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The Parting of Deans and Administrators

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Why are principals cast by some national reports on teacher education as barriers to a professional environment for teachers? Why is the school administrator often described as lacking perspective, generally obstructive, and frequently autocratic? Why is this view at the same time at odds with the experience of practicing principals and superintendents?

For example, the Holmes Group authors write that, "The existing structure of schools, the current working conditions of teachers, and the current division of authority between administrators and teachers are all seriously out of step with the requirements of the new profession. ... Member institutions will try to make the professional education of administrators compatible with the requirements of the profession of teaching."

Furthermore, an internal memorandum to the Tomorrow's Schools Group, the spinoff Holmes action team of university deans, describes "the need to make a pointed and explicit critique of the field of educational administration, its failure to take its central purposes from teaching and learning ..."

While no profession is beyond criticism, practitioners in the week-by-week business of managing schools report a picture different from the Holmes view. They describe frequent conferences with teachers to plan and implement the curriculum; they report routine discussions with subject-area departments to improve the teaching environment; they affirm the hours devoted to removing obstacles for teachers.

Further examination of the views of deans on the one hand, and of principals and superintendents on the other, produces two divergent descriptions of current practice in schools. Why do these perceptions differ so widely? And why do the two viewpoints appear significantly farther apart today than they did a decade ago?

These differences arise centrally from the changing professional background of the deans of schools of education in major universities. Struck by this notion, and marginally aware of the attrition of deans who formerly were school administrators, the National Association of Secondary School Principals conducted a survey of the education deans of 26 major research universities, both public and private.

The results are dramatic in the context of the backgrounds of the deans who led the major schools of education during their formative years. Pioneers like Elwood P. Cubberley of Stanford University, Frank Chase of the University of Chicago, and Paul Hanus and Henry W. Holmes of Harvard University all had extensive backgrounds in school administration. More recently, many deans of the 1960's, such as H. Thomas James of Stanford, B.J. Chandler of Northwestern, and Daniel Griffiths of New York University, also studied and practiced school administration.

Of the 26 current deans surveyed, 22 responded to our request for information on their area of professional preparation, their experience as educators, and their contributions to the field. Of the group, only five deans indicated any preparation in educational administration or leadership. Two additional deans majored in "policy studies." More commonly, academic preparation was in one of the foundation fields of educational psychology, educational sociology, or history of education.

While this brief analysis might suggest that educational administration is modestly represented, a closer look reveals that no dean has conducted substantial research or has written professionally about the field of educational administration. Just two deans have published in educational policy, and only one writes about human development. The most frequently published fields are teacher education and research methodology, with other interests ranging from social-studies education to women's studies to cognitive achievement to curriculum.

Memberships in professional societies show a similar profile. Almost no deans belong to the major professional associations serving school administrators. One belongs to the National Association of Elementary School Principals, one to nassp, and none to the American Association of School Administrators. Five deans, however, are members of the National Education Association.

Four of the five professional publications most widely read by principals and superintendents are published by professional associations of school administrators. How can the deans know what practitioners contribute to the field if they don't read the journals published by practitioners or participate in the major meetings of the professional associations?

The professional experience of the deans indicates an even lower threshold of commonality with practicing school administrators. While 14 of the deans surveyed have served briefly as teachers at the elementary- or secondary-school levels, only one has experience as a principal or superintendent. The world of the practicing school administrator is essentially foreign to 96 percent of the deans of schools of education in the leading research universities of the nation.

No such shift, with theorists and policy analysts replacing practitioners, and the foundation fields replacing the application arts, has occurred in other professional graduate schools. An examination of the professional experience of deans of schools of architecture and deans of law in the same leading universities, for example, shows quite a different picture. These deans specialize in the practice of their profession. Twelve of the 14 deans of schools of architecture replying to our survey have extensive experience as presidents, principals, or associates in architectural firms. Nineteen of the 20 deans of law schools who responded have served as practicing attorneys, including 13 with private firms. Many currently maintain an active practice in addition to their responsibilities as deans.

Why, in startling contrast to their colleagues in architecture and law, do we find deans of schools of education with significantly weaker connections to the field? Why so little involvement in the schools as teachers, and no background in such leadership positions as department chairs, principals, or superintendents?

Whatever happened to the notion that all professions rest on a dual knowledge base, the realm of theory and practice? In most professions, a strong linkage exists between these two worlds. In precollegiate education, the two worlds have grown distant, even politely hostile.

This situation serves neither the elementary and secondary students of the nation nor the principals and superintendents. As fewer and fewer deans have direct connections with the field of educational administration, the danger grows of a shallow understanding of the principalship and superintendency. Worse yet, the possibility of serious misperceptions and misunderstandings rises dramatically. A dean with little school experience, for example, may be more inclined to accept uncritically the denigration of school administrators by teacher organizations, even when such comments are politically motivated rather than professionally based.

Cooperation between teachers and principals has indeed suffered in some schools since the advent of collective bargaining. Yet, in spite of obstacles, close working relationships exist between principals and teachers in the vast majority of schools coast to coast. The bare facts are that schools could not function without cooperation and teamwork between teachers and principals day by day, week by week. And field studies of the principalship demonstrate that principals give their highest priority--both in time and in value--to managing the educational program.

The initial readings of the naasp research suggest that from the viewpoint of the practicing school administrator, this nation has developed over the past decade a mandarin class of deans, unfamiliar with the complicated role and working environment of today's principals and superintendents. Verbally talented, they consort with colleagues of similar ilk, but remain strangers in the provinces. The outcome is predictable; their elegant patterns fail to fit the practitioner. Finely woven, they fade and tear under the rigor of live schools in real communities.

