital. The Have-nots do not.

The combination of the pandemic, civil unrest, and a shattered political compass has stained the soul of America. When thinking about the toll it will have taken, it's hard not to think about what Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in 1954, referring to the impact of segregation on the hearts and minds of black children, " affects them in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Reimagining education in the Post-COVID era is a call to action. It's a moral imperative. It's easy to imagine the post-COVID era being shaped by political forces fueled by the pandemic schooling experience, most of which has failed many students and their families. So much so that people are yearning for pre-pandemic schooling even though its contribution to the equity crisis is well documented, primarily for its failure to subsume and consistently reflect advancements in technology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and whole child education, as well as our nation's failure to marshal its extraordinary wealth of resources to fund it. Now, many of these advancements are making their way into the educational ecosystem thanks to pandemic schooling.

Many of my superintendent colleagues agree that the time is now to leave behind the system that has vividly left so many children behind last March and promises to do more damage the longer the pandemic holds schools hostage. Truly authentic leaders will not be able to face themselves in the mirror if education returns to the very system that has been exposed for what it is: inequity-by-design.

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