The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence: Lessons from a Transformational Leader
Publication Year: 2012
How to bring out the best in your staffand in yourself
Research shows that the single variable that makes the most difference in student performance is the quality of the teacher. How do we keep teachers motivated in the face of increased pressure for grades, class sizes and media attention? How do we attract and retain high-quality teachers? This inspiring text offers a refreshing alternative to the portfolio and high-stakes accountability models of school improvement. Based on the successful methods of Dealous Cox, The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence describes a leadership philosophy based on the search for wisdom through personal reflection and community. The authors share their experience with this leadership style and document the sustainable results of transformational leaders working with teachers as partners rather ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Chapter 1: The West Linn School District
- District Context
- Chapter 2: Three Key Leadership Functions
- Transformational Leadership
- The Development and Nurturing of Shared Community Vision
- The Development and Nurturing of an Ethic of Continuous Improvement
- The Development and Nurturing of the Organization's Commitment to Productive and Ethical Human Relations
- Quaker Theology: As a Belief System and a Metaphor
- Chapter 3: Making a Virtue Out of a Necessity: The Beginnings of the People Strategy
- The People Strategy for School Improvement
- Supervising the Probationary Teacher
- Annual Celebration of Excellence
- Chapter 4: Hiring the Very Best
- The Eye of the Proprietor
- Faculty Recruitment/Selection at West Linn High School
- Reflection Questions: Hiring the Very Best
- Chapter 5: Making Continuous Professional Learning an Organizational Norm
- Professional Development and the People Strategy
- Professional Development Strategy #1: Budgeted Building and District Funds
- Professional Development Strategy #2: Professional Growth Planning
- Professional Development Strategy #3: Tuition Reimbursement
- Professional Development Strategy #4: Cooperative Master's Program
- Professional Development Strategy #5: Professional Development Fund
- Leading Through Limited Partnerships
- Reflection Questions: Making Continuous Professional Learning an Organizational Norm
- Chapter 6: Providing Responsive Developmental Supervision
- Four Key Concepts Governing Supervision
- Supervision When Professionals Are Having Problems
- A Veteran Teacher Struggling with Classroom Management
- Reflection Questions: Providing Responsive Developmental Supervision
- Chapter 7: Differentiated Supervision: Evaluation Outside the Box
- Supervision and Evaluation at West Linn High School
- When is Traditional Evaluation Necessary?
- The Proposal for a Differentiated Supervision System
- Reflection Questions: Differentiated Supervision
- Chapter 8: The Extended Shadow of the Leader
- An Outside Superintendent
- Example #1: Assigning Students to Classrooms at Cedaroak Park Elementary School
- A Keen Eye for Talent
- Example #2: Multiage Classrooms at Boeckman Creek Elementary School
- Reflection Questions: The Extended Shadow of Leadership
- Chapter 9: An Acceptance of Uncertainty
- Scientific Management and Proven Practices
- Feigning Certainty
- Choosing a District-Wide Computing Platform
- Providing Developmentally Appropriate Education at Willamette Elementary School
- Uncertainty and School Culture
- Reflection Questions: Acceptance of Uncertainty
- Chapter 10: Hubris: An Ever Present Concern
- The “Worrier in Chief”
- The Political Context of Public Schools
- Owning Up to Flaws
- The High School Annual Report: Warts and All
- The Gang of 1,000
- Reflection Questions: Keeping Hubris at Bay
Dedicated in memory of two special friends and colleagues
Samuel C. Nutt
Clark F. Irwin
Copyright © 2012 by Corwin
All rights reserved. When forms and sample documents are included, their use is authorized only by educators, local school sites, and/or noncommercial or nonprofit entities that have purchased the book. Except for that usage, no part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Printed in the United States of America.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The relentless pursuit of excellence: lessons from a transformational leader/Richard Sagor, Deborah Rickey.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4129-9645-7 (pbk.)
1. School improvement programs—Oregon—West Linn.
2. Educational leadership—Oregon—West Linn.
3. Teachers—In-service training—Oregon—West Linn.
4. West Linn School District (Or.) I. Rickey, Deborah. II. Title.
This book is printed on acid-free paper.
