Wanted: The Perfect Person
Charter Schools Demand a Great Deal of Leaders
The charter school movement faces daunting leadership and management challenges, especially as the sector continues its rapid expansion.
For starters, the publicly financed but independently run schools are projected to need between 6,000 and 21,000 new principals over the next decade. That estimate, from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dwarfs the 4,300 charter schools in existence as of last school year.
“[W]e can predict that the next five to 10 years will bring an unprecedented scale-up in charter schools nationwide,” the forthcoming report declares, “along with an acute shortage of leaders well-equipped to head those schools.” Adding to the difficulty, the Washington-based advocacy group notes that leading a successful charter school requires “an uncommon set of competencies, combining strong instructional leadership with solid business skills and management know-how.”
The leadership challenges come as the charter sector is seeking ways to ensure higher, and more consistent, quality among charter schools. The nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. Today, charter proponents are responding to concerns about the decidedly mixed achievement results across the schools nationally.
Layers of Leadership
Against this backdrop, Education Week’s fifth annual “Leading for Learning” report examines charter leadership and management from multiple angles: the recruitment and preparation of charter school principals; the leadership models employed across the schools; the governance role of charter school boards; efforts by newly emerging charter networks to manage and support schools; and the expansion of state organizations, such as the California Charter Schools Association, to help charters and advocate on their behalf to policymakers.
And in telling the story of how two former Memphis, Tenn., principals decided to open a charter school in New Orleans, the report shows just how much dedication and drive are required to launch and lead such schools.
Finally, the report provides new research and analysis by the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington on who the leaders of individual charter schools are, why they take the jobs, and where they struggle most.
One striking finding in the research is that charter school leaders appear to have less experience, in general, running schools than principals of traditional public schools have. At the same time, despite predictions that charters would attract leaders with a more diverse array of professional backgrounds, a relatively small proportion—about 13 percent—came to their current leadership positions from jobs outside education.
In its report, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools highlights another challenge: what it terms “the frequent demographic contrast between the leaders of charter schools today and the students they serve.”
While about twice as many charter schools as regular public schools are led by members of minority groups—32 percent vs. 17 percent, based on federal statistics—the proportion of minority charter leaders is still far below minority students’ 60 percent share of charter enrollment, it says.
The fifth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the leadership challenges facing the nation's rapidly growing charter school sector.
With more attention turning to the pipeline for producing charter leaders, the obvious question arises: What makes an effective leader?
“I kind of joke that the perfect person is someone who has several years of experience as a superintendent of a small school district, has spent several years as executive director of a nonprofit corporation; someone who is a founder and launch person, and is also a maintainer or refiner type of person,” says Eric A. Premack, the director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, Calif., which holds a weeklong summer “boot camp” for charter leaders. “You almost never find all of that in one human being.”
Katherine K. Merseth, a senior lecturer at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, says she sees some common traits among leaders at five high-performing charter schools in Massachusetts that she studied for an upcoming book.
Those traits include “a singular focus on student outcomes,” an entrepreneurial mind-set, and a “nimbleness” to quickly shift gears if a particular strategy isn’t working, she says. “They push the kids, they push the staff, they push the parents. ... They feel this sense of urgency to serve these kids.”
Merseth also observed some key similarities across the set of Massachusetts charters in how they approach leadership.
“These five schools rely heavily on what we call home-grown leadership. They promote from within,” she says. “They have more ‘distributed’ leadership, so that teachers within the organization take on tasks that are part of the leaders’ jobs, and this enables them to grow their own leaders.”
In the charter sector, schools are free to devise their own management structures. Such freedom has led to a variety of hybrid approaches in which leadership is distributed across two or more individuals, or where a larger management organization or other support organization takes on core business and operations responsibilities.
Meanwhile, a component of leadership for charter schools that some experts say has not received nearly enough attention is the role of the schools’ governing bodies. Those boards generally are responsible for helping shape the schools’ direction, hiring principals, and providing oversight of finances and related matters. Many boards are ill-equipped to handle their crucial job effectively, experts say.
Ultimately, the final level of oversight for charter schools is their authorizers, whether state or local boards of education, universities, or other entities. Authorizers are charged by law with approving the creation of charter schools, monitoring their performance, and deciding whether their charters should be renewed or revoked.
Authorizers, too, have attracted growing attention from leaders in the charter movement, amid concern that some of those authorities have done an inadequate job of providing oversight and have failed to shut down consistent low performers.
With thousands of charter schools now up and running—and thousands more likely to open in the coming years—it seems clear that all such elements of effective leadership and management are critically important to ensuring that these public schools of choice deliver on their promise to serve students well.
Vol. 28, Issue 03, Page s3Published in Print: September 10, 2008, as Wanted: The Perfect Person