Education Opinion

Educational Leadership Faces ‘Silent Crisis’

By B. Dean Bowles — August 02, 1989 6 min read

In a forthcoming report commissioned by Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, a task force on leadership, training, and licensure predicts a “future crisis resulting from a shortage of qualified, licensed school administrators.” The rationale for this forecast, which addresses a nationwide problem, is compelling.

But the impending crisis is silent, because conventional wisdom tells us there are many more school-administrator licenses than there are openings. It is silent because public perception suggests that these jobs are plush--that they automatically attract long lines of qualified applicants. It is silent because state policymakers and local boards of education are generally unaware of the factors generating the crisis.

The Wisconsin report and my own research indicate at least 10 reasons for the silent crisis in educational leadership.

First, the current cohort of school administrators is aging: Disproportionately large numbers will leave the profession in the next five years. Needed improvements in state retirement benefits, including early-retirement provisions, will accelerate this movement.

Second, because of the stability or decline in school enrollments for more than a decade, there have been fewer entry-level openings for younger administrators.

And because proportionately fewer teachers have been hired in that decade, a smaller number in the age cohort can be expected to choose careers in school administration.

Third, decisionmakers are unable or unwilling to tap women and minorities as a reservoir of potential leadership for elementary and secondary schools.

Women presently constitute more than half of those being prepared for school administration. The profile of these women, in comparison with that of their male counterparts, reveals higher academic achievement and test scores; less experience in formal leadership roles; and greater maturity when beginning their preparation programs.

Despite their qualifications and readiness, only a small fraction of superintendents and secondary-school principals are women (fewer than 4 percent in Wisconsin).

The problem is not a lack of available talent, willingness to make financial sacrifices, or career commitment among women. The challenge facing decisionmakers is to increase the practical experience of women and to direct efforts at hiring women as administrators in line positions.

For minorities, the issue is more complex. Insufficient numbers of minority students attend college. Among those who do, only a relatively small percentage enter teaching as a career. This small cadre of minority teachers is the base from which administrators are recruited.

Expanding this base is crucial to resolving the problem. In addition, minority teachers with leadership potential must be attracted to preparation programs with scholarships. Finally, decisionmakers must actively seek and hire minorities as school administrators.

Fourth, several economic factors restrict professional mobility. These include the growing phenomenon of the two-income family, lack of portability of retirement benefits among states, and cost of housing, particularly in moves from low- to high-price markets, or to areas offering little opportunity to resell or to preserve financial equity in a home.

Fifth, job security, especially in entry-level positions, has assumed more importance as school administration has become increasingly politicized, litigious, and stressful.

Excellent teachers with leadership potential frequently seek some form of job security--for example, multi-year contracts, rollover provisions, statutory tenure, or dismissal for"cause” provisions--before opting for a career shift to administration. But all too frequently, such anchors are not available for administrators.

Sixth, administrators’ salaries--again, particularly for entry-level positions--are often inadequate when compared to those of teachers, especially in light of the increased responsibility, expanded daily time commitment, length of contract year, and lack of job security.

Data from Wisconsin show that the difference in daily compensation between the salary of an elementary-school principal and what that principal would earn as a teacher with the same qualifications and experience is only $10 per day.

Seventh, while preparation programs in the universities report increased enrollments, these data may for several reasons be misleading:

Enrollment increases can be attributed almost entirely to the matriculation of women. But women are only infrequently being hired as administrators, particularly as superintendents and secondary-school principals.

The increases are also partly due to the number of teachers who are seeking degrees for employment outside of elementary and secondary education.

Enrollment also rises as teachers and current administrators seek multiple administrative licenses to become more marketable and mobile.

Eighth, few universities have developed recruitment and selection strategies for enrollment in these programs.

The majority of entering students are self-selected, without adequate regard on the part of the universities for the quality of their teaching experience, demonstrated leadership, human-relations and communications skills, and academic ability. The result is that institutional resources are not used efficiently, and the quality of the programs is compromised. And as a more serious consequence, far too many unqualified candidates are licensed, thereby artificially inflating the number of available, “qualified” administrators.

Ninth, preparation programs with high standards will attract increasing numbers of teachers with leadership potential into school administration. Conversely, low-quality programs are unattractive to qualified applicants.

Characteristics of high-caliber programs include the following:

Substantial institutional support for the preparation of school administrators;

Commitment to a full-time, resident faculty;

Effective links with the practice of administration through appropriate use of adjunct faculty and professional advisory committees;

A well-designed curriculum, with an appropriate balance among knowledge acquisition, skill development, and application;

Instructional strategies that utilize experiential and collaborative learning;

Use of assessment centers for diagnostics and program planning;

Effective use of field experiences and internships; and,

An induction program with mentoring and university support services for administrators in their first years on the job.

Unfortunately, Gresham’s Law is at work here: The existence of poor programs tends to inhibit the development of good programs. More difficult to explain is the tolerance by the states, the universities, and the profession of continued support for low-quality programs.

Tenth, state and local commitments to mid-career education and training for administrators are woefully inadequate to prepare them for changing responsibilities and to retain many of the best and brightest.

While most successful blue-chip corporations and the armed forces have a well-designed, high-quality system of education and training at appropriate points in a manager’s or officer’s career, few states and school districts offer programs answering the needs of their current administrative cadre.

If its causes are not addressed, the silent crisis of educational leadership may have a resounding impact on the quality of American schooling.