Why Bents

Surveys of school administrators consistently place a high priority on the role of instructional leadership. On these same surveys, however, school administrators also admit that their managerial duties leave them with little time to perform the functions of instructional leadership: supervision of teachers, curriculum development, staff development, staffing, testing and evaluation, school improvement, technology, cultural diversity, exceptionality. This admission by school administrators is confirmed by daily desk calendars crowded with managing budgets, supervising building projects, completing governmental compliance forms, writing a community newsletter, ordering school supplies, adjusting bus schedules, conferring with attorneys on a new board policy, reviewing a grievance with a union representative, and solving the managerial crisis of the day.

Included in these desk calendars are what I term managerial Bents. A managerial Bent is an activity or set of activities that school administrators possess a personal interest in or aptitude for. Some enjoy the knowledge and skills associated with various sporting programs. Some are interested in the details of budgets and finance. Some have a love of the arts. Some are attracted to processes for writing policies. There is no end to the number and variety of Bents school administrators bring into their offices each day (see the charts below).

Bents satisfy the three longings of school administrators. First, they serve as a diversion from becoming involved in the messy world of classroom supervision. Discussing the purchase of a new tractor is far more gratifying than working with a poorly performing teacher.

Second, they allow administrators the satisfaction of skillfully performing a task well. Balancing a budget is far more gratifying than working with team of teachers on low test scores.

Lastly, career advancement in building and central office hierarchies is based on past performance on managerial functions, and, in particular, a candidate’s experience with a Bent they have listed on their resume. All schools have an issue that established managerial tools have been unable to resolve. The problem, however, does align well with the knowledge and skills that may have developed in pursuit of a particular Bent. A perspective candidate will pick up on this issue when asked specific questions about how they became interested in the Bent, what they know about the Bent, and how would that Bent will resolve the particular problem that, so far, routine managerial tools has been unable to resolve.

Rarely, if ever, are their questions related to the Educational Bent, which at the beginning of the interview, the Superintendent as already proclaimed is world class.

The Erosion of Instructional Leadership

No doubt there exist in every school problematic issues that match the knowledge and skills of a particular Bent. Over time, however, the inclination to look at all administrative functions through the lens of a particular Bent will erode the role of instructional leadership. The erosion begins with resumes thick on developing a particular Bent and thin on a developing expertise in curriculum and instruction. Without a deep understanding of research driven teaching models and curriculum designs, school administrators lack the expertise required to educate, facilitate, and coach the theories and practices driving what the literature terms, ambitious teaching.

Further erosion occurs when main offices divert human and material resources from the classrooms to enhancing a personal Bent. The reassignment of resources to a particular interest of an administrator sends a subtle message to teachers that what they do classrooms is secondary to whatever Bent shows up in main office conference rooms.

What remains of the functions of instructional leadership completely pass away when building and district administrators disappear from teacher workplaces, only to reappear as fixtures in main and district offices, garages, board rooms, governmental offices, conference lodgings, and whatever spaces best house the pursuit of a particular Bent. Without the presence of building or district leadership, teachers see no urgency or commitment to learning and practicing new pedagogies.

Toxic Bents

Although the pursuit of Bents marginalizes the role of instructional leader, for the most part, they do no direct harm to an instructional program. There is one Bent, however, that is particularly toxic to any educational program. Administrators, whose sole goal is climbing up school administrative hierarchies, calculate which administrative functions will advance or will stall their administrative careers. As mentioned already, building and district offices tend to favor and reward administrators who demonstrate the competent performance of managerial functions. Climbers understand this managerial bias early on in their careers and skillfully navigate assigned administrative tasks in ways that allow them to devote their entire attention to efficiently executing favored managerial Bents.

The inattention to supervisory functions is rarely detected in main offices focused on the hard skills of management—budgeting, purchasing, inventorying, scheduling, negotiating, allocating, inspecting. Hard skills possess identifiable inputs that can be manipulated in ways that produce identifiable outputs. The soft skills of supervision—educating, facilitating, coaching—involve countless known and unknown human and organizational variables interacting in ways that produce unpredictable and often unexplainable outcomes.

Given the bias towards attending to managerial bents over educational functions, Climbers that reach leadership positions carry with them three behaviors that will marginalize any schools instructional program. First, whatever instructional initiative lands in a Climbers in-box, they will reduce the theories, concepts, and practices of the new curriculum design or teaching model to a managerial format—checklists, protocols, plans, projects—that will compromise the full understanding and application of new models of teaching and learning.

