Education Opinion

Strengthen, Don’t Diffuse, School Leadership

By Scott D. Thomson — May 28, 1986 10 min read

One of the more interesting issues in education today concerns leadership at the school site. Can a principal do the job, given the growing expectations? Can he shape the climate, motivate the students, lead the faculty, improve the curriculum, evaluate staff performance, manage the budget, control the logistics, and advise parents and board members? In short, can a principal be educational leader as well as school manager, given the strong academic demands and inscrutable social conditions of 1986 and beyond?

Various suggestions are being offered to resolve the dilemma of school leadership. While these proposals include such notions as a dual principalship--one person for educational programs and a second for school operations--the conversation tends to focus on establishing a collective role for faculty members to provide educational leadership for the school. The hospital analogy is often invoked. Advocates point out that hospital administrators don’t tell surgeons where to cut.

Some members of New York’s foundation fraternity are proposing that school faculties be organized similarly to law firms, with the “partners” determining professional policy. While the idea is intriguing, it looks substantially different on the ground at school than in the lofty conversation of a 40th-floor Manhattan office.

A major flaw in the school faculty/law partner analogy is the plain fact of ownership. The public, through its board of education, “owns” the schools. Unlike law partners or medical practitioners, all public educators from the superintendent to the custodian are salaried employees of public corporations governed by elected officials. Decisions by school professionals, therefore, are always shaped by state and local policy and regulations.

Beyond this constraint, the wisdom of applying collective leadership to institutions must be questioned. Perhaps John F. Kennedy said it best. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev proposed in 1962 a “troika” leadership for the United Nations, President Kennedy countered, “Remember, Mr. Khrushchev, that the three horses of your sleigh are guided by one driver.”

The profession of education has considerable experience with divided leadership and with separate spheres of authority and responsibility in a single unit. At one time, school superintendents and business managers, with separate but equal authority, were responsible to boards of education. Also attempted a generation ago was a divided principalship with one administrator responsible for school management, one for instruction, and one for pupil personnel and guidance services. In each of the two models, a lack of unified direction resulted in a loss of coordination, conflicting authority, and an inability to fix responsibility, which led to confusion and inefficiency.

Likewise, we have experience with the use of able teachers serving in rotation as the administrator of a school in consort with an advisory committee of teachers. Here the lack of continuity, a propensity to develop conflicting coalitions within a faculty, and an inability to resolve persistent problems led to failure.

Common sense, as well as management theory, argues against diffusing bottom-line responsibility for leadership in organizations. And the bottom line in the school business is teaching and learning, not recording student absences, purchasing pencils, or operating a gourmet cafeteria.

Myths prevail about autocratic schools. Horseback leadership never was effective in schools except under emergency conditions. Most principals have long been committed to “democratic leadership,” since that model was taught in graduate schools of education from the early 1960’s.

A collaborative, decentralized approach to management as practiced by some American and Japanese firms requires enlightened leadership. Certain responsibilities for the leader, however, may actually increase in a collaborative organization. For example, the president of Toyota is centrally responsible for quality control. This function is no longer delegated to a staff officer. The president’s accountability for the quality of automobiles is increased, and he only succeeds in this venture with the advice and cooperation of the workforce. The implications are clear for improving the quality of schooling along these lines. The possibilities for improving school leadership are also obvious.

Anyone proposing a collective-leadership model to the faculty at graduate schools of management or to persons knowledgeable about leadership would receive scant attention. Modern management theory offers several tested approaches to the problems associated with the use of diverse, highly skilled specialists who must be welded into an efficient, cohesive unit to perform complex, interrelated tasks. Among these are “quality circles” and “integrated teams.”

The dominant underlying theory behind such organizing structures is referred to as matrix management. Here line authority, expert authority, and staff authority are clearly delineated. Line authority is responsible for purpose and task specification, resource allocation, quality control, and work performance. Expert authority is responsible for the specification of procedures, standards of quality, resolution of technical problems, and performance of tasks. Staff authority is responsible for schedule preparation, materials acquisition and distribution, maintenance and support for managers and specialists, and monitoring of task accomplishment. A suitable mix of line managers, specialists, and support staff carry out planning, problem-solving, and other functions associated with the organization’s goals.

The basic problem addressed by matrix management is to focus the three types of expertise within the organization in the most appropriate ways to achieve optimum performance. Each type of expertise has been found to be essential to quality, to long-term organizational vitality, and, above all, to flexible, timely adaptability to new conditions.

