School & District Management

New Thinking on What Makes a Leader

By Lynn Olson — January 19, 2000 13 min read

As policymakers turn their attention to finding effective leaders for the nation’s schools, they face as many questions as answers: What is the nature of leadership? How should principals and superintendents be trained? And are the jobs—as they are now structured—too much for any one person?

“There’s a sort of unarticulated, growing understanding that we’ve conceived the job of school leader wrong for contemporary needs and conditions, and that it needs to be changed,” said Thomas Sobol, an education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a former New York state schools chief.

In recent months, a broad consensus has emerged across education, governmental, and philanthropic groups on an urgent need to address what many see as a scarcity of strong leadership in public education, at both the school and district levels. (“Policy Focus Converges on Leadership,” Jan. 12, 2000.)

A dominant belief in policy circles, driven in large part by the academic-standards movement, is that principals, instead of being building managers, should become leaders of instruction— dynamic, inspirational educators focused almost exclusively on raising student achievement.

The changes over the past decade in what’s expected of principals have been dramatic, said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “It’s gone from a position that was largely managing a student program, managing teachers, and managing the facility to one where the chief responsibility now is instructional leadership.” Yet there is widespread agreement that many principals lack both the time and the training to fill that role.

“They aren’t evaluated on that, they aren’t expected to do it, they aren’t trained to do it in education programs,” said Joseph Murphy, a professor of educational leadership and organization at Vanderbilt University. “It’s not the principal’s fault. The problem is, one day you wake up, and the rules of the game have changed.”

Instructional Leaders?

Similar conflicts have roiled the world of district superintendents, who often must divide their time between issues of curriculum and instruction and such noneducation matters as labor management, budgeting, and local and state politics.

As a result, observers argue, administrators are ill-equipped for the new environment in which they, along with their students and teachers, are judged according to test scores and performance goals to a greater degree than ever before.

“Some very large proportion of principals aren’t qualified to do the work, even if they had the time to do it,” said Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University.

At the same time, it is by no means clear precisely what is meant by “instructional leadership.”

“What I tell my principals is, I want them spending a minimum of two hours of the school day on supervision, while students are there,” said Charles C. Lyle, the superintendent of the 1,900- student Columbia, Miss., school district.

But Barry W. Furze, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Meade district in Sturgis, S.D., said while principals “certainly have to know something about instruction, in the final analysis, I think it’s partly a matter of motivation, of providing the resources, maybe of finding the people to help if you don’t have the expertise in your school district to deal with a problem.

“It’s being the coordinator of the whole process,” he said, “but with the emphasis more on the instructional aspects, not the managerial aspects.”

John I. Goodlad, a professor of education at the University of Washington, describes the principal as the “chief worrier": someone who can create a culture of teaching and learning and weave together the disparate pieces of the school environment.

“Good leadership is not delegating the principal to be the instructional leader in the sense we were talking about back in the 1980s. That’s sheer nonsense,” Mr. Goodlad said. “First of all, principals aren’t necessarily picked because they were good teachers. Second, if they are being chosen to teach the teachers to teach, we must have pretty lousy teachers. It’s a weak model.”

“I don’t think that principals ought to be ‘super teachers,’ in the sense that they know everything good teachers in all the disciplines know,” agreed Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy. “What the principal really has to understand,’' he added, “is what it takes to improve achievement in the school in the core disciplines.”

Or Business Managers?

At the same time, other forces are pushing principals and district chiefs in almost the opposite direction, with calls for greater management sophistication at the district level and more control in schools of budgeting and staffing decisions.

And superintendents and principals point out that their jobs can still rise and fall on whether they keep the buses running and the lunches delivered on time.

“We need to treat principals as managers and leaders,” argued Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of the International Business Machines Corp., in a speech at last October’s National Education Summit. “If they deliver, they ought to control budgets, personnel decisions, modifications in curriculum, and school schedules.”

Susan Traiman, the director of education initiatives at the Business Roundtable, based in Washington, said corporate leaders, in particular, were anxious to share their knowledge about management and leadership issues with the schools.

But, she observed, “if you look at very successful corporate leaders, there isn’t one leadership model. There isn’t one particular route that CEOs have taken. Some have come up through the company. Others have come from outside, from a completely different industry.”

Educators or Noneducators?

Indeed, one of the biggest debates centers on where the next generation of education leaders should come from.

Many experts—though not all—contend that given the current emphasis on instruction, school principals must be former teachers.

“I think it’s essential for the school principal to have experience as a teacher, to understand the dynamics of the classroom and have experienced that firsthand,” said Mr. Ferrandino of the elementary principals’ association. “I think anyone taking on that role without that kind of experiential background is really apt to make some poor decisions downstream.”

But there is less agreement that superintendents must be drawn from the ranks of educators, particularly for big-city systems where the schools chiefs may manage tens of thousands of employees and annual budgets that rival those of many corporations.

“Look at Chicago and Detroit and San Diego and Seattle and Baltimore,” said C. Kent McGuire, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. Those districts, he noted, “have been more than willing to look outside of education for people to come in and run billion-dollar institutions, and they aren’t under any illusion that someone who has grown up through the schools necessarily has all the experiences or background or preparation to grapple with those kinds of things.”

In recent years, those districts and several other large systems have hired noneducators, including former military officers and business executives, for the top administrative job.

Many policy experts are particularly interested in San Diego, where Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, a Yale- trained lawyer and former federal prosecutor, has teamed up with Anthony J. Alvarado, a highly respected educator with decades of leadership experience in the New York City schools. As San Diego’s chancellor of instruction, Mr. Alvarado calls the educational shots, while Mr. Bersin runs the system.

