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A License to Lead?

By Rick Hess — July 09, 2003 8 min read
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Ending the ‘ghettoization’ of educational leaders.

In his aggressive efforts to purge the New York City schools of poor principals, reward effective ones, and install effective leaders, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein has been hampered at every turn by a dearth of entrepreneurial and talented managers. The challenges faced by Mr. Klein and other hard-charging executives are largely the consequence of our antiquated and bureaucratic approach to licensing principals and other educational leaders.

Today, in a new world of schooling marked by data-driven decisionmaking, performance-based evaluation, nontraditional teachers, and revolutionary technology, our educational leaders are faced with unprecedented challenges. Yet states retain a license-based system of recruitment and induction that does not secure enough of the leaders we need and systematically excludes individuals with critical skills and experience.

Nearly all states employ licensure systems which require individuals to have taught for about three years and completed a lengthy administrative-preparation program before being allowed to apply for a position as a school principal, superintendent, or administrator. The point is not that nontraditional leaders should necessarily be preferred to seasoned educators, but that licensure makes it difficult for schools to assemble skilled leadership teams or to tap in to crucial talents.

Despite localized shortages, the problem is not a lack of warm bodies; it is a need for leaders with the skills, training, and knowledge essential to 21st- century schooling.

Current reform efforts are too often misguided, seeking to raise barriers to entry, on the one hand, or to pursue a smattering of high-profile nontraditional “superstars” on the other. Neither approach addresses the long- term challenges of deepening the talent pipeline, enhancing accountability, and supporting practitioners.

Professional administration organizations seek to add new licensure hurdles. Under the umbrella Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, constituency groups have advanced ideological and largely content-free “standards.” In an Orwellian parody of educational correctness, the ISLLC’s licensing exam disregards knowledge mastery while seeking to ensure that candidates hold approved values.

Professional administration organizations seek to add new licensure hurdles.

The alternative strategy has been to embrace a handful of nontraditional superstar candidates without linking these decisions to broader efforts to strengthen the candidate pool, improve support and training, or rethink management. White knights are too often one-shot players whose charisma and personal credibility are expected to remedy profound structural problems.

Neither more regulation nor white knights is the answer.

Answering the challenge requires a “new leadership agenda” that attracts and develops leaders able to leverage accountability and technology, motivate and discipline educators, support teaching and learning, and foster a productive culture. In lieu of the nest of regulations—punctured by the occasional loophole—that governs educational leadership today, states should adopt a three-point standard under which candidates must:

  • Hold a B.A. or B.S. degree from an accredited college or university and pass a rigorous criminal-background check;
  • Possess experience sufficient to show potential employers essential knowledge, temperament, and skills for the position; and
  • Demonstrate mastery of essential technical knowledge, to the extent we can pinpoint and reach agreement on such (in areas such as education law or special education, where effective leadership is deemed impossible without personal command).

Do these criteria imply that anyone who wishes is entitled to serve as a school administrator? No. Am I suggesting that preparation is unnecessary? Absolutely not. Being permitted to seek work does not equate to the right to hold a position. Training, experience, preparation—these are taken into account in a sensibly designed system.

Fulfilling the promise of the new leadership agenda requires that states and districts also take steps to rethink statutory constraints on leadership positions, devise performance-oriented criteria for hiring educational leaders, develop reliable systems to monitor performance and hold leaders accountable, and provide support systems and ongoing professional development.

Administrative licensure poses a challenge that is different from that of ensuring teacher quality. Unlike teachers, each of whom is a largely self- contained professional, leaders operate as part of a management team. While licensure tries to ensure self-contained competence, it is necessary only that management teams as a whole possess necessary skills and knowledge—not that each team member personally do so.

Existing licensure arrangements presume that educational leadership is so unique that experience which doesn’t include K-12 teaching and specialized coursework is irrelevant. This seems curious, as leadership in education and elsewhere typically entails mentoring, monitoring organizational performance, overseeing facilities and payrolls, responding to public concerns, and so on.