Secondly, Climbers will see in a new instructional initiative an opportunity to enhance their particular Bent. The goals, theories, and practices of a new instructional initiative will become the rationale for purchasing a new data processing program or constructing a media center, or employing an additional administrator, or developing a new managerial system.

Lastly, Climbers avoid the messiness and uncertainties of implementing a new instructional initiative by a policy of salutary neglect: program specifications will be loosely interpreted; program resources will be unevenly allocated; training will be sporadic and amateurish; program outcomes will go unreported or become muddled. Salutary neglect breeds a school culture of cynicism towards any form of organizational or instructional innovation.

The Public’s Bent on Bents

The pervasiveness and resilience of Bents in main offices is largely driven by a school communities’ attraction to the observable outcomes each Bent produces. The yearly open house event is always punctuated with the mention or tour of this year’s newest Bent-–a pool, a media center, a coach, an extracurricular activity, a source of revenue. There is no mention or tours of new approaches to teaching and learning. Not only are the outcomes of innovative instructional programs impossible to observe, but, the theories and practices supporting these programs involve terminologies and concepts that is well beyond the interest and educational backgrounds of open house attendees.

Bent Out of Shape

At this point in the blog, some readers may ask: “what is the big deal about administrators pursuing a particular interest of theirs, which maybe tangential to the instructional program, but, at the end of the day, enhance the schooling experience? The big deal lies with school organizations shaped around the pursuit of the goals and functions of a Bent rather that shaped around the educational mission of schooling.

Main offices that achieve the educational goals listed in their mission statements shape organizational structures and systems in ways that facilitate the learning, understanding, and practicing of new teaching models and curriculum designs. Main offices that pursue personal Bents shape organizational structures and systems in ways that value the forms over the substance of schooling.

Bents 1

    The Builder  Walk-arounds/tours
Design meetings
Contractor meetings
Site visits
Bid submissions
Finance meetings
Referendum meetings
Needs assessment
Risk assessment
DrawingsPunch listsLeviesDistrict funds
    The Climber  Listening tours
Strategic plans
Adoption of programs
Administrative reorganization
Conference attendance
5-year contracts
Compensation package
District size
Signing bonus
In state certification
The program/technique of the day
  The CollaboratorNetworking
Business partnerships
Learning Communities
    The Communicator  Newsletters
Press releases
Listening tour
Community walks
Social media (blogs, web pages)
Special events
Talking points
Target audience
  The Educator  Instructional worldview
Writing/adopting curriculum
Adoption of teaching model
Staff Development
Learning communities
Reflection on practice
Big questions
Big ideas
Ambitious teaching
Assessment Frameworks
  The Enforcer  Student code of conduct
Dean’s office
Disciplinary contracts
Police Liaison Officer
Alternative placements
Zero tolerance

Bents 2

    The Financier  District budget
Grant writing
Writing contracts
Solicitation of vendors
Supervising audits
Purchasing services/materials
Preparing financial statements
Funding formulas
Cash management
Cost projections
Lowest bid
  The Governor  Writing policy/procedure
Aligning systems with polices/procedures
Job descriptions
Five-year plan
Performance reviews
Check bases
  The InnovatorFraming
Inflection Points
Thinking out of the box
  The TechnocratEmploy specialists/consultants
Develop merit pay systems
Establish measurable outcomes
Establish valued added measures/evaluation instruments
Establish data driven instructional program
Data mining/driven
Continuous improvement
    The TechnologistsNeeds assessment
Write a tech plan
Solicit vendors
Employ IT personnel
Purchase/allocate software
District adoption of technologies
Technology plan
Attend tech conferences
5th, 6th, etc. generation
The cloud

The Zone of Practicality

The Zone

A common lament amongst administrators sitting in district and building offices is the reluctance on the part of their teaching staff to adopt new instructional methodologies. While in future blogs I will discuss the human and institutional problems embedded within any announced change to organizational and instructional routines, there are five questions that are rarely asked in administrative offices, but, whose answers will determine the success or failure of new mandate, program, model of teaching, or organizational arrangement.

The questions listed in the chart below identifies the five critical elements of commitment: importance, clarity, purpose, understanding, and practicality. Each element assumes a position in what I term the house of cards of school reform initiatives—pulling one card out reform house collapses the entire structure. Teachers’ familiarity with a program matters little if they see little worth in the program. Teachers’ enthusiasm for a new teaching methodology matters little if they lack the appropriate background knowledge in the subject. Teachers’ frustration with a schoolwide problem matters little if the district lacks the resources to fully implement an agree upon solution to the problem.

