The Last Word July 2012

By C. Ed Massey

We live in a world of constant change. Our families have changed, our communities have changed, and education has changed. For many years, our nation was at the forefront of education. Today, the world has changed around us. We feel challenged to keep up.

As I take the reins of NSBA as the 2012-13 president, we are facing many challenges as an organization and in public education as a whole. What can we as educators accomplish if we change our outlook and embrace the concept of education as a civil and moral right?

We’ve structured our nation’s education system on agrarian calendars and the rigid assessments of the No Child Left Behind law, while other nations realize that education is critical to their economic development, political growth, and freedom. Other nations are putting a high priority on their education systems by giving students a strong early childhood education, longer school days and years, and supporting the professionalism of teachers and administrators.

Today, public education is under attack in America. We are facing financial crises. Schools that should be seeking qualified teachers are instead issuing layoffs, and many teachers are leaving for other occupations. Disputes continue among public, private, and charter schools. We argue over vouchers and tax credits.

To borrow a phrase from Clint Eastwood’s movie, “Heartbreak Ridge,” we must “adapt, improvise, and overcome” these challenges to public education. Here’s how:

First, we must make education the conversation. Instead of competing, we must combine our strengths with other public education organizations. Our opponents have employed the tried but true tactic of divide and conquer. If we can harness our resources and our passion, we could counter with thousands of voices on Capitol Hill, in business and industry, in local and state governing bodies, and in every school and home.

Second, within NSBA we must focus on a common goal. Our message must be concise, clear, and powerful. NSBA has re-focused its mission to work with and through its state associations. From the local board member in a rural community to the state and national association officer roles, we must be in sync. We as a national association must be here to serve you. The combined efforts of our state associations in concert with the national association must continue to provide legal and legislative advocacy that has impact.

Third, as board members we must be responsive to our communities. Every year, many effective and dedicated board members are defeated by single-issue candidates, and the turnover disrupts a board’s momentum and focus. It is well documented that the longevity of a superintendent and board members has a positive impact on our most important goal: student achievement.

To accomplish these three objectives, we must change. In his book, Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz says, “People don’t fear change; they fear loss.” Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. According to Heifetz, an organization is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those with the most leverage) want it that way. We fear what’s not predictable, so we do things the same way until we are forced to change. To change before disaster demands it requires leadership.

Many times people confuse leadership with authority, power, or influence, but true leadership involves direction, protection, and order. Direction is the ability to have a clear and detailed vision of where the organization is going. Protection is remaining focused on your core mission. Order is dedicated work to achieve the common goal.

To have impact, people will have to be forced out of their comfort zones. The magic lies in pushing people to their potential, but not pushing them beyond their capacity, and allowing flexibility so challenges can be met with the necessary energy and resources.

NSBA is facing many challenges: a sluggish economy, endless attacks on public education, maintaining our emphasis on legislative and legal advocacy, promoting our work with and through state associations, and selecting the next NSBA executive director. Needless to say, we will have to adapt, improvise, and overcome. Our success depends on our passion for the work we do. We will be reaching out to many of you for your input, your service, and your advocacy. In the coming year, I want to hear from you and I want to serve you. Together, by being adaptive and flexible, we will make public education the conversation. 

C. Ed Massey ( is the 2012-13 president of NSBA and a member of Kentucky’s Boone County Board of Education.