What of the popular notion that only former teachers can be educational leaders? Though licensure proponents never quite explain just what uniquely equips a high school coach to lead an elementary school but leaves the founder of an inner-city reading program categorically unprepared, the belief that administrators must have taught rests on the implicit assumption that only former teachers can monitor or mentor classroom personnel. Both claims are dubious.

What of the popular notion that only former teachers can be educational leaders?

The monitoring claim may have been plausible in a world without performance data, when administrators had to rely on parental complaints and observing the occasional class. Today, however, the always-minimal value of sitting in the back of a classroom twice a year is of even more dubious benefit, while the value of data-based management is at a premium.

The claim that only former teachers can provide mentoring is equally problematic. In schools or systems where no one else is available to counsel teachers on curricular or instructional issues, leaders do need to fill that role. Such situations are rare, however. More typically, principals and superintendents head up teams of administrators and senior faculty. The ability to leverage this talent can provide greater assistance than a solitary figure coaching in her spare time.

Meanwhile, amidst the pious proclamations about the centrality of instructional leadership, we cull a third of all principals from the ranks of the nation’s gym teachers.

Effective licensure requires knowledge-based standards against which aspirants can be measured to determine adequacy. Leadership, in education and elsewhere, lacks such concrete benchmarks.

Even in professions with clear standards, licensure primarily serves to establish minimal mastery of essential knowledge. A medical license is not imagined to ensure competence in ambiguous, subtle skills like comforting a patient—the kinds of interpersonal skills at the heart of leadership.

Asking licensure to bar the door against unsuitable leaders disregards much of what we know about leadership. When techniques and approaches are variable, as in management, licensure is a poor mechanism of quality control. This is why the M.B.A. is not a license, but a credential to be valued as employers see fit.

In nearly every field, executives emerge in various ways. Even in day care and higher education, where we typically require formal credentials for entry into the profession, we do not require additional credentials to pursue leadership positions.

Contrary to the claims of proponents, leadership licensure does not ensure essential preparation, does not provide effective quality control, and does not professionalize educational leadership. Moreover, barring nonteachers from leadership does more harm than good. In fact, the qualities that make for a good teacher may in many cases be orthogonal to those that equip one to be an effective school leader.

Not only does licensure not deliver the promised benefits, it imposes significant costs. Licensure dissuades potentially effective leaders, while burdening those who do pursue certification; it stifles diverse and innovative approaches to management and leadership; it undercuts meaningful professional development; and it has left educational leadership an intellectual and professional backwater.

Licensure has left educational leadership an intellectual and professional backwater.

For decades, we muddled through with a status quo that made a certain kind of sense. In a world where educational leaders lacked tools and had little flexibility to lead, relying upon up-through-the-ranks educators was not unreasonable. If the only way to gauge teachers’ performance was to sit in the back of their classes twice a year, or if an administrator’s only managerial lever was an appeal to faculty camaraderie, then having taught in a classroom could be critical.

Today, however, we have worked to clarify outcomes and provide new management tools. The rote preparation and reliance on former teachers that may have once been tolerable are acceptable no longer.

Reform will pry open the channels between leadership in education and other fields, end the ghettoization of educational leaders, press school systems to pay a market rate for managerial talent, and create new opportunities for educational leaders to command the professional respect enjoyed by their counterparts in other sectors.

Critics may fear that reform will mean the end of administrator development or preparation. However, as in the case of business schools, aspirants and employers will seek out effective programs. The best schools of education will thrive.

Unless we address the leadership crisis, broader reform efforts will encounter a stiff headwind. Accountability will suffer if managers cannot manage by objectives, fully utilize data, or enhance operational latitude of their personnel. Charter schooling requires entrepreneurs to foster supply, pioneer change, and lead systemic responses.

In a new century, in a changing world, it is time we think anew about how to provide our teachers and our children with the leaders they deserve.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems (Brookings Institution, 2002). This article is adapted from “A License to Lead? A New Leadership Agenda for America’s Schools,” published by the Progressive Policy Institute in January. (Article requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

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