I found this improbable tale of school reform heartening: A visionary principal, who is an Hasidic Jew, has greatly turned around a dismal and dangerous junior high in the South Bronx, where students are mostly African-American and Hispanic.
Shimon Waronker has pulled up test scores and attendance rates. He's brought in a French dual-language program and etiquette lessons ("It's this place where you go and eat, and they teach you how to be first-class," is how one student describes it.) He also led a "textbook counterinsurgency," encouraging the most popular students to run for a new student congress, to whom he plays FDR speeches for inspiration.
But he's drawn ire, too—half the staff has been replaced. One teacher lamented that the kids need new math workbooks more than the fancy lessons and motivational fieldtrips that Waronker favors.
I ran the article past University of South Carolina educational leadership professor Joe Flora, (he's also my dear Dad.) "The secret of his success," Flora says, "is that he's a very charismatic, influential personality who understands power relationships (he made the school more democratic for kids), who has created a school culture with strong values (such as exposing kids to new experiences), and who isn't afraid of conflict and confronting violence." But Flora then pointed out the potential downside of a charismatic leader: "I wonder just how long he can continue and how much test scores have really gone up. There's almost nothing in the article about the approach he's using in the instructional program or whether he's increasing the capacity of his teachers."
Organizational psychologist Rakesh Khurana has found that in the corporate world, charismatic CEOs temporarily raise stock prices after getting hired, but often fail to improve their companies' bottom lines down the road.
The transformational leader versus the bureaucratic whiz—it's a match-up that's all too familar right now, however false the dichotomy may be.