Examining Obstacles to Effective School Leadership

February 08, 1989 4 min read

In Who Runs Our Schools? The Changing Face of Educational Leadership, George R. Kaplan identifies obstacles to effective leadership in public education and suggests perspectives for training future leaders.

A former career diplomat and official of the U.S. Office of Education, Mr. Kaplan here discusses the shortage of minority leaders in education and the reluctance of school administrators to take controversial stances:

The culture of public-school education does not normally reward leaders who take risks or challenge established practice or dogma. ... In the organizational settings where public education functions, orderliness and anonymity are the guiding principles.

Unless the scent of scandal is in the air, most citizens would be unable to name either the school superintendent or the school-board chairperson of their local district. ...

With a few notable exceptions, today’s policymakers are non- or sometimes even anti-intellectual--some quite vocally so. All but a very few speak only English--no concessions to newer Americans--although Spanish is not a difficult language to learn.

Most are innocent of technical or scientific knowledge, even at the levels taught in their schools, and their intimate familiarity with professional sports dwarfs their understanding of the great ideas that presumably swirl about in their classrooms.

Most of those who do harbor profound thoughts are careful not to let them escape. ...

It would take an extraordinarily diligent researcher to locate a dozen verifiable cases of top public-school educators who have voluntarily left their jobs over matters of conscience or principle. ...

The numbers for women, blacks, and Hispanics in educational leadership are deeply disturbing.

However they are interpreted, the best available projections show a profile of emerging educational leadership for the 1990’s that will most emphatically not mirror the growing diversity and pluralism of the nation’s public-school students.

Regrettably, it is as predictable as tomorrow’s dawn that the upper echelons will remain heavily white, male, and middle-aged even as the school population becomes more than one-third minority within a decade or less. ...

The danger is not that [those now in power] will create a ruck8us--school people seldom rock boats--but that girls and boys, particularly those with dark skin and/or Hispanic names, may pass into adolescence and beyond believing that:

Most of the prevailing wisdom about education (and life) comes from the white women who teach them and the white men who boss the teachers;

The smartest people they know or have heard about do not work in the schools; and

There must be something wrong in a system that proclaims democratic beliefs but does not give [minorities] a shot at running it.

Institute for Educational Leadership, 1001 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20036; 96 pp., $12 paper.

In the nine essays collected in Quiet Riots: Race and Poverty in the United States, edited by Fred R. Harris and Roger W. Wilkins, members of the 1988 Commission on the Cities assess efforts to combat poverty, unemployment, and racism undertaken since the 1968 Kerner Report on causes of civil disorder.

“Quiet riots” continue in all of the nation’s central cities, the commission concluded: Unemployment, poverty, segregation, family disintegration, housing and school deterioration, and crime are worse now than they were 20 years ago.

In the following excerpt, Gary Orfield, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, advocates continued emphasis on school desegregation as a means of building a “more integrated and far more equal society":

Large-scale school desegregation works and is relatively stable over long periods of time.

School integration appears to have effects that go far beyond test scores: It seems to increase the probability of attending college and to positively affect outcomes such as type of college, college major, type of employment as an adult, and likelihood of living in an integrated neighborhood as an adult.

The Kerner Commission’s call for a serious effort of desegregation was very much to the point. ...

During the 1980’s, there has been a very important change in the way desegregation plans are designed and implemented. The first round of urban plans to follow the Supreme Court’s busing deci4sion in 1971 were primarily in the South. They were limited to single districts (some of which contained entire urban counties), were almost wholly mandatory, and were developed so quickly that there was seldom an opportunity to plan and implement major educational changes until after the order was in place.

Almost all of the new plans of the last decade, in sharp contrast, have important educational improvements, and many involve a great expansion of parental choices in magnet schools, special programs, and voluntary interdistrict exchanges. Under many of the newer orders, the state governments have been obliged to fund large compensatory efforts to upgrade inner-city minority schools and students.

In other words, some courts, and many state and local officials and civil-rights litigators, are thinking about how to make the Kerner Report’s prescriptions more acceptable to middle-class families by introducing a much broader range of well-developed educational options to meet the special needs of more children.

Pantheon Books, 201 East 50th St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 223 pp., $19.95 cloth, $9.95 paper.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as Examining Obstacles to Effective School Leadership