November 29, 2020

School Leaders are Writing a New Story for Education

Today’s Reality

Our society is in the middle of significant disruption. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of this disruption. The disruption has its roots in the societies move away from industrialism and toward post-industrialism. This blog post (or this blog writer) cannot give justice to the entire academic field dedicated to the post-industrial world. However, I can (and will) offer some thoughts on what that means for educational leaders.

The Old Story of Education

Here is the story that we have been living with for the last 70 years in the education world.

Go to School

Get Good Grades

Get a Job

Repeat for the next generation

This basically worked for 3 generations. The structures and systems of education were created around this story. What are those structures? Here are just a few:


Credentials (high school diploma, college degree)

Schools viewed as a factory (importance of buildings, Taylorism, “efficiency”, input/output)

Certification of teachers


The list can go on, but these are just the highlights. The bottom line is that we have created educational structures that have the illusion of creating certainty. In other words, if you follow “the story”, comply with the “rules” …then you, school leader, will be able to control (and make sense) of the world around you.

Just an aside. In my first year as a superintendent in 2007, I sat down with another superintendent who was retiring. He had been a superintendent for 15 years and he saw how education was changing and the impact those changes would have on school leaders (more testing, less funding, more unfunded mandates).

The superintendent said something that stuck with me.

He told me, “Tom, in the 1990’s we (school leaders) were fat, dumb and happy.”

What he meant was at that time school leaders could follow “the story” because you knew “the rules” of “the old story” and your life as a superintendent would be somewhat predictable.

The Search for Certainty

Which leads me to this…in a post-industrial world where “the story” of education no longer works, where the old structures undergirding that story are no longer relevant, we (as school leaders) are looking for certainty.

At first, there seems to be a lifeline that can offer school leaders certainty. That lifeline is school attorneys. We want to believe that the law deals in black and whites and can shelter us from the storm of uncertainty.


A term that I often hear when school leaders are struggling to find certainty in the world is “liability”…as in, “What is my (or the schools) liability in this situation?” There are times when one must consider what liability means in a situation. Knowing when liability is a relevant issue and when it is used to prevent action is important.

A quick aside…This post is not a slam on attorneys, far from it. I love to work with attorneys that help you see the possibilities in every situation and not make you scared of an uncertain future.

Liability is a word that is relevant in a world where “the old story” is still in play.

Liability is for a world of certainty.

The fear of Liability is often used to prevent action.

Liability lessens the number of creative actions a school leader can take.

Liability can paralize school leaders.

Leaning Into Uncertainty

The world school leaders face at this moment has more uncertainties than at any other time in history. “The old story” that drove education, and the management of schools, was finally broken by COVID-19. All of us engaged in school leadership recognize this fact. Embracing the uncertainty, and realizing that old structures and ways of doing things that worked in “the old story”, is the only way we will thrive in the upcoming years.

At this moment, we are creating “the new story” for education. As school leaders work to write the new story of education, let’s agree on a common starting point.

Becoming Radically Learner-Centered

Over the past 70 years, students became less important to “the old story” of education. Bureaucracies were built to manage schools. Policymakers became more hostile to educators and schools. The nadir of this phenomenon was in 2002 with Congress passing No Child Left Behind. The result of NCLB was that data and accountability measures trumped the learning of students. The result was that school leaders discussed numbers instead of kids. Data points became more important than the actual kids.

Our starting point to start “the new story” of education (and schooling) must be the learner. Let’s make every decision about education go through the lens of the learner. Here is a simple graph to help you visualize where we can begin.

School leaders have the opportunity right now to write “the new story” for education. To do so, we must abandon the old story that was created for an industrialized world. We must lean into the fact that our world is swimming in uncertainty. Let us not be fooled into overlaying a system of certainty from the old story onto our new leadership reality. Finally, we can’t let the term “liability” prevent us from doing the important work of creating “the new story” of education.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

  • […] In my last blog post, I talked about the stories we tell ourselves about education. One dominant story in education is the “Hero” story. A “Hero” story states that heroic teachers, principals, and superintendents can take any student (or school) from any background and overcome any disadvantage in educational opportunities faced by the student or school. […]

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