Education Letter to the Editor

Principals Learning

June 14, 2005 4 min read
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To the Editor:

A recent Commentary by Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly (“Learning to Lead? In Preparing Principals, Content Matters,” Commentary May 18, 2005.) previewed a “study” in which the authors reveal the results of their examination of course syllabuses and general texts from 31 different higher education preparatory programs. They did not examine all syllabuses for all courses, but only those for the “core courses,” which were not identified. In the essay, they express shock at finding “scant” attention paid to topics that they have identified as critical in their view of the needs of contemporary public school leadership.

They indicate, for example, after examining the content covered during 2,424 course weeks, that just “4.5 percent included instruction on managing school improvement using data, technology, or empirical research” and less than “1 percent addressed parental or school board relations.” They were critical that few of the course weeks dealt with teacher dismissal. Since there is no list of the “core courses,” it is impossible to know which courses they examined. Teacher dismissal may be taught in personnel management, administrative problems, or even school law. Which courses did their study use? One does not know.

The release of this “study” without first submitting it to academic review is a good example of shoddy research being pushed off on the public to serve policy agendas. Mr. Hess’ opposition to contemporary leadership preparation is well known. He has been critical of the standards for the preparation of school leaders endorsed by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education and the professional associations that were produced over an extensive time period. Those lists of skills, knowledge, and dispositions were validated by the Educational Testing Service in a process that included input from hundreds of practicing principals.

But these are not the skills the American Enterprise Institute scholars examined. Where those they concentrated on were derived is not known. Who considered them essential is likewise unknown. What we do know is that the motivation for the study is to show that what is needed is the recruitment of nontraditional candidates who possess skills gained outside of K-12 schooling. This is the AEI’s agenda, and what its analysts have “found” is called the “Pygmalion effect”: The “results” of their so-called research are a portrait of that agenda.

And then there’s the problem of examining course syllabuses themselves. First, there is no standard format for syllabuses. As anyone who has examined many of these can attest, syllabuses range widely in length, depth, and specificity. Their function varies. Some professors like detailed syllabuses, others prefer simple outlines. For example, one syllabus may read simply, “Review of evaluation practices.” Another may identify specific evaluative practices. One would generalize such data cautiously, or perhaps not at all.

How can one actually tell if something has or has not been taught from such information? What we have are varying units of analyses. It might be like comparing family recipes. The length, specificity, and other details may vary enormously from cook to cook and from book to book. Imagine generalizing from disparate recipes to say that of hundreds examined, only 4.5 percent mentioned the precise proportions of salt or pepper to be used. Some simply instructed, “add seasoning,” or “shake well.”

Behind these AEI fellows’ list of needed leadership skills lies their picture of what educational management should be. We can only glimpse it, but it’s pretty much the agenda of tell, test, and terminate. Messrs. Hess and Kelly mention that in their review of courses, they found that the work or writing of only nine of the 50 most influential living management thinkers recommended by management professions was studied. This list is never presented. We wonder how many of these business-oriented theorists know anything about teaching, learning, curriculum, instructional diagnosis of children with learning difficulties, or the educational missions of schools.

It’s hard to take this new “research” seriously.

Fenwick W. English

R. Wendell Eaves Distinguished Professor of

Educational Leadership

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, N.C.

To the Editor:

It was very interesting to read the anecdote on New York City principals with which Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly began their recent Commentary.

Given the fact that New York City’s principals are micromanaged by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s appointed instructional superintendents, it is hardly likely that they would be getting the wrong message. In fact, under the extraordinary scrutiny of an instructional superintendent, who has only 10 schools to manage, principals get the message very clearly. Simple infractions of Mr. Klein’s perceived rules of management result in punitive measures against principals.

Obviously, his management appointees are not getting the same message Mr. Klein claims he sends to principals. The latter are managing instruction in exactly the way that their instructional superintendents demand.

What is clear is that Mr. Klein himself exercises poor leadership, and does not hold his management appointees accountable for following through in a manner consistent with his wishes.

After all, good leadership requires consistent and clear communication, which are apparently not in Chancellor Klein’s bag of tricks.

Jill S. Levy


Council of School Supervisors and Administrators

Brooklyn, N.Y.


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