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List of Figures[Page viii]
- Figure 2.1 Three Key Leadership Functions Diagram 15
- Figure 8.1 Scattergram of Composite Student Achievement Test Scores in Room 13 (a Multiage Class of Fourth/Fifth-Grade Students) 112
- Figure 9.1 Willamette Elementary School: Guiding Principles for Professionals 128
- Figure 9.2 Willamette Elementary School: Guiding Principles 129
- Figure 9.3 Willamette Elementary School: Informal School Logo 133
Principles. They are at the heart of the book you hold in your hands. Authors Richard Sagor and Deborah Rickey intersperse first-person accounts with insightful analyses and probing questions that collectively yield a fly-on-the-wall vantage point of leadership principles in action. In the pages that follow, I predict you will be as intrigued as I was by the way one superintendent, Dealous Cox, drew upon his personal experience as a Quaker, and upon the philosophy of the congregation of Friends, to lead the principled transformation of an entire school district.
Dea Cox grounded this transformation in what he called “the people strategy.” Reminiscent of Jim Collins's Good to Great approach of putting the right people in the right seats while helping nonperformers get off the bus, Dea emphasized the importance of hiring only the best—not to be confused with the best available. And, he asked, why should we not hold out for the absolute best in the field—especially when we are talking about classroom teachers who hold our nation's future in their hands? According to Quaker philosophy, no one person has all the answers, but each person has a part of the answer. If we want to solve problems successfully and efficiently, it behooves us to draw input from those with the best preparation, the most extensive background, the finest ability to interact with others, and the qualities most likely to inspire trust and confidence. These are the people who should staff America's schools and these are the people Dea set out to hire, develop, and retain. Dea's background and his “people strategy” also prompted him to rely heavily on a process of continuing dialogue and reflection. Like many effective leaders, he discovered that it was more important to ask the right questions than to try to deliver the right answers. He trusted his collective staff to work together, share ideas, and arrive at viable solutions.[Page x]
I had the good fortune to meet Dea Cox in the 1980s, in the midst of his tenure at West Linn. One of my professional friends, Dick Sagor, was an administrator in that district and he invited me to visit and share some thoughts about best practices for educating students in the principles of social responsibility. I was privately amused to discover that my colleague, a stereotypically hyper-energetic New Yorker, was now enthusiastically reporting to one of the most quiet and thoughtful leaders I had ever met. It was more than a case of opposites attract. True to his people strategy, Dea had hired Dick because he was the best possible person to serve as the high school's principal. Dea was neither offended nor threatened by someone whose personal style was so dissimilar from his own. He knew that it wasn't style that mattered most in a leader, it was principles—and in Dick, those were rock solid. As time went on, Dick rose to the position of assistant superintendent of West Linn and later became a university professor focusing on the very action research that was a key component of Dea's approach to professional growth.
Over the past 19 years, my own journey as a school superintendent has wended its way among three school districts with widely divergent student populations. Yet, as my path wound across the nation from the East Coast to the Midwest to the West Coast, I witnessed some amazing similarities among the staffs of those districts. Along with Dea Cox, I believe that students, teachers, and administrators form a community and that we become wiser, stronger, better human beings by freely sharing our struggles and our achievements with each other. I believe that leaders are made, not born, and that each of us can develop the power to transform others if we are first willing to transform ourselves. As the chapters of this book unfold, I suspect you will find yourself smiling, nodding, and occasionally raising an eyebrow at Dea's approach to leadership. And he would approve of the last, for he continually exhorted his teachers and principals to “dispute the passage;” that is, to challenge the status quo. That style of leadership demands several qualities, including confidence in one's own abilities, trust in the skills and motives of others, and a willingness to follow wherever the data leads. Although you may not agree with some of the decisions Dea made in the situations Sagor and Rickey describe (and I find myself puzzled by some of these as well), the lesson in leadership is not the specific resolution but the thoughtful principles that were deeply embedded within his approach to leadership.[Page xi]
The school reform movement, which began with such high hopes in the early 1990s, has steadily devolved into a politicized boxing match, replete with sucker punches that leave most contenders bloodied, going down for the count, and added to the growing list of schools labeled as “failing.” I concur with Sagor and Rickey that reform, to be lasting and effective, must be grounded in something—and that something is democratic leadership principles. Further, the key to improving schools does not lie in silver-bullet programs and curriculum—it rests in people. Like Dea Cox, we must invest in people—especially teachers and principals. We must recognize and accept teachers as partners, not adversaries; we must work hand-in-hand with teacher unions to achieve common goals. For example, in one of my districts, we negotiated a memorandum of agreement with the teachers union to set aside seniority clauses and enable struggling schools to have the first pick of teacher candidates. We also established a data room in every high school and formed teams of teachers who conducted action research in order to improve student outcomes. In another example of democratic leadership, we involved principals in the process of supporting their peers by having them visit each other's schools, observe the instructional process, and offer candid feedback for the administrator's own professional growth.
