How K-12 leaders can cope with a ‘stunning’ power shift

Author and lecturer Nicco Mele reveals how technology has changed the power dynamics of school district leadership—and how K-12 leaders should adapt as a result

The traditional power structure is changing in ways that challenge school leaders’ authority.

Technology is transferring power from institutions to individuals—and this shift has huge implications for K-12 leaders, says Nicco Mele, a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Mele, author of the book The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, spoke to senior school district leaders during the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education in Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 13.

“We’re living in this time of incredible opportunity, but it’s also kind of scary, because it opens up new issues—and our institutions aren’t equipped to keep up with these changes,” he said.

Mele, who addressed conference-goers via Skype because the snow left him stuck in New England, said the Cray supercomputer of the early 1970s cost $5 million and filled an entire room. Today, we walk around with computers that are significantly more powerful in our pockets.

“That’s a stunning shift of power” from institutions to individuals, he noted.

But this shift brings enormous challenges for superintendents and other institutional leaders. For instance, what happens when the process of an institution conflicts with the agendas of the people it serves? “We have to figure out what we’re going to do about this,” he said.

As an example, Mele told the story of a neighborhood park whose slides were damaged in a storm. When the local city government said it would take three years to fix them, an enterprising parent put up a flyer urging others to donate $50 toward new slides, using an online fundraising site—and soon they had enough money for the project.

But it turns out the city had a good reason for the delay, Mele said—something to do with drainage issues on the land in question.

“On the one hand, I love that parents had the energy and the desire to give $50 to repair these slides—but on the other hand, it’s the government’s role to set priorities” that make the most sense for their communities, Mele said. It’s easy to imagine how the priorities of a school system and the parents it serves might come into similar conflict.

So, how can superintendents and other school district leaders cope with the fact that the traditional power structure is changing in ways that challenge their authority?

Mele offered a number of key suggestions:

Dennis Pierce

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