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Boyden Leadership Series: A Discussion with Dr. Ross H. Millikan

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Boyden’s Leadership Series presents discussions with business and thought leaders from organizations across the globe. The series focuses on topical issues that offer executives, political leaders and the media insight into current trends in business and talent management in the global marketplace.

This issue features education expert Dr. Ross H. Millikan, who recently released the publication “Authentic Educational Leadership in Schools,” (Xlibris, 2010) which seeks to re-establish the place and the importance of a values-based, philosophically-underpinned, national educational provision, going beyond mere narrow academic achievements. He discusses the importance of putting effective teaching ahead of administrative efficiencies, why successful educational leaders must be multi-faceted in today’s changing world, and the need for parents and communities to assert stronger voices in shaping the future of our schools.

Dr. Millikan was educated in both government and private schools, and later completed B.Mus.Ed. and B.Ed. degrees from the University of Melbourne. He began his teaching career and was appointed Director of Music in a government Special Secondary Music School, prior to going to Edmonton, Canada, where he earned both M.Ed. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Alberta.

Dr. Millikan has been a secondary teacher, and was Principal and CEO of Carey Baptist Grammar School -- an International Independent Co-educational K-12 School in Melbourne for twelve years. Other appointments have included: Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Sub-Dean in the Education faculty at the University of Melbourne; Acting Regional Director for the International Baccalaureate Organisation’s Asia-Pacific Regional Office in Singapore; a National and International Educational Consultant, and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.

Dr. Millikan has been a conference presenter at various national and international educational conferences. He has written many refereed and non-refereed journal articles, and co-authored “Creating an Excellent School”, published by Routledge in 1987, as well as a University of Melbourne in-house publication entitled: “A Step-by-Step Approach to Thesis Writing”.

Discussion with Dr. Ross H Millikan

Boyden: What prompted you to write your most recent book?

Millikan: Following my career as both teacher and administrator, the writing of the book helped me clarify my thinking about the things that I found to be increasingly unsatisfactory in primary and secondary education. It also provided an opportunity to suggest a range of potential improvements to the provision of education.

The book was based on a genuine desire to see changes in teaching and learning, and organisation in schools. There was also the recognition that most operational constraints are a mixture of both externally and internally imposed controls over learning and teaching processes, often more for administrative expediency than for the effectiveness of educational outcomes.

Boyden: What is the call to action?

Millikan: I want to point out that I never intended the book to be prescriptive but rather to be provocative. I wanted to provoke school leaders, to genuinely
reflect on every facet of school operation, to ensure that they are providing the best education, which will lead towards desired and shared outcomes of holistically, better educated students.

I also wanted to emphasise that every school is unique, just as every individual is unique. School leaders must have decisional autonomy, and appropriate economic support from governments to provide the programmes and opportunities which their particular school community needs. They must also be held accountable for their performance.

Boyden: What would be the biggest surprise in looking at education?

Millikan: Probably the recognition by students and parents in particular that they can have a much stronger voice in determining the quality of their schooling. Most of the constraints on schools are political, systemic, and departmental impositions for the purposes of funding controls and operational controls. These deny the individuality and the uniqueness of every school.

Boyden: How can community members make a difference?

Millikan: School communities, and parent bodies in particular, need to be much more vocal about the things which are not right with schooling today. We need to get the message through to our politicians and our funding agencies, that more resources need to be put into schools, and that schools need to be given greater value and importance in their local communities. In addition, schools can benefit from the professional, business, and trade expertise that is available in every community, to work alongside qualified teachers. For example, retired experts could be terrific resources to share their skills and expertise with students. They can add a very practical application element to the theories and the concepts that the teachers are trying to impart. Real learning is revealed through application.

Boyden: How are you seeing technology being used to track the development of teachers and leaders in schools?

Millikan: Technology is increasingly important, but its applications must be controlled by teachers. Any system that uses statistical techniques, such as assessment normalization which iron out students’ individual differences, is using data for administrative purposes. It is not picking up and celebrating the subtle differences between students’ unique abilities and capabilities. We need to be very careful that technology is used for the right outcomes – to optimize learning by students and teaching by teachers. It must also ensure that administrative goal-setting procedures and operational efficiencies contribute to and support educational-effectiveness outcomes.

Boyden: Based on reflections on your experiences of educational leadership across 25 countries, how do certain systems stand out for achievement and progressive development?

Millikan: That’s an enormously difficult question to answer because the parameters against which those sorts of success judgements are made vary greatly from country to country. The OECD and PISA scales are probably not bad for gross international comparisons. But once again, in their desire to find commonalities, they tend to gloss over the subtle differences and very fine-grained benefits that certain schools can produce.

For example, if you compare the performance of schools with respect to starting age, the Hungarians and the Norwegians tend to delay starting until nearly seven, whereas in New Zealand, children start on or near their sixth birthday. That means that they can start at any term and almost any week in the school year. This makes the teaching program and the coordination of progress very difficult to follow through, especially if you’ve got a very large class of children.

