Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Building a Knowledge Base for Educational Leadership

By Richard F. Elmore — January 29, 2008 6 min read

Something important is clearly afoot in the training of educational leaders. For more than a decade, academics and policymakers have been at work developing and implementing standards for the preparation of education leaders through the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, under the aegis of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Now, these standards have worked their way into the certification systems in most states.

At least a quarter of the states, moreover, have introduced some form of alternative certification for school leaders, permitting routes into leadership roles outside the traditional structures. At the same time, large urban districts, notably Boston, Chicago, and New York City, have initiated their own administrator-preparation programs—either by themselves or in collaboration with third-party providers. Within the past few years, national organizations, based on innovative models of practice and preparation like the Broad Residency in Urban Education and Superintendents Academy programs and New Leaders for New Schools, have moved from start-up ventures to established alternative providers of leadership talent.

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And this is not all. The Wallace Foundation has put its considerable resources, financial and institutional, behind a broad-scale effort to improve the capacity of state and local education leaders, working through national academic institutions and state and local education agencies. Representatives of mainstream professional organizations, too, have begun to put their imprimatur on significant reform proposals for systems to prepare educational leaders. Clearly, a window of opportunity has opened around reforms in the preparation of educational leaders.

Whether these many initiatives will actually change the practice of educational leaders on a large scale remains uncertain. In the education sector, the general rule is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Despite all the action around reform of leadership preparation, the vast majority of people who are certified as educational leaders still come from largely part-time, cash-for-credit certification programs in small institutions, operating under traditional state-certification requirements, without significant research capacity, and staffed heavily by part-time faculty members.

And despite the existence of the ISLLC standards, empirical evidence on the state of curriculum and teaching in leadership-preparation programs paints a picture of relatively low-level content that is disconnected from mainstream research and practice in public and private organizations outside the education sector. The existence of alternative programs and providers has not broken the traditional cartel of higher education institutions, state departments of education, and local districts that has controlled leadership preparation for a century or more. In fact, it may actually be contributing to the persistence of the existing cartel, by drawing the most intellectually active and entrepreneurial talent away from the institutions that prepare the largest number of practitioners.

The challenge to those who are interested in reforming leadership practice in the education sector is how to make the content and pedagogy of leadership-preparation programs match the aspirations of reformers, and how to make powerful new ideas about the practice of leadership in the sector accessible to a broader audience of individuals and institutions than the current collection of innovative, but marginal, providers.

Two features of the current wave of innovative programs are particularly encouraging. The first is that their content is distinctively different from that of traditional models. They tend to focus much more on the direct influence of educational leaders on instructional practice in classrooms and schools, and on grounding the management of the organization on the development of strong practice in teaching and learning, rather than on the traditional categories that have defined educational administration curricula.

What’s happening in these leadership programs is exactly what should be happening in the whole of education.

The second encouraging feature is that innovators are trying hard to make their pedagogy match their theories of good practice. The new programs tend to focus more on the development and use of cases and applications to practice in teaching, and on guided practice in the field-based learning. Because alternative providers have fewer institutional constraints than traditional providers do, they tend to make the structure and practice of their programs look more like the actual work they are trying to promote.

So what’s happening in these leadership programs is exactly what should be happening in the whole of education, which is that ideas and practices from outside the sector are being adapted to the preparation of new practitioners, and the preparation of new practitioners is being recentered on the core concerns of teaching and learning.

There is at least one trend in the present situation, however, that is not encouraging. Knowledge about what to teach and how to teach it has become essentially a proprietary good in these innovative programs. That is, innovators have become very protective of their distinctive curricula and pedagogical methods because they view themselves, in some way, as being in competition with each other and with the established preparation programs. This instinct is understandable, since it makes sense to be protective of one’s intellectual assets in the early stages of development, both because the ideas and practices are in formative stages and because consistency and quality control in content and delivery are major determinants of how successful the alternative programs will be.

Eventually, however, the influence of these alternative programs on the broader practices of the sector will be determined not by how protective their originators are of their proprietary knowledge, but by how accessible their ideas and practices are to a broader audience of academics and practitioners.

The field of leadership preparation will change when the knowledge of practice becomes public.

Practices change at scale when knowledge becomes a public good. With this principle in mind, the Public Education Leadership Project—a joint venture of Harvard University’s graduate schools of education and business administration—has chosen to publish a collection of curriculum materials and case studies from work done over the past five years or so in search of a new approach to the education and training of educational leaders. Developed in collaboration with a number of large school systems around the country as part of an executive program for senior educational leaders, the materials represent our best attempt to capture both the conceptual and practical problems facing leaders in the sector. We view these materials as a work in progress that we will develop in greater depth over time.

We have begun to use them in our own courses and to share them with our colleagues in other academic institutions and alternative-preparation programs, including in the Wallace-funded leadership-development initiative for state and local education leaders, ExEl. These materials are intended to communicate, to both traditional and alternative programs, what the problems of leadership practice look like in real education systems, and how we might use our knowledge of improvement in complex systems to address these problems in productive ways. We also have prepared, through our publisher, Harvard Education Press, a teaching guide to address questions of learning and pedagogy for faculty members and practitioners interested in using the materials for courses and for professional development.

We would like these materials to become part of the public dialogue. We would like to open a conversation with our colleagues about the knowledge base for the field, pedagogy in the preparation of practitioners, and the relationship between research and practice.

The field of leadership preparation will change when the knowledge of practice becomes public.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Building a Knowledge Base For Educational Leadership

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