This ongoing emphasis on collaborative practice—in which school-based educators were engaged in reflective examination, action research, and dialogue on our everyday classroom practices—echoes Dea's work on creating a climate of professional growth. West Linn's annual “Celebration of Inquiry” clearly encouraged the collective search for better teacher performance, the continuing focus on professional growth, and the collaborative nature of that growth that are core to an investing-in-people improvement strategy. Over time, such methods and activities became core to West Linn's culture and operation, creating a professional climate that promoted excellence. However, honesty compels me to warn you that effecting culture shifts among independent-thinking adults is not always simple or linear. To the contrary—because it involves confronting the hard questions, the assumed truths, and the tradition of practice—it is often uncomfortable and arduous. Nevertheless, I have seen the beneficial impact of that strategy in the districts I have had the good fortune to lead.
Recently, the Eugene (OR) Public Schools convened groups called Learning about Learning Networks. Each of these administrator/teacher [Page xii]groups focused on a problem of practice, visited classrooms to better understand the problem and the current approaches to addressing the problem, and then met to assess what they saw and to think through how they could best address this problem from a new perspective. In one school the problem posed was one of student engagement in learning. The team of teachers and administrators observed classes and interviewed students to assess the degree to which students were engaged. Team members initially reported having heard positive reports from students about their engagement. However, as they reflected more deeply on what some students had shared, they realized that this group of students had merely mastered a traditional model of “doing school”—listening, taking notes, occasionally asking questions, and dutifully learning the material placed in front of them. They were neither used to nor comfortable with active engagement in critical thinking and problem solving. Another network chose to examine the degree to which teaching elicited higher-order questions from students. The observation revealed not only limited higher-order questions, but limited questioning in general. As a result, the teachers at the school formulated direct ways to teach students what higher order questions are and then challenged them to pose such questions in assignments and discussions. There are many exceptional teachers applying powerful teaching practices in Eugene; these two examples illustrate the staff's openness to self-examination and self-reflection, and their ability to not simply look at what is positive but to examine basic assumptions and challenge themselves to improve. Eugene's teachers exhibit the mettle—similar to the courage Dea inspired through his leadership—to continuously pursue a quest to improve professional practice and student outcomes.
These examples indicate that even as teachers are striving to provide excellent instruction, all classroom practices can be improved when placed under the collegial microscope of examination, reflection, and dialogue. Sagor and Rickey show how West Linn embedded reflection and dialogue into its professional growth model. More important, however, the principles they outline give us a direction for our own pursuit of deep and sustainable professional growth. With the help of Dea Cox as a model, the authors encourage us to question the “givens,” be open to change, come to terms with uncertainty, and seek new solutions in a never-ending pursuit of excellence.
In contrast to the hunt for quick fixes so common among school reformers, Dea understood that schools are human organizations and [Page xiii]that deep change takes time, persistence, and consistent effort. Creating an environment where continuous professional learning is the core organizational norm—and where excellence in reaching all students is an operational, not just a visionary, goal—is the only real path to long-term improvement in education. Sagor and Rickey weave Dea Cox's story of striving to create that culture, but they also offer a depth of insight into what they have learned as outstanding educators and educational leaders in their own right. Investing in people and in the collective capacity of a faculty is the essential means of improving education. We are a people profession. Schools are human organizations. Just as we support the continuous growth of all students, we must support a powerful learning environment for the dedicated professionals who work with those students. That is the lesson that is emerging from studies of the highest performing nations—and that is the lesson of West Linn as well.
In this book, Sagor and Rickey relay an engaging case study of one transformational leader and of the “shadow” he cast over an entire organization in his tireless quest to change schools. The authors’ narrative demonstrates that transformational leaders—by their actions and by the shadows they cast over others—change not only organizations but also, going forward, the lives of people they will never have the opportunity to meet. I urge you to read this book, to reflect on its message, and then to go forward and cast your own shadow.
Sheldon H. Berman, EdD
Author, Children's Social Consciousness and the Development of Social Responsibility
Superintendent of Schools, Eugene, Oregon
Preface: Why this case study and why now?[Page xiv]Why We Wrote This Book
We are passionate about school improvement and the ability of our public schools to help all children realize their full potential. Furthermore, our reading of research and personal experience has left us with a profound belief in the transformative power of leadership and the ability of reflective practitioners to collaboratively solve the most perplexing problems of practice.
However, we have been saddened by the recent political rhetoric and literature on school reform, much of which denies what we know to be true about leadership, teachers, and school improvement.
