While the U.S. is a global leader in many fields, such is not the case with our public education system, which lags behind 13 other countries.1 With federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top, both the Bush and Obama administrations have attempted to intervene with local systems to increase student achievement.
Brian Sobotko ’16, a public policy major and education studies minor, thinks that the solution for failing public schools may be more obvious than we imagine. As a Levitt Summer Research Fellow, he is working with Director of Education Studies Program Susan Mason on an independent examination of “Transformational Leadership in American Public Schools.”
According to Sobotko, unlike federal programs aimed at reforming education, which impose overarching goals and mandates, the model for success relies on in-school leaders. “The best model,” he explained, “is to build on the best practices we know, combining solutions that we know work.” Sobotko is looking at cases of administrators and teachers who have successfully turned around failing public schools to determine why they were successful.
Sobotko is reading journal articles and books related to the urban school landscape and effective leadership in order to discover the general principles and common practices of public schools. He will be interviewing school leaders in Utica later this summer; a relevant component of his project, which is focusing on urban centers such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, as well as some schools in Canada.
Sobotko revealed that the public education system is dependent on the state, not the federal, government. Yet because most public schools are underfunded, the federal government uses monetary incentives to enact changes such as the Common Core. When asked about the recently implemented curriculum, he said, “personally I think the idea of raising expectations for education is good and the standards they’ve set out are good, the hard part is providing the resources that allow us as a society to get schools to meet them.”
Through his research, Sobotko has found that the two most important things leaders can do is create a learning environment free from distractions and set high expectations. He has also been impressed with the efficacy of the Center for Urban Education Leadership located at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education, which runs a program that pairs leaders from struggling school with a mentor who has successfully transformed a school in order to implement change from the roots.
“The challenges that schools face, especially urban schools, exist so much deeper than what you see first on the surface,” Sobotko explained. Apart from being underfunded, urban schools have difficulty attracting good teachers and local communities are often pervaded by social issues that typify such areas.
After participating in the Levitt Leadership Institute in the spring, Sobotko became interested in pursuing an independent project about transformational leadership, which was the topic of the institute. He would like to continue his work with school leadership, either as a teacher of high school social studies or a school administrator.
1 Based on the 2014 “Index of cognitive skills and educational attainment.” Retrieved from http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/index/index-ranking
Brian Sobotko is a graduate of Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.