The drift, the frayed lines of communication, and the blurred perspectives did not develop overnight; it took time to dig the moat between deans and practicing school administrators, and it will take time to fill it.

One unfortunate outcome of the unfamiliarity of deans with the principalship and superintendency has been a slow downsizing of departments of educational administration in most universities. Over a decade faculty positions have been eliminated and budgets reduced.

To be sure, this attrition is partially a result of federal funds and foundation grants being directed to other areas of education. Had deans been knowledgeable advocates of leadership and management, however, the neglect of educational administration may have been arrested; the field of organizational leadership flourished in other realms of academe during the same period.

Deans of schools of education apparently were unaware of or uninterested in these parallel developments. As the low priority granted to educational administration and the loss of resources became a self-fulfilling hypothesis, many departments of educational administration lost strength during the 1970's.

Earlier, the departments of educational administration had been the most prestigious in schools of education. Prominent practitioners gained appointments to full professorships, occasionally to deanships. A strong professional camaraderie developed among the leading superintendents and leading deans nationwide.

By 1970, however, universities had begun accepting Ph. D. candidates in education who had no field experience; the custom had previously been to require three or more years of teaching to enter advanced programs in educational administration. As they appointed assistant professors from the ranks of these field-limited scholars, the schools of education deepened the moat between practitioner and professor.

Bias developed in schools of education against professors actively engaged with the field, one outcome of the desperate desire of education to be accepted by the broader university community as a research-based discipline. Meanwhile, the closing of university laboratory schools further isolated higher education from the school site.

The attractiveness of educational-administration candidates for the deanship diminished. Most of the recent appointments have gone to professors who gained visibility from well-funded national projects unrelated to school leadership.

These developments at the university level were paralleled by the emergence of new social forces that proved distracting to school leaders attempting to focus upon the chief agenda, school reform. Issues ranging from school desegregation to collective bargaining to family disintegration consumed the attention of principals and superintendents.

Responsibilities expanded. Because no certain knowledge base existed, school administrators began operating on an ad hoc basis. Gradually, new areas of knowledge did emerge, largely founded upon field experience. Through their professional organizations, practitioners began to teach other practitioners. Active workshop programs developed, taught by entrepreneurs or by various professional associations.

By the early 1980's, as the credibility of schools of education with school administrators continued to drop, a revised pattern of professional affairs emerged, including the following elements:

Development of personnel-assessment centers by nassp and by the aasa, and the publication of professional standards by the naesp. Unable to secure advice from schools of education to improve the process for selecting principals, naasp in 1978 contacted the training division of American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. An AT&T team, with the support of the American Psychological Association, guided nassp's efforts to develop an assessment center to identify the talents of prospective principals. Today these centers operate in 52 sites. A "phase two" initiative provides for the professional development of principals in the skill areas featured by the assessment centers.

Publication by nassp of a framework for improving administrator preservice programs, entitled Performance-Based Preparation of Principals. This report offers recommendations for improving preservice programs and proposes a systematic rating exercise for departments of educational leadership to assess the status and quality of their current programs.

Passage by the Congress of the Leadership in Educational Administration Development Bill, which provides for 50 state consortia to strengthen the professional development of principals. These consortia ordinarily include a professional association, the state department of education, participating school districts, and often a university.

The founding of two national commissions, one by nassp and another by the University Council for Educational Administration. The ucea group published last March Leaders for America's Schools, a report calling for stronger collaboration between school districts and universities and stressing the need for schools of education to become primarily professional schools, emphasizing the preparation of practitioners, rather than research institutions. Nassp's Commission on Professional Standards for the Principalship currently is defining the professional knowledge and skills essential to success as a principal in today's schools.

These recent developments illustrate the urgent need of principals and superintendents for a sophisticated set of professional skills to provide leadership for schools. Unfortunately, many schools of education are twice handicapped in bringing substance to this requirement: Theory is weak, and deans are unfamiliar with the field.

Somehow a better circumstance must develop; a new partnership must be forged. The profession of educational administration, like the other major professions, must rest upon a solid collaboration between practitioner and theoretician.

This will take courage all around to achieve. Deans and their colleagues must pontificate less and engage more at the school site. They should restructure their anemic involvement with the field. Recognition rather than condescension should flow to professors who work closely with the field.

The deans also must acknowledge that the application of a profession frequently is more complex than is the basic theory. The professions, in fact, depend upon practice to generate theory. While theory provides shape and context, its authenticity depends upon the meaning of practice.

Somehow in education we have it backwards. Theorists spring ideas fullblown, like Athena from the head of Zeus, but their concepts lack confirmation from ordinary mortals, the practitioners of the world.

A reasonable number of appointments to the deanship should come to candidates with a record of serious leadership responsibility in the field.

Rather than simply dig in and fire back counterproductively, practitioners must direct their influence toward raising professional standards and reshaping certification. Deans and professors can be invaluable allies in this quest.

One promising initiative began in August 1987, with the formation of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration, which will assume authority for the standards of school administration, including preparation and certification. Founding policy board members are the aasa, nassp, the naesp, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the National School Boards Association, the ucea, and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

This development promises new opportunities for all major players to plan and work together for improving the profession of school administration. The knowledge bases from the field, from current college preparation programs, and from social-science research and practice can all be examined and blended into effective new preparation, certification, and in-service programs for principals and superintendents.

To benefit the profession of school administration we need new structures for a genuine dialogue, the establishment of new linkages that can lead to mutually compatible goals. Productive work can then commence on the pressing problems that surround education. Our immediate goal must be to find the means to move the current situation off center, to refocus the images, to gain trust, and to move ahead together.

Vol. 7, Issue 15-16, Page 48

Published in Print: January 13, 1988, as The Parting of Deans and Administrators
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