H. L. Mencken is quoted as saying, “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution … that is always, neat, plausible and wrong.” We cannot recall a time during our careers when there hasn't been a school reform movement. While the political contexts may have changed, the people demanding educational change have always sought the same thing: greater learning through better teaching. Clearly, everybody recognizes the relationship between teaching and learning. Unfortunately, the simple solutions that have most frequently been legislated or imposed have rarely done much to link the two. Time and again we have seen school districts seek school improvement through the adoption of a new curriculum, new standards, or new leadership. While these approaches may be neat and plausible and seem to have the potential to make quick and significant improvement, they rarely get to the heart of the matter—the people in the classroom, the folks doing the teaching.
We had the good fortune of working in a school district where another approach was followed. In West Linn, Oregon, for over [Page xv]thirty years the school improvement process has been predicated on supporting and empowering the professional staff. Over these three decades, this school district has enjoyed a record of strong community support, positive staff relations, and continuous improvement in student performance. We wrote this book to share the story of how this was achieved. We felt it was important to tell this story now because we believe the lessons from this case study are applicable any place where a group of dedicated educators share the common goal of providing an excellent education for their students.
It is the nature of the transformational leader to discount his or her impact. This was certainly the case with Dealous Cox, the superintendent who is the focus of this book. He is a modest man who habitually deflects credit for the district's success. This is another reason why his story is a good vehicle for a book on improving schools by investing in people rather than in gimmicks. Our intention is not to wow the reader with a story of a superman but rather to provide some illustrations of a type of accessible transformational leadership that anyone serious about school improvement can adapt and make their own.Audience
We wanted to share this story with our colleagues and friends working in the field of educational leadership. We believe it will be of interest to anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of the human dynamics of the school improvement process. Since the book is built around a case study of school improvement in a public school district, the examples and illustrations should prove particularly relevant to all current or aspiring school administrators.Organization of the Text
The book is divided into two sections and an Epilogue.
The Introduction reviews the current literature on school improvement and makes the argument for the primacy of investing [Page xvi]our school improvement efforts on enhancing teacher quality. Chapters 1 through 3 discuss the context of this case study and review the pertinent literature on leadership. Taken together, Chapters 1 through 3 present a unified theory of transformational leadership and present the rationale informing the case study district's people strategy for school improvement.
Each of the six chapters of Section 2: The Process in Action deals with a particular leadership responsibility, for example, hiring, professional development, supervision, program improvement with multiple examples from the case study district exploring how leadership responded to these issues. Each chapter in Section 2 begins with a set of “focus questions” for the reader to consider while proceeding through the chapter. Following each chapter, another set of “reflection questions” are posed inviting the reader to apply the concepts and draw personal meaning from the ideas discussed.Epilogue: Who is Dealous Cox?
The book concludes with a chapter exploring the man behind the leader discussed throughout the book.Two Caveats
At the outset, we want to alert the reader to two factors that we recognize might be of concern: (1) district size and (2) the socioeconomic status of the community.District Size
While the West Linn–Wilsonville School District is relatively small, 8,497 students in fourteen schools, it is important to note that we have observed the same educational philosophy and leadership behavior that are the basis of this book employed by district superintendents in school districts serving well over 100,000 students and by building administrators in large and small schools. We do not believe that there is one “right way” to lead schools. We would be [Page xvii]misleading the reader if we claimed to have “the recipe” for school success. This is not a book where you will be told how to lead your school. Rather, reading this book should be a dynamic process. We encourage you to be an active participant as you read this book. Take each of the stories presented, and recast them in your school's context. We encourage you to use the examples provided not as recipes to be followed by rote but as illustrations of timeless concepts that should be adjusted/adapted to fit your own situation. Even if you find yourself working in a school that is demographically similar to a case study school, we still urge you to limit the use of the case studies to the identification of key concepts, always keeping in mind a central premise of educational action research—that is, every educational venue is unique in its own way and, therefore, requires context-sensitive interventions.Socioeconomic Status of the Community
Our other concern was the fact that over the past thirty years the West Linn–Wilsonville community has evolved into one of the more desirable suburbs of Portland, Oregon. We suspect that some readers would have preferred that we built this book around the experience of a large, diverse urban community. We understand that concern. The students who suffer the most from our dysfunctional education system are too often young people living in communities that are quite different from the West Linn–Wilsonville of today. That being said, it is important to note that this case study is largely focused on the period when this approach to school improvement and the relentless pursuit of excellence first took hold in the district. The West Linn School District of that day served a significantly more economically diverse student body. Although we would have preferred to study a community more representative of the nation's diversity, there were reasons that compelled us to go ahead with reporting this particular study at this time.