Important?Do teachers believe that this is a worthwhile problem or strategy to pursue?  
Concrete?Are the adopted strategies composed of theories and practices that employ familiar vocabulary, concepts, and practices?  
Coherent?Do the adopted strategies align with and leverage our school’s instructional worldview?  
Teachable?Do teachers possess the prior background knowledge to understand and practice the new strategy?  
Feasible?Does the district/school possess the organizational resources—time, materials, space, and expertise—to train teachers and accommodate diverse instructional design features?  

Work Arounds

I know what practicing school administrators are saying at this point in the blog: “Based on this chart, there is no new program I could implement in my building.” For most schools in this nation, this honest response mirrors the physical, social, intellectual, and fiscal realities school administrators work with in the schools they lead. These realities also account for why most organizational and instructional innovations fail to significantly change how schools are organized and how teachers teach.

Before giving up on implementing a change initiative, let’s return to the chart above. The components listed in the chart above include all of the beliefs, values, aptitudes and resources necessary to fully implement a school change initiative. No school has all of these components in place when adopting a new program, mandate, teaching model, or organizational structure. At the same time, every school, possesses the ability and capacity to “work around or with” each element in ways that both address the spirit and reality of that element in action. What follows are four “work arounds” that mold the elements of implementation into the forms and functions of real-world schooling.

A caution to administrators reading the list below. No new program, or mandate, or instructional method should marginalize or abandon a change initiative that is already producing promised outcomes.

Pilot Programs

As already mentioned few schools possess the physical, social, intellectual, or fiscal elements for successfully implementing a school reform initiative. Most schools, however, have pieces of each element in place. These pieces are not robust enough to support a full-scale implementation of a reform proposal, but, may support a scaled down version of the proposed change initiative. A pilot program not only provides the opportunity to observe, analyze, and adjust the application of theories, ideas, and practices to the local circumstances of a school, but, overtime provide avenues for these theories, ideas, and practices to seep into established organizational and instructional routines.

Assembling Resources

There are two processes that are critical to the successful implementation of a school reform initiative: first, gathering the necessary resources; second, assembling those resources into operating systems. Schools often make the mistake of assembling systems before gathering adequate resources. The source of most school reform failures is rushing into the assembling of systems without adequate resources to support the moving parts of the system. If a main office finds itself checking off “no” on one or more of the components listed in the chart above, they then need to hit the pause button on the implementation process until they have shifted the “no” to a “yes.” To use the fine wine metaphor: “sell no program before its time.”

Study Group

The two elements in the zone that are common stumbling blocks to the full implementation of a change initiative are “importance” and “teachability.” For a change initiative to gain traction in classrooms, teachers must view the initiative as worthwhile and must feel they possess adequate background knowledge to integrate new theories, concepts, and practices into daily teaching routines. To enlarge the zone of practicality in these two areas, main offices should design various learning venues that provide teachers with the opportunity to study, to observe, to discuss, and to practice new instructional models. The goal of these learning venues is developing a critical mass of teachers who believe in the importance and teachability of a new pedagogy. These learning venues should be divorced from the implementation process. They should be strictly designed to convince teachers of the worth and teachability of novel approaches to teaching and learning.

A Consultant

Whenever teachers take a leap of faith on a new instructional model they look for some guarantee that they will land safely. That safe landing spot is best occupied by a third party who has the temperament for holding teachers’ hands through a difficult personal experience of discarding comfortable instructional practices and adopting uncomfortable instructional practices.

The Principal

The component not listed in the zone of practicality is the role school leaders play in program implementation. This omission exposes how most main offices view the implementation of a new change initiative: we announce it; you implement it. Assuming the role of passive observer of programs announced from auditorium stages fails to send the sense of urgency and commitment teachers need to feel when leaving darkened auditoriums. That sense of urgency and commitment can only be instilled when school leaders, particularly the Principal, becomes an active participant in the implementation process.

“When will we ever use this stuff?”

All teachers have had the experience of being asked the following question by the students seated in front of them: “Mr. Jones, when will ever use this stuff? The question is usually blurted out in the middle of a class session where students are being asked to recite some piece of information presented by the teacher or from an assigned reading. Teachers respond to this question with the following institutional responses: the course is required; the course is a prerequisite; the course is essential for future employment.

The first two institutional responses are what they are: institutional constructs that have nothing to do with educating, but, everything to do with certifying. The last response, however, does signal that course content might have some educational value. The claim that subject matter content is essential for future employment makes two assumptions about the acquisition of occupational skills and the high demand of those same skills in the global market place.