Boyden: How can comparisons between student’s performance and achievements under such diverse circumstances be accurate, or even relevant?

Millikan: Between-school and between-country assessments cannot take account of the factors which affect individual approaches to learning and teaching. We should try to understand and celebrate the reasons for these differences, rather than assign ‘better’ or ‘worse’ evaluations on both procedures and achievements.

The notionally ‘same’ mathematics taught in America or China, are not the same in fact, because assessors cannot control for cultural differences in either teaching
or learning.

The same applies to assessments between schools in the same country where cultural differences are less extreme. We must accept the professionalism and knowledge of teachers in individual schools, and trust and support them to fulfil their career obligations of developing every student to its potential. We should not impose operational constraints which inhibit individual holistic exploration and discovery.

Boyden: What are some of the key challenges governments and teachers face in providing authentic educational leadership?

Millikan: One of the major reforms that we need to see here in Australia and probably in most other countries in the world, is to give much greater value to education as a community value, and as the end product of a child’s personal holistic educational development. That really requires educators to examine a number of factors in schools, not the least of which are the structures and daily procedures that are put in place for fundamentally administrative and efficiency reasons.

Boyden: Can you elaborate on that?

Millikan: Schooling ought to be directed at the total development of every child. That’s difficult if there’s one teacher with 25 or more children in the class, and where the length of the period is 50 minutes before the students have to change subjects (and often classroom locations). This disruption and the lack of continuity in pedagogy and programming are real constraints on effective learning and teaching. With more money and greater flexibility in the hands of a school’s personnel, it should be the right of the headmaster and the school staff to structure class time and frequency to concentrate extended time to a few subjects without interruptions.

We need to ask the questions: How well do we understand the diverse approaches to learning within any particular group of students? How well can our methodologies accommodate to these? To what extent are most students failing to fulfil their potential learning capacity because of the structural constraints we place upon the learning-teaching interaction?

Boyden: Is large class size also an issue?

Millikan: Reducing class sizes would be another one of my recommendations. We need sufficient one-on-one learning-teaching interaction time between the teacher and student and between small groups of children, so they can bounce ideas off each other and, in many cases, teach each other. This helps us genuinely cultivate the individual nature and strengths of every child.

The constraints operating in most classrooms make this individualised and small-group learning virtually impossible. The learning-teaching paradigm which applies to schools everywhere is antithetical to effective learning and teaching for both students and teachers. The gross undervaluing and underfunding of schooling is a national scandal in most countries of the world. I believe the undervaluing of education and schooling is very poor social and economic policy, which governments everywhere must confront and rectify.

Boyden: Are there creative ways to achieve that in a public school situation?

Millikan: Yes, there should be. Public schools should be no different to private schools in virtually all aspects of school operation. Private schools really only thrive, indeed survive, because public education is so poor. Individual national or provincial state governments need to invest in their future generations by ensuring the highest possible educational provision to their future citizenry.

If we dare compare the amount of money per-head being spent on education, versus the amount of money per-head spent on armaments and international wars, these are stark comparisons about which we are all ashamed, but it continues to happen. Our national priorities about what is important for our global civilisation are fundamentally wrong.

Boyden: How does funding play a role?

Millikan: Each school needs to determine its gross budget for the coming year and governments need to provide this resource. The headmaster, the staff of the school and its school board, can then together determine the allocation those funds to the needs of their own programmes in their individual schools.

Central bureaucracies tend to deal with gross commonalities within school systems, rather than the subtle and more individual characteristics within each school. This results in minimalist and narrow curricular offerings, and economically controlled facilities, pedagogies, class sizes, and staffing levels. Educational provision is far from optimal; in most countries it is barely growth-promoting but rather is sustaining what has gone before, and is failing to incorporate new knowledge and technologies.

Boyden: What do you think constitutes best practice leadership in the school environment?

Millikan: It is important to establish really good rapport between the head of the school and the board of governors, to strengthen their ability to reflect together and solve the issues that need to be addressed in their school. In addition, good rapport between the headmaster and the staff of the school can help to ensure that the things they desire to do together can be accomplished.

Trust and recognition is important, as well as having respect for the competencies and the capabilities of each group that is working together. Most teachers are life-long learners, but most schools fail to provide them with the opportunities needed for life-long professional development or offer application within the curriculum of new knowledge, technologies and skills.

Boyden: What makes a first-rate leader of an educational institution?

Millikan: A headmaster or principal needs to be able to share many of his/her responsibilities and give other people in the school the opportunity to express leadership styles, to take responsibility, and to diversify roles. There is nothing more stultifying than having to do the same thing day-in and day-out, year-after-year, with insufficient rewards in terms of praise or economic incentives. This is true for classroom teachers as much as it is for headmasters. In fact, shared leadership and shared decision making are terribly important school-wide, particularly for the development of future leaders and school ethos / school culture.