We were both fortunate to have been participant observers in this particular case study, having both worked in a variety of capacities in the district. Consequently, we had ready access to people and events, which would be hard to duplicate in a short time in another location. Furthermore, we are concerned that the national discussion on school reform is rapidly moving in dangerous directions, and we felt it important to enter into that discussion while there was still a chance for reasonable people to debate strategy.[Page xviii]
In closing, we know the current West Linn–Wilsonville School District may be different in some significant ways from where you currently work. But we ask you to consider each of the principles discussed in this book asking of yourself, How could I make this work for me, in my school/district? We strongly believe that all children deserve to be educated by talented faculties and at productive schools such as the ones that we will be discussing in the chapters that follow. Nothing would make us happier than to see every student in America attending school with a creative, energized, and empowered faculty where a relentless pursuit of excellence has become the norm.
It is hard to know where to begin in acknowledging all those who contributed to the development of a book, which is at its heart a story of a thirty-year collaborative effort.
We should start by thanking our graduate students and colleagues for providing the impetus for this project. Many times we would share with students and colleagues powerful lessons we learned regarding the development of professional culture, the building of collective capacity, and transformational leadership through our work in a district led by an exceptional school superintendent. Their questions motivated us to document the story of how with good leadership extraordinary things can be accomplished.
We are indebted to Annette Skaugset for her able support transcribing interviews and editing our chicken scratch. We want to express a special thank-you to the following people who generously shared their thoughts and remembrances with us: Margie Abbott, Avis Bailey, Bill Bailey, Thayne Balzer, Dave Campbell, Judi Campbell, Milt Dennison, Kate Dickson, Bob Hamm, Dave Hansen, Nancy Hays, Mike Howser, Kate Ingram, Bill Knowles, David Livingston, Jane McFadden, Charlotte Morris, Tom Ruhl, Susan Scott-Miller, Michael Shay, Jane Stickney, Rose Wallace, and Ken Welch.
In addition, Michael Tannenbaum has been an invaluable support throughout this project. His insights helped every step of the way from framing the study, to collecting and interpreting the data, and reviewing the manuscript.
Finally, this book would not have been possible if Dea Cox hadn't been willing to cooperate and allow us to tell this story. One of the remarkable and enduring things about the phenomenon of transformational leadership is that while it is easy to see the growth and change in the performance of the led, the casual observer might not even notice the influence of the transformational leader. Dea [Page xx]agreed to cooperate with us primarily because in his view this wasn't a story about him but rather the good work of others. We are grateful that he allowed us to tell his story, because he would have never told it himself and this was a story that needed to be told.
About the Authors
A Final Word[Page 151]
No one can predict the future. But this much is certain: The world is not becoming a simpler place. There is no overstating the challenges faced by today's educators. A vast array of issues from globalization, to increased student diversity, and the unprecedented competition for dwindling resources will present challenges to future public school leaders unlike anything we've ever faced before. It is also clear that nothing has the potential to empower like an excellent education. If, as a society, we want all of our children to enjoy an adulthood of opportunity, then encouraging a relentless pursuit of excellence must become an imperative.
As we did the research to prepare this book and as we reflected on the time we spent working in the West Linn School District with Dealous Cox, the more stark the distinction became between approaches to school improvement based on standardization and the people strategy. When done well, standardization might lead to compliance, perhaps even minimal competence, but it is unlikely to ever inspire creativity from teachers or extraordinary performance from students.
What we observed when the people strategy was mediated through the skillful exercise of transformational leadership was something quite different. We saw accountability turned on its head. Rather than seeing schools that were dependent on external top-down accountability, we saw exciting learning communities where the action research mindset became part of the school's DNA. Rather than a system of rewards and sanctions based on test scores, we saw communities of educators pushing themselves to higher and higher levels of performance and, with it, increased student achievement.
We want to end this book with a comment Dea Cox made at the close of his opening address to the attendees of a conference of the [Page 152]Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. These sentiments Dea expressed to his audience over twenty years ago convey our wishes to each of our readers who is devoting a career to school leadership:
This then is what I hope for you—this great opportunity that you have to make a major contribution to a just and more humane world. It will call forth reserves of talent, energy, and commitment that you weren't ever aware of. You will become so immersed in the process of creation that your life will be transformed.
I believe that those of you committed to teaching children have embarked upon a great adventure and that the result of your journey will be enhanced opportunity for countless children. May God speed you on your journey. (Dealous Cox, 1991)
Epilogue: Who is Dealous Cox?[Page 153]
It was almost noon on Saturday, January 28, 2011. It looked and felt like any January afternoon in Portland, Oregon; it was overcast and rainy. After a brief stop at the caterer's, it was time to set up and get ready for the arrival of the guests.