The first assumption would run counter to what we know about transfer of knowledge from classrooms to real world situations. Based on transfer theory in learning the knowledge and skills taught in classrooms would have to be directly related to the specific tasks of a designated occupation. The only discernible goal of the lessons taught in our nation’s’ classrooms is transferring information from textbooks or lectures to answers on a test, which, according to transfer theory is forgotten within minutes of handing in the test.

Even if students were able to retain the definitions, facts, and procedures transmitted in a classroom, the configuration of information that aligns well with multiple choice tests, does not align at all with occupational tasks demanding that bits of information be put together to solve workplace problems or perform workplace routines. Rarely, if ever, in classrooms are subjects or lessons designed to put the pieces of information together in ways that make sense out of the problems and tasks of different occupations. The claim by teachers that at some point in our career path we will need all of these facts, definitions, and procedures is both theoretically and practically false.

The second assumption that the knowledge and skills presented in classrooms is in high demand in a global workplace is not borne out by surveys of employers. When employers are asked what schools should be teaching, they overwhelmingly recite the “Four C’s:” critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Returning to our average classroom in this nation, the assign and assess model of instruction is not designed for students to engage in any form of critical thinking, or communication, or collaboration, or creativity. In fact, the institutional goals of standardization, compliance, control, and accountability, are in direct opposition to the skills employers are pleading with schools to teach.

The fundamental skill supporting the “Four C’s,” is the ability think conceptually. What this skill entails is the ability to make sense out of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is not important, and, above all, to combine many bits of information together in ways that will solve workplace problems and improve workplace performance.

The school’s systems we now have in this country were designed and continue to promote a production line theory of education. All communities have brick buildings, divided into many identical rooms, with each room equipped with rows of desks and chairs. At the sound of the bell, students move from classroom to classroom with an adult standing in front of the room transmitting large amounts of information. In one room the adult recites names and dates. In the next room the adult recites theories and formulas. In the next room the adult recites theorems and equations. At the end of the week, all of this information is produced on a test.

While this production line model of schooling aligns well for the functions and tasks of an industrial economy, it becomes obsolete in a knowledge-based economy. Employers no longer look for workers that can learn the how of their jobs. Employers now look for workers that also understand and can perform the what and why of their jobs.

The question remains, how would we design school organizations, classroom teaching, and curriculum to legitimately claim that what is being taught is essential for future employment. In designing twenty-first century schooling, fundamental to that design is acknowledging three realities about twenty-first century learning: first, we now have countless sources of information; second, that information is readily accessible from a variety of technology platforms; and, third, all educational preparation has a short shelf-life. With these three realities in mind, a school model that would best prepare student bodies for living and working in the twenty-first century would need to make the following changes to our current factory style model of schooling.

Buildings—>Work Stations

The easy access to all forms of knowledge from any place, at any time, renders obsolete the belief that all knowledge or work is lodged in a physical building. This does not mean that a physical building is necessarily obsolete; it does mean that educating or training can take place in a variety of ventures depending on the nature of the learning goal.

Timeless Information—>Just in Time Information

The amount and speed of information creation has rendered obsolete the often-stated classroom principle that students must learn a certain set of definitions, facts, and procedures which are universally applicable in the occupational and schooling world. The solutions to the number and complexity of the problems students will be asked to solve in this century will not be found in memorized “first” principles; it will be invented from the assembling of bits of information gathered from large domains of knowledge that are tailored to address specific realities on the ground.

Textbooks—>Search Engines

The accessibility of information through a variety of search engines has rendered obsolete the belief in the existence of a stable set of definitions, facts, and procedures housed in buildings, textbooks, lecture notes, or journals. In a web-based world, we have clouds storing countless pieces of information that can be accessed from any place, any time, in any venue.


The complexity of social, economic, and political conditions created by a post-industrial society has rendered obsolete the subject centered curriculum. The subject centered curriculum is an institutional construct designed to award a credit for time-served in a classroom. The design of school buildings, the certification of teachers, the seven-period day, the test on Friday, are all products of a classification system that reduces the content and methods of a discipline into bits of information that can be organized under a course heading. While subjects are perfect configurations for achieving the credentialing goal of institutional schooling, they are poorly suited for engaging students in the kinds of thinking and methods of inquiry for solving real world problems or for enhancing the fundamental skills of the 4 C’s.


