Education Opinion

Education of Administrators: ‘An American Tragedy’

By Richard A. Gibboney — April 15, 1987 8 min read

The report of the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration, “Leaders for America’s Schools,” is deficient and inadequate. How can it speak seriously about reform when it resurrects and builds on the same trivial courses in management and administration that have been taught for several decades? This is not even old wine in new bottles; it is more like Mississippi river water in tin cans.

The report’s idea of an educational leader is that of an efficient manager, but leadership as management has failed for 60 years. Does the commission not know, for example, that Robert Lynd said, in his famous 1925 study of “Middletown,” that its school system and those in other cities had become ''thoroughly ‘modernized’ and ‘efficient’ in its administrative techniques--to the dismay of some of the city’s able teachers,” who had watched the administrative horse gallop off with the educational cart?

Nor did the commission heed Jesse Newlon’s criticism in 1934 that the problem with the education of school administrators is that it ignores the central issues of education in favor of managerial technique that is saturated with the “philosophy of management, of business efficiency.”

Mr. Newlon, a professor of educational administration, was one of a small band of professors who tried unsuccessfully to reform a technocratic movement that, even then, was elephantine in outlook.

Are the current reformers up to the task? I do not think so. The managerial perspective, a perspective saturated with the philosophy of management and business efficiency that Mr. Newlon protested 50 years ago, surfaces in many of the suggestions made by individuals, such as Chester E. Finn Jr. of the U.S. Education Department and Scott Thomson of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and attests to the grip that this view has on our minds. The commission, too, in its report last month, reveals its managerial obsession--for example, in its concern for “skills.” The word “skills” abounds in the report, while the word “idea” as an energizing force in leadership is barely apparent. The commission urges districts to set up “assessment centers” that would identify and improve the skills of potential school principals and practicing administrators. Why not, I wonder, have idea-assessment centers as well?

Let us identify and assess the ideas and values that many administrators appear to hold: that tracking is a good way to organize a school, or that a 45-minute period is the ideal unit of time for critical discussion. Might it not reveal more of an individual’s potential for leadership to ask for a critical reaction to John I. Goodlad’s book A Place Called School than to assess a gaggle of management skills? It is no accident that such questions do not arise in reform talk cast in the image of good management, because managerial skills, by their very nature, cannot deal with issues of educational substance.

The commission’s appetite for skills is apparently unsatisfied by assessment centers and a technocratic curriculum in school administration. The panel, as a fail-safe measure perhaps, also endorses supervised practice in schools. But in schools of what quality? The commission does not address itself to this important question. But what is truly gained, for example, if aspiring leaders serve internships in schools that are as intellectually and emotionally enfeebled as those Mr. Goodlad describes, or as paralyzed by bureaucracy as Theodore R. Sizer asserts? What “skills” might be learned there? Can even 200 training institutions find any other kind of schools in sufficient numbers for placements? And are these placement schools likely to be schools that operate on a decentralized budget and be schools in which decisionmaking is shared with teachers--a recommendation, by the way, that many principals opposed when it was first made by other commissions?

The commission reaches the ultimate in circularity when it states that principals and superintendents “represent the best constituency” for reforming the education of administrators. It forgets that those educated in school law, budgets, personnel, and public relations are perhaps those least likely to offer insightful criticisms.

The omission of teachers as part of the reform constituency is a significant Freudian slip. It is a reminder, however, of the historic truth that as courses in administration came to dominate the curriculum for administrators by 1930, scholarship and a concern for learning and teaching lost out to per-pupil costs, the management of the cafeteria, and determining how many recitations in French a dollar bought. Efficient schools were sought; responsive schools were ignored.

There is more than an echo of anti-intellectualism in the commission’s recommendations. Might not a curriculum dominated by administration courses, and coupled with a practical concern for supervised practice and “assessment centers,” reinforce the management mentality that views teachers as “personnel” and in one word masks their intelligence and individuality? The commission is carried away with empty words such as “academies” and “rigorous testing.” If these words stood for solid educational ideas, they might be used as part of the scaffolding to construct a better house. But the commission fails to build the house, and lives on the scaffold instead. I know of no reform report in 100 years that says schools are under-managed. Schools suffer from a deficiency of educational ideas, commitment, and imagination, not management.

The commission’s technological recommendations will do nothing to alter the criticisms of principals, and, I think, many superintendents, made by that gentle critic John Goodlad. Mr. Goodlad says that most principals lack the capacity to lead. He says that they cannot define significant educational problems or build a change agenda that has continuity. Principals, it seems to Mr. Goodlad, are hired for their non-boat-rocking qualities, and assets of intelligence, creativity, and courage are neglected. The fundamental problems in leadership that Mr. Goodlad defines spring from his concern with educational substance over technique. Of course, creativity and intelligence are not “skills,” and thus constitute something that the bony finger of an “assessment center” cannot find.

Leadership in education must be rooted in the fundamental enlightenment of thought. The intellectual and moral center of education is learning and teaching. Learning and teaching, and the seminal ideas and values and exemplary practice that inform them, are all that constitute what is properly the study of education. This is all that any teacher or administrator must know. All else is secondary and supportive. It is these things that enable the managerial eye not only to see but to see with a compelling vision of the future.

At the University of Pennsylvania, we made fundamental changes in our doctoral program for administrators in 1982--after a long struggle.

There are 12 courses in the program. Five required courses constitute the core. Their content is drawn from philosophy, history, social science, and the classic works in education. Content emphases vary by course. The aim of the five core courses is to develop a critical perspective on learning-teaching, schools as social institutions, and significant issues of practice. One course deals with organizational theory. In some of the core courses, historical and philosophical content runs in tandem with content drawn from the professors’ development-research work in schools.

Two other courses are required in social and intellectual history and modes of inquiry, which critically reviews various research paradigms. Two research courses are required.

One course each in the principalship and superintendency is offered. Certification is met by taking the five core courses in addition to the course in the principalship or superintendency (which are not required for the doctorate). Student reaction has been positive; a common remark is, ‘“The program got me thinking about what I was doing at my school in educational rather than mechanistic planning terms.”

Our program is a marked contrast to the curriculum in administration advocated by the commission. Theirs was created by Ellwood P. Cubberley, Franklin Bobbitt, and George D. Strayer over six decades ago, when scientific management and its theorist, Frederick Taylor, were kings, and E. L. Thorndike was the Isaac Newton who could speak seriously of the “laws” of learning. Professors of educational administration who still take the Cubberley tradition seriously are his blind heirs. That 85 percent of them do so, according to a survey by Indiana University, ensures that yet another generation of principals and superintendents will have been taught that there is educational light beneath the murky waters of budgets, bonds, and buses.

Raymond E. Callahan called the education of administrators an American tragedy. ‘“The whole development,” he said, “produced men who did not understand education or scholarship. Thus they [approached] education in a mechanical, organizational way . . . . They saw schools not as centers for learning but as enterprises . . . . " Cubberley and the early leaders in administration “rushed into the vacuum that existed and built an empire of professional courses on a foundation of sand.” Two generations of administrators have been trained in this tradition. Management served no larger end than itself. Efficiency was extolled. School law and finance replaced philosophy and history, learning, and children. This was the foundation and this was the sand. The commission’s report reiterates the essence of Cubberley’s curriculum. This is an American tragedy.

A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 1987 edition of Education Week