Boyden: Are some of the skills sets in running educational systems the same as leading a major corporate business?

Millikan: Many of the procedures are probably the same but the philosophic goals of the outcomes can be, and often are vastly different. Economic outcomes and benefits tend to be the primary goals of corporations and big business.

Schools, on the other hand, ought to be absolutely about optimizing every possible outcome achievable through working with children and young people. We need to try in every way to extend their abilities and knowledge, and put those two aspects to good use not just for the person’s economic gain, but for the aesthetic gain
of the wider community. Too often economic growth is the primary goal in corporate enterprises, but it ought not to be in schools.

Boyden: Often school systems end up running like corporations in order to deal with lack of funding or to prevent funding from being curtailed. Do you agree?

Millikan: Education systems worldwide suffer from having to operate within imposed budgets, generally set by economists and bureaucrats rather than practicing educators, and the school’s educational agenda is supplanted by an economic agenda. Certainly economic controls are important in the operation of schools, but we must balance the economic side of education with the philanthropic and altruistic aspects of sound education. Shaping the right sorts of goals and social outcomes should be the driving force. Then finding the economic support to do that should be what follows, not the other way around.

Boyden: Are there learnings from schools that can apply to corporations?

Millikan: Society needs to be culturally rich as well as economically viable. There is much which schools can teach corporations with respect to the professional development of their staff, and with improving the quality and integrity of their services and products. These, however, are costs to the corporation, and therefore tend to be undervalued by
a company.

Boyden: Do the talents look similar in running an elite secondary school compared to an elite university?

Millikan: Philosophically, it ought to be thoroughly similar. However, in practice, school teachers need a richer range of pedagogical skills and techniques to match the more varied learning approaches of burgeoning kindergarten, primary and secondary school students.

School students require more personalised assistance compared to university students because of the difference in age and experience. Nonetheless, for both levels, the outcomes from education must always be optimizing the holistic educational development of each individual student.

Boyden: What would you advise to school systems in terms of searching for a school leader?

Millikan: School leaders need to be exceptional people. We must always look at the performance record of the applicants and then try to match their skills as closely as possible with the desired programs leading to exceptional outcomes from the school. A school needs to also look for the person who has achieved imaginative things, who has been creative, adaptive, and inspirational, and has good interpersonal relationships with peers and subordinates. That’s not necessarily a person who has been the principal or headmaster of another school.

Boyden: So broad-based experience is important for a leadership position in education?

Millikan: It’s about looking for people who have a broad base of experience within education and within other related sectors as well. Education is all about personal development, and this needs to apply to the teachers as well as to the students. Schools need people with imagination, flair and creativity, and a genuine love of, and concern for, the holistic developmental potentialities of both schooling and students.

This does not always come with somebody who is being transferred from having been headmaster at another school. Sometimes people switch schools but don’t change their programmes or ideas in accordance with what the new constituency needs. Rather they try to impose on this different community what worked for them in their last school. Schools are dynamic places. We need to make sure that schools change with the rest of the community.

Boyden: What are the big obstacles in searching for education leaders?

Millikan: Very often the selection committee or the school or community
can have certain pre-conceived ideas of the job criteria, skills and attributes needed in a new leader, which can prevent them from getting to the crux of what they are looking for.

I would always recommend that search committees go through reference statements very carefully, and then go beyond the references to get an honest sense of a candidate’s past performance, achievements and shortcomings from others who have worked with him / her. Judgments should be based on as much information and data as is possible. Vision for the future direction of the school should weigh heavily in the minds of the selection committee. Not vetting the applicants carefully enough and having a too-inflexible understanding of what is needed in the person and the role are common mistakes made in the selection process.

Boyden: Are there other mistakes schools make in selecting candidates?

Millikan: Yes -- appointing someone whom the school board doesn’t fully support. Far too often, the tenure of people as of head of a school is not as long as it should be, because of a clash between school board members and the person in the role. Certainly problems will arise and they’ve got to be worked through. However, in the end, you have to evaluate decisions and performance based on what is in the best interests of the entire school community, rather than an individual’s preferences – be these of the chairman, the principal or a board member.

Boyden: What would be your career advice to a young and up-and-coming secondary school manager?

Millikan: I’d say work hard at whatever you’re currently doing, and be the very best you can be in your role. Strive to broaden your experience and outlook, and be as diverse as possible within the scope of the role that you’re filling. Be a thoroughly useful subordinate to your superiors and support and establish good rapport with your teacher-colleagues and your students.

Be a needed and valued member of the school community. I think having a very positive and constructive attitude to your role and your colleagues is the best preparation anybody can have for any sort of a job. Always strive to be helpful and needed.

We would like to thank Michael Catlow and Anne Stuckey of Boyden Australia for making this edition of Boyden’s Leadership Series possible.

The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Dr. Millikan.