School & District Management

Experts Debate High School Leadership Needs

By Lynn Olson — October 12, 2004 4 min read
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Improving high schools has proved much tougher than changing elementary schools, but does it require fundamentally different leadership?

That was one of the basic questions pondered at a conference here last week on high school leadership.

“I think part of the problem when we’re dealing with high schools is we think the kids and the issues we’re dealing with are just bigger and more numerous,” said Richard Laine, the director of education programs for the Wallace Foundation.

“Profiles in Leadership: Innovative Approaches to Transforming the American High School,” is available online from the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Speaking at the conference, “Preparing Today’s Leaders for Tomorrow’s High Schools,” Mr. Laine contended that at least some of the issues are also different. The Oct. 3-5 conference was sponsored by the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy, research, and advocacy group whose mission is to ensure every child graduates from high school prepared for a productive future.

During the meeting, the alliance also released a collection of essays on secondary school leadership.

Richard Laine

High schools now are being asked to prepare all young people to succeed in postsecondary education and training when, historically, their task has been to prepare only a select few, participants at the meeting noted. Yet in urban districts, in particular, many students enter 9th grade reading well below grade level.

Closing that gap, said Michele Cahill, a senior counselor to the chancellor of the New York City public schools, “is going to require systems to go way beyond tinkering.”

New York, for example, opened 55 new small high schools this fall as part of the city’s plans to establish a “portfolio” of schools from which students can choose. While there’s more to a good school than just its size, Ms. Cahill said, “I think small is the platform” that will permit the formation of powerful developmental communities for young people.

She argued that large, departmentalized high schools are not conducive to fostering close, caring relationships between students and adults. In her view, they also discourage collective accountability for the development of teenagers. “As a teacher, I don’t even know who else is teaching the students who I am concerned about,” she said.

Student Engagement Vital

But Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University’s school of education, warned that many districts are “moving at the speed of sound to create as many schools as they can … with very little focus at all on quality and very little clarity about what it is we’re trying not to reproduce.”

One of the critical tasks facing high schools, he and others said, is to engage students.

Pedro Noguera

“People pretend that if the adults do everything right, the kids will fall in line, as if kids themselves don’t make choices,” said Mr. Noguera.

His research has found that many teenagers feel deeply alienated from a school environment in which they are not known well or connected to adults who care about them. “Unless we have some way of engaging the youngsters themselves, “Mr. Noguera said, “nothing will work.”

Students also complain that they are bored in classes that rely primarily on lecturing and give them few opportunities to contribute, he said.

Changing that situation requires fundamental changes both in the structure of high schools and in how teaching and learning occur in classrooms. Too many times, Mr. Noguera argued, high school reform efforts focus on everything except instruction.

Yet “instructional leadership,” a popular term in education policy, is much more complicated at the high school level than in elementary schools, participants said.

High school principals have to lead instruction in numerous subjects in which they are not themselves experts, said Sandra J. Stein, the academic dean of the New York City Leadership Academy. In large high schools, they often have to work within a cabinet and department structure that places several layers between them and the teaching and learning inside classrooms.

“If you frame the role of instructional leader, it is a very different project than at the elementary level,” Ms. Stein said. “There are a number of ways in which the conversation you’re structuring is a completely different conversation, and the type of knowledge base you need to have is completely different.”

A major challenge is how to address the literacy needs of students who enter high school reading well below grade level. High school teachers, who view themselves as subject-matter experts, are ill-equipped to address reading, writing, and speaking skills across the curriculum, participants in the conference said.

Managing Change

While highlighting such differences, however, participants also pointed out a number of similarities in the leadership tasks across all levels of K-12 education. Those include setting clear, high expectations for all students; focusing on good instruction, especially in reading and mathematics; identifying and supporting high-caliber teachers; and reaching out to and engaging the community.

Leaders also have to figure out how to manage the change pro cess itself.

“It’s the leading-change aspect that we don’t hear a lot about,” Mr. Laine said.

Particularly given the scope of changes needed in high schools, the experts here said, it will take more than the tenure of one superintendent to bring the transformation to fruition. Yet education has paid little attention to issues of succession and how to maintain improvements during a transitional period.

Those at the conference also cautioned that states and districts need to revise both the systems for identifying and preparing future leaders and the conditions under which leaders work, so that they have a better chance of being effective.

“We ask a lot of our school leaders,” said Mr. Laine, “and then give them almost none of the authority to bring it off.”

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