It has been more than eighteen years since Dea Cox retired from the West Linn School District and left public education. Dea and his wife Lois continue to live in the house they built in West Linn, and in the ensuing years, he has stayed active as a member of the board of George Fox University; working with his church, the Reedwood Friends Fellowship; and working in the family jam business. As the patriarch and matriarch of a family with six children, 19 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren, parenting has continued as the main focus for much of Dea's and Lois's love and energy.
As the guests start to arrive, there is no mistaking the joyous atmosphere of a reunion. Many of these people haven't seen each other for many years. The reason for the party is to celebrate Dea Cox's eightieth birthday and a chance for those of us who worked with him to thank him for all he did for us.
It was a lovely afternoon. We broke bread together, enjoyed many reminiscences, laughed, and told stories. Many times we thought we must have become time travelers, since nothing seemed to have changed over the past eighteen years. Dea was as wise, insightful, sharp, and humble as ever. It seemed somehow we had magically once again become members of the same professional learning community and, best of all, the same Weighty Quaker was there for support, just in case we needed him.
There was another powerful idea that hit us that January afternoon. As we listened to people visit with Dea about the experience [Page 154]of working with him, we were reminded of a thought that struck us throughout the process of doing research for this book. It is a simple but powerful idea, an idea that author and educator Parker Palmer lays out eloquently in his book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (2007); specifically, it's “we teach who we are.” We believe Palmer is absolutely correct. One can only be a good teacher, over the long term, if one is authentic, and one is only authentic if one teaches who he or she is. This left us with one last question: Who is Dealous Cox, and how did he become the person he is?
Because the focus of this book has been on leadership and space is limited, we will keep the focus on those things that made Dealous Cox the teacher, leader, and educator the reader met in this book.Who is Dealous Cox?
It seems logical that the answer to this question could be quite complex. After all, Dea had uncommon success as a leader in a position—public school superintendent—where very few leaders shine. It is only reasonable to expect that such a person would owe their success to a reserve of unique and unusual personal characteristics. In fact, we found the opposite. As we looked at Dea's life and work, we saw a consistent commitment to what is a rather simple set of values:
[Page 155]Growing Up
- Be positive.
- Be curious.
- Be honest.
- Work hard.
- Be mission driven.
Dea was born during the Great Depression in Phoenix, Arizona, as part of a large extended family. He learned some early lessons pertaining to leadership as a young child:
I was part of an Irish clan that placed great value on people having diverse opinions and disputing the passage, but the dispute never went beyond the idea level. There was never a personal element to the arguments, to the things going on among them. There was always love in the Irish clan.
Reflecting on that time, he said this:
They were broke, they were poor, they had been dusted out, they had no money, had nothing, and they wouldn't go to work for the WPA because it was a government charity. They would not do that and the whole family wouldn't do that. I mean nobody in our family would have any of those government handouts. The Coxes don't take handouts. It is that simple. They were as poor as church mice. So growing up in that kind of a family certainly must have had an influence on me. But the notion that somehow disagreements don't relate to personal relationships was a very powerful notion in our clan and that was taught to me fairly early on.
When the dust bowl made it impossible for his parents to make a living in Arizona, the Cox family moved to Oregon where Dea's dad went to work in the naval shipyards in Portland. Ultimately, the Cox family moved to southern Oregon where Dea made his home for much of the next fifty years. Dea's father worked in construction and as a concrete contractor. Dea frequently worked with his dad on projects throughout his high school and college years.
Dea attended high school in the small southern Oregon town of Talent where he met and married his high school sweetheart, Lois. Although it was common in Dea's home to debate politics, he wasn't accustomed to hearing anyone dispute the passage with regards to scripture. Growing up, his religious experience was mostly in fundamentalist Calvinist and Baptist congregations. However, as a teenager, Dea was already exhibiting his intellectual independence. He [Page 156]told us that at age 14, “I just walked into a Quaker meeting and saw how they interacted with each other and the kind of values that they had, and I felt like I had come home. And I have been there ever since.”
In 1950, Dea graduated from Talent High School and enrolled in nearby Southern Oregon College where in 1954 he received his BA along with teacher certification. The following fall he began what would become a thirty-nine-year career in public education.Dea's Career in Public Education
When Dea reported for his first day of teaching in Jacksonville, Oregon, the day began with a breakfast for all school employees. Dea recalls noticing the superintendent was in the thick of things and seemed to be having more fun than anyone else in the room. Dea distinctly recalls telling a fellow teacher, “Someday I want that job.”