“I can certainly imagine in places like Chicago and Boston that the model of a CEO who doesn’t come out of education might work,” said Mr. Murphy of Vanderbilt University. “There’s no reason not to experiment—especially if you can get strong academic officers in there.”

Mr. Murphy and others caution, however, that there are dangers in recruiting noneducators. “I don’t think you can lead the Marine Corps one day and become a superintendent the next,” said Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the Urban Superintendents program at Harvard University, which seeks to train leaders for the particular challenges of large districts.

As long as many female and minority educators remain underrepresented in the top jobs, he suggests, there are better places to look for talent.

“I don’t feel the rush to go out and look for nontraditional candidates, because I think women and minorities are nontraditional candidates,” added Mr. Peterkin, a former Milwaukee superintendent. “On the other hand, I don’t think you have to go up the stairs one by one, being a teacher, then an assistant principal, and then a principal. That’s absolutely deadening.”

Rethinking Preparation

Of the nation’s approximately 79,600 principals in 1993-94, for example, only about 10 percent were black, 4 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent Asian-American or American Indian. And more than 65 percent were male, despite an overwhelmingly female teaching force.

Many policy leaders believe that at least some of the causes of the leadership problem stem from the preparation programs that train school administrators.

“We were quite struck by the fact that the field of educational administration was not very well-informed, necessarily, by other fields of practice and other visions of leadership that might be interesting—whether it was management and business, or insights from the military, or other ways of thinking,” said Michael Levine, a senior program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The foundation has awarded several grants recently to promote the study and improvement of school leadership, including one to Education Week.

“Quite frankly, I think we’ve been disappointed with the traditional teacher- and leadership-training programs,” said Mr. Ferrandino of the NAESP. “They have not been able to move from the theoretical to the practical issues that principals face in a manner that’s been, in our minds, as effective as they need to be.”

While he hopes to see significant changes in such programs, which prepare the bulk of school leaders, Mr. Ferrandino added that he believes a pattern of alternative-preparation programs is emerging. His own group is working with the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the American Association of School Administrators on ways to provide courses to administrators through the Internet.

“If university programs don’t dramatically change over the next several years, I think we’re going to look at all types of alternatives to prepare principals,” agreed Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the NASSP. “I think the private sector is going to get very much into the game.”

Others believe school districts should play a more direct role in preparing future leaders. A 1998 survey of 403 districts found that only about one-fourth had a program aimed at recruiting and preparing candidates from among current staff members.

“If you were a smart school district, you wouldn’t just stand back and say, ‘Gee, we need a whole lot of qualified people to do this work,’ and run an ad in the newspaper,” said Mr. Elmore of Harvard.

He cited as an example Community District 2 in New York City, one of the vast system’s smaller subdistricts, which runs a yearlong program for aspiring school leaders in collaboration with Baruch College.

Last September, Teachers College launched a program with nearby Westchester and Putnam counties to recruit and train outstanding teachers to become principals. The curriculum is organized around case studies and includes a lengthy administrative internship.

“I would hope colleges and universities would become very good at training, but they aren’t now,” said Mary Lee Fitzgerald, the education director for the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Funds. “It seems to me the only way you get institutions to change is to challenge them. I think there ought to be alternate vendors so the monopoly isn’t there.”

Sibyll Carnochan, the director of policy and research for the Broad Foundation, said the key issue isn’t where school leaders are trained, but how. New training programs, she said, should blend coursework and on-the-job experience; provide ongoing support for novices; and combine a deep knowledge about instruction with management training. The Los Angeles-based philanthropy recently announced a $100 million initiative to improve leadership, governance, and management in large urban districts.

“My own view is that we should try to play on both sides of the street,” said Mr. McGuire of the Education Department. “On the one hand, we need to get on with this question of reconceiving what these university-based preparation programs would look like. Nor do I think we can afford to wait on these institutions to carry that out.”

Is the Job Doable?

Still others wonder whether any preparation program could prepare people for jobs that have become so overwhelming in their demands.

Most superintendents and principals aren’t paid commensurate with their responsibilities, Mr. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy argued. They’re under intense pressure to produce. Yet they have very little influence over the standards or assessments on which their schools are judged, Mr. Tucker said, and often have even less control over such key issues as personnel and budgeting.

“Who needs that job?” he asked.

Mr. Tucker believes that the principal’s job description is in transition. “What we’re talking about here,” he said, “is not training principals for the job that exists—because I do think it’s an impossible job—but training people who can actually change the job.”

Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership, suggests that schools might need two leaders: “Somebody to handle the external end of it, and somebody to handle the instructional end of it.”

Many school administrators agree. Lynn Babcock, the principal of Grant Elementary School in the Detroit suburb of Livonia, Mich., noted that at her former job at a school in the western part of the state, she was the principal but had a colleague called an instructional leader. “And that was wonderful because then I was able to focus more on the managerial, everyday kinds of things that get in the way of being an instructional leader,” Ms. Babcock said. “And she was able to work with the teachers on just that—on instruction.”

Others have remarked that any school system has multiple leaders, including teacher leaders, union leaders, and school board members, whose roles also must be considered.

“The question is, what are the skills sets that we need, and where do they need to be situated?” said Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Providence-based Annenberg Institute for School Reform. “I think what we’re coming to understand is that we need to build a critical mass of leaders in a community.”

“It isn’t as though the typical high school principal can stop fighting all those fires ... and spend the whole day out in the classroom,” said S. Paul Reville, the executive director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, based in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s going to require new systems, and new approaches, and new organizations, and new ways of distributing the leadership function.”

How policymakers—and the current generation of school leaders—can help bring that change about while keeping standards- based reform on track is one of the most pressing issues in education.

“The success of the entire standards-based agenda depends upon having effective leadership at the school level,” Mr. Tucker said, “and it doesn’t appear to be there.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as New Thinking on What Makes a Leader

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