In schools, new initiatives are required to move traditional democratic leadership to a more effective stance. Collaborative arrangements must be developed at the school site so that the proper talent is fully applied to improving school effectiveness. Mutual respect and commitment to student achievement need to replace old adversarial postures. What are the prospects for improvement, however, if teachers are placed in charge of instruction under adversarial conditions with administrators and school boards? Surely that will dilute the focus. We should remember that the current distance between administrators and teachers was caused by collective bargaining, not by principals.

The dilemma, then, is determining ways to cut some awkward baggage from the past without compromising the present or penalizing the future for teachers and principals at the school site. One promising initiative, currently under way in a joint effort by the National Education Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, is designing the framework for a collaborative school that will institutionalize teacher advice in the workplace without compromising the authority of the principal to make decisions according to board policy or professional priority. Titled “Ventures in Good Schooling,” the project focuses on the mutual responsibilities of teachers and principals for a vigorous and effective educational program. ''Ventures’’ recognizes the professional insight of teachers and their unique contributions to establishing and maintaining an effective learning environment. It also recognizes the responsibility of principals to seek advice from teachers on factors affecting teaching and learning and the general conditions of the workplace.

Many principals already ask department chairs to assist with the evaluation of teachers. While principals can, and should, know effective pedagogy, they cannot be experts in 12 or 13 content areas. A principal/department chair combination makes a strong supervisory team. In working with such teams for 10 years, I as an administrator never once experienced any significant difference with a department chair over the rating of a tenured or nontenured teacher. Teachers who understand effective instruction also tend to know their subject fields.

Modern management practice and contemporary wisdom require that teachers be accorded professional status when they make professional performance a priority. If other priorities prevail, then board policy will ensure that high fences remain around the principal’s prerogatives. Ultimately, the school can never meet its potential for students unless teachers offer cooperation, are provided opportunities to have an impact on school decisions, and take pride in their work. Effective institutions in other sectors possess these attributes. No school should be without them. No student should be offered less.

Professional teachers, with broad opportunities to influence the quality of the workplace, still need effective school-site leadership. The demands on this leadership continue to increase, and many principals feel overwhelmed. They also feel guilty that certain dimensions of their job get shortchanged in the rush of daily work.

The solution to this dilemma is to modernize preparation programs for principals and to expect principals to concentrate on the educational program as the central mission of the school, not to dilute leadership and its responsibilities. School leadership requires strong performance, not fragmented accountability.

Most preparation programs for principals are obsolescent, stuck in a 1960’s time warp. The focus now, as then, is on ordinary vanilla subjects such as school law, school finance, supervision of teaching, and school management. These are “content” courses, modified only as case law develops or new supervisory techniques are developed.

With 30 percent of all principals scheduled to retire by 1991, strengthening preparation for the principalship becomes critical. The opportunity is now.

Missing from preparation programs for principals are the organizational-development and human-interaction skills emphasized in modern management. These generic leadership skills, essential to engaging staff support and to accomplishing the mission, include problem analysis, planning, organization, problem-solving, written and oral communication, and decisionmaking. To this essential professional knowledge must be added a solid grounding in the cognitive sciences, effective instruction, and the evaluation of instructional outcomes.

While most principals are knowledgeable in these critical areas, the knowledge of some has become dated. Those lacking sophistication in such matters will become hard-pressed to provide effective leadership for teachers and students. Their professional capabilities must keep pace with the growing complexities of their role, especially the emphasis on providing effective instruction.

The starting and ending points for schooling will continue to be the educational program for students. Major connections between effective leadership and the quality of schooling have been solidly established by 10 years of research. We can no longer afford to ignore this relationship.

Two roads lead to strengthening this connection: (1) providing for teachers as professionals to contribute to the design of the workplace and to participate in establishing standards of performance, and (2) empowering principals to become more effective leaders by developing their generic leadership skills, by strengthening their . professional competency to plan and evaluate the instructional program, and by initiating collaborative arrangements with teachers for improving teaching and learning at the school site.

Management theory and experience provide the means to make substantial gains in educational quality. Simplistic solutions have an immediate appeal, but rarely serve to resolve central problems. The management and leadership of schools is a basic concern whose problems deserve better than superficially contrived solutions.