As it turned out, Dea didn't assume the Jacksonville superintendency, but he did move rather quickly into school leadership. In just his second year in Jacksonville, in addition to his classroom assignment, Dea became vice-principal. In his six years in Jacksonville, he wore many hats teaching at various grade levels and coaching football, baseball, and basketball. After six years, Dea determined it was time to make good on his prediction and became a superintendent.
The next stop was exactly what this energetic, self-assured, young educator was looking for. He reflects on that time:
I wanted to be a school superintendent, and I watched superintendents and I learned a few things. The first superintendency I took was at Evans Valley, and they had fired I think ten superintendents before me and the district was fighting. There were just all kinds of problems and they hired me, and all my friends said, “Dea, don't do that. It will destroy you.” But I realized that wasn't true. I figured I was a young guy. I was twenty-seven, and I knew I couldn't get hurt. They had ten other guys. If it happened to me, it would just be one more. The district gets blamed for it. But I remember driving there (to my first school board meeting), and when I was driving to that place I heard a voice and it said, “Dea, if you fight, you lose.”
Well, I went in and I didn't fight. The board was split, and I began to pull the board together. I had had pretty good skills to[Page 157]get people to work together. I got the board working together. I went to the State Department of Education and said, “I am here at this school district, and they have never been a standard school district. We would like to be a standard district. What do we have to do? We are willing to do it.” And so they sent a representative down to the district, and she visited our school for a day or two and then she left. She wrote me a plan of action—how to get the school standard. Well, you know me. I took the plan and implemented it. Come spring, I called them back and said, “We would like to have a standardization visit.” They came down, checked ‘er off. I mean the whole business, the whole thing. Made us a standard school for the first time. It was so significant that it was written up in the Medford Mail Tribune, the first time the district had been standard. It was the news all over the state department about this bright young guy down there. Well, from that I became county school superintendent of Jackson County.
As Dea mentioned, his startling success at Evans Valley attracted considerable attention and led to his appointment to be the county superintendent of Jackson County Schools. During this time, Oregon, like many states, was beginning to invest in the support of local school districts through intermediate education agencies. Dea seemed to be just the type of go-getter that was needed to make an intermediate agency succeed. Dea recalls this:[Page 158]
All across the nation, reformers were looking at those county school superintendent's offices, wanting to create intermediate education district offices. At Jackson County, we were the first county agency to have a central instruction material center. We were the first one to have a special education section. We were the first one that provided countywide bookkeeping for the constituent districts. We did a whole lot of things before anyone else, so the US Office of Education came out and made a filmstrip about us, and their filmstrip highlighted this kid out there in Oregon doing all this stuff.
So as they got ready to hire for the Title III office of ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act], they were needing a program manager for Title III, somebody said “Well, what about that kid in Oregon?”
Apparently, the people in the US Office of Education thought that was a pretty good idea, so in 1966, just twelve years after he began his teaching career, Dealous Cox and his family packed up and left Southern Oregon for Washington, DC, where for two years Dea worked as program manager for ESEA Title III. At this time, ESEA Title III was the principal federal education initiative responsible for encouraging and supporting innovation and school improvement across the country. In a span of a few short years, Dea had moved from focusing on a few children in one small district in rural southern Oregon to being a big player in the formulation of national education policy. This could easily have gone to a person's head. Many people never return to their roots after having experienced the seductive allure of the larger arena. But that wasn't to be the case with Dea Cox.
After two years in Washington, DC, Dea was ready to return to the work he loved, being a local district superintendent in southern Oregon. Frequently, when a school leader gains experience, they seek more reasonable and/or manageable assignments. This wasn't Dea. He left a comfortable job in Washington, DC, to come to a district that presented significantly more in the way of challenges than anything he had faced in Evan's Valley.
The South Umpqua School District not only served one of the lowest income and most disadvantaged populations in the state of Oregon but the district lacked any sense of community as it had been forcibly created through a consolidation of two municipalities that didn't want to share a school district. By any measure, student performance was among the lowest in the state.
Dea's desire and decision to go to South Umpqua demonstrated a trait that was repeated throughout his career. Dea was a voracious learner. He could turn any work experience or challenge into his own action research project and use it as an opportunity for new learning. Consistent with his action research mind-set, Dea made a habit of seeking opportunities to take what he had recently learned and attempt to make it work in a new context.