The complexity if the issues we confront in the twenty-first century has rendered obsolete the completion of assignments within stated periods of time. The processes involved in solving twenty-first century problems require concentrated periods of time solely devoted to gathering, analyzing, compiling, hypothesizing, experimenting, and implementing. Such a process cannot be limited to subjects studied, to institutional timetables, to scheduled team members, to a prescribed outcome, or to a team leader.


The depth and breadth of the knowledge and skills required to solve twenty-first century problems has rendered obsolete the role of teacher as the source and transmitter of all knowledge. Twenty-first century knowledge and skills demand the capability of working closely with a variety of technologies to acquire the information and processes required to resolve problems in which no existing social, economic, intellectual, or political models can cope with. The role of teacher in the context of resolving complex societal problems is transformed from telling, allocating, and inspecting to educating, facilitating, and coaching.

Written into all school mission statements are terms that mirror the knowledge and skills employers have termed the 4C’s. Although all members of the school community feel good about a school district committed to each of the 4C’s, they continue to support school systems whose organizational and instructional configuration work in opposition to the realization of the 4C’s.

I have summarized above the changes to school organizations and classroom teaching that would bring our school systems in line with the demands of a global economy and the human and physical problems we have created on this planet. I understand that these changes, in the staid world of schooling, would be considered radical. I also know that to put these changes off will leave our future generations unprepared for a radically different occupational world and a radically different human and physical world.

Opening Day Ritual

Each year teachers are herded into darkened auditoriums to listen to administrators, consultants, or a guest speaker present a new vision of learning, or a new mandate to be complied with, or a new program favored by the board. While administrators on stage drone on about excellence, the technique of the day, or protocols for an upcoming accreditation visit, teachers are busy exchanging class lists, reviewing purchase orders for the supplies they ordered during the summer, and whispering highlights from their summer travels. Periodically, an administrator standing in back of the auditorium will move to different aisles in the auditorium looking to quiet the murmurs from teachers anxious to get into their classrooms.

The source of the failure of the opening day ritual to hold the attention of teachers, to commit to working with new pedagogical models, or to renew their original motivation for entering the profession of teaching, are presentations that are thick on visions, goals, and due dates, and thin on purpose, resources, and training.

There are two strategies district and building administrators could employ to transform the opening day ritual from a recitation of administrative wants to educational oughts. The first strategy is a simple axiom quoted to me by a mentor of mine: “The faster you get teachers out of auditorium seats and into desk chairs the better.” What she meant by this comment was the purposes, the problems, the programs, and the vocabularies of administrators are far removed from the purposes, the problems, the programs and the vocabularies of the classroom. Unless these two worlds can talk and work on common ground, then let teachers get into their classrooms as fast as possible.

The second strategy is to tell a good story—one that is understandable, is emotional, and is memorable. There are three elements to a good story. First and foremost, you must persuade the audience why they should care about a schoolwide problem—teachers must perceive that WE have a problem. Using managerial vocabularies—data, programs, test scores, rules and regulations—will not draw the attention of teachers from class lists to the speaker on the stage. What will draw their attention to auditorium stages is naming a student, a parent, a teacher, a fellow administrator who experienced a significant social, emotional, or intellectual set back or success—one that schooling had some power to shape.

Secondly, the schoolwide problem must have an identifiable cause. The identified “cause” could have originated from a theory, from a data point, from a study group, from a consultant, or from members of the school community. It is vital to a good story that the cause be understandable and solvable.

Lastly, the story must answer the question on the minds of all the teachers seated in darkened auditoriums: “How will we do this?” The short answer to that question would include what theories, ideas, practices will be adopted; what organizational and instructional routines must change; what training regimes will the district employ; and what resources will be needed to achieve the goals of the strategy.

Above all the story must communicate a sincere commitment to resolving the schoolwide problem. That commitment is demonstrated when administrators know what they are talking about; when they appreciate the challenges of classroom teaching; when they participate with staff in the problem solving process; when they show an openness to changing organizational structures and routines to accommodate agreed upon solutions; and, most importantly, when they deliver the necessary resources required to implement an agreed upon solution.


In response to a New York Times article titled: “The Social Justice Purge at Idaho Colleges: Republicans lawmakers try to cancel diversity programs

As a former high school history teacher, I taught history–that’s it. I refrained from labeling or categorizing the history I was teaching. I also refrained from using textbooks, which, too often sanitized parts of the American story that were horrific. I did stick to primary documents, that were challenging to read, but, were guaranteed to generate some heated discussions–and that is really what teaching history is all about—letting my juniors wrestle intellectually with the who, what, why, and how of our country’s history.