Viewed this way, one sees that Dea wasn't going to South Umpqua empty-handed. In truth, he went to this incredibly challenging school district brimming with confidence. It wasn't a confidence born of bravado; it was a confidence derived from his own experience. He had seen firsthand in Evans Valley and at Jackson County that with effective leadership, decent hard-working people could do excellent work. Additionally, his experience working with Title III at [Page 159]the Office of Education taught him that when properly facilitated, targeted external resources could make a significant difference in student performance. This was all Dea needed to know. While he couldn't eradicate poverty in the South Umpqua School District, he could help mobilize the faculty and assist the district in securing federal funding, which could be targeted to improve academic performance.
Dea served as the superintendent of the South Umpqua School District for eight years. During this time, the district received an unprecedented amount of federal school improvement money. Those additional resources were used to provide professional development and support for teachers. Most of the grant resources were focused on improving early literacy. The strategy worked. The US Office of Education's Joint Dissemination Review Panel (which was considered the gold standard of program evaluation) evaluated the success of South Umpqua's early childhood education work as highly significant. A great deal was accomplished during Dea's tenure at South Umpqua, yet all of Dea's hopes and dreams for the district weren't realized. So after eight years as superintendent, he once again left the public schools and spent a year at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. This sabbatical provided Dea with one more opportunity to learn, reflect and grow:
Harvard changed the way I looked at schools. It was just a shift. I was a pretty good schoolman before I went to Harvard, but after I came out of Harvard, I thought about the world differently. I saw things in a different context. I saw the work differently. Harvard reinforced my view on the way to work with people, the way to involve people in decision making. It didn't necessarily grow out of Harvard. It grew out of my being at Harvard and thinking about things differently.
When I went to Harvard, I had two or three very fortunate things happen. The first thing, I became Frank Keppel's assistant. He became my mentor. Frank was one of the absolute great educational leaders of the last half-century. I also had the opportunity to serve as an assistant superintendent for the Massachusetts State Department of Education. They were just having a great deal of problems. They were just in constant turmoil. It just seemed like they were constantly churning. They[Page 160]would get things that they thought were decided and then they would become undecided. And as I watched that and talked to Frank about it, it seemed to me that an awful lot of the problem was the decision-making structure that was being used, which was kind of a top-down structure. They tried to have decisions made and then they pushed them down into the schools, and once they would get down a little bit, they wouldn't go very well. Things would just go gunnysack, and then they would get into conflicts over them and that sort of thing. I meditated a lot on that and thought about what it meant, and I think that had a lot to do with my realizing this:
You know you might be able to work in a leadership role differently, so that you didn't wind up with that kind of conflict. If it is really important to implement something, it might take a certain period of time, but if you involve a lot of people in the implementation, it has a better chance of getting implemented. However, if you have it top-down, it very likely will never get implemented.
And that understanding of that whole kind of process grew out of my discussions with Frank Keppel and my experience in the Massachusetts State Department of Education.
I had some other experiences at Harvard that were pretty phenomenal. The Graduate School of Education and the Business School did role-plays. They set up a teacher's union and a school board, and I somehow got appointed to be chairman of the board. I was right in the middle of the role-play and got a lot of advice on what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong as well as insights into the process. I think that helped a lot in terms of my relationships with the union when I was at West Linn.
Harvard was very valuable to me. It changed an awful lot about what I thought about the world.
Dea returned from his sabbatical to assume the superintendency of the West Linn School District. In the preceding chapters, the reader had an opportunity to meet the transformational leader that emerged when Dea combined the wisdom gained from his work experience with insights, meditations, and reflections from his sabbatical year in Harvard.[Page 161]“We Teach Who We Are”
The leadership Dea Cox demonstrated in his thirteen years as superintendent in the West Linn–Wilsonville School District was the crowning achievement of his career in public education. Earlier in this chapter, we said Dea was grounded in five simple virtues (being positive, being curious, being honest, working hard, being mission driven). Parker Palmer (2007) said, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 2). We believe those five simple virtues are a good representation of Dea's identity and integrity. It is no surprise that a curious, positive, honest, hard-working, mission-driven leader armed with an action research mind-set would grow and develop with each and every career experience. That is what happened with Dea Cox.
Unlike other reports of successful leaders, this is not a report about one unique extraordinary person—or at least not as he sees himself. Dea reminded us of this:
This has never been a unitary search, it has always been a corporate idea with folks being involved based on the notion that everybody has part of the answer and nobody has it all.
Success in organizations comes from throughout the organization. That is just it. It is many people. That is the reason that I have been behind this book. You know, whatever success I have had was built on the backs of hundreds. How can I talk about the debt I owe you? How can I talk about the debt I owe so many people? I don't know. I am just very thankful.
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