Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Learning to Lead?

By Rick Hess — May 17, 2005 7 min read

This February it was reported that a number of New York City public school teachers had been written up by their principals for violating the district’s “workshop model” of instruction, which stipulates precise time limits on teacher lectures and requires group work in each class. As a result, some teachers apparently have taken to “sneak-in teaching” when their principals aren’t looking. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein made clear that the principals’ heavy-handed execution wasn’t consistent with his wishes, and that the “workshop model” should be a guide rather than a rigid mandate.

Perhaps the principals in question didn’t get Klein’s memo. Perhaps they thought he wanted them to micromanage, rather than use sensible discretion. Or maybe the principals simply don’t know how to manage differently. After all, as Public Agenda reported in 2003, just one in 10 superintendents in its survey deemed his or her principals excellent at “holding teachers accountable for instruction and student achievement.” In states like Virginia and Texas, we have witnessed a number of cases where principals confront accountability not by focusing on outcomes and employing data but by demanding more paperwork and lock-step instruction.

In an era of results-driven school reform, in which principals are asked to take responsibility for student achievement and use data to drive decisions, their skill and knowledge matter more than ever.

In an era of results-driven school reform, in which principals are asked to take responsibility for student achievement and use data to drive decisions, their skill and knowledge matter more than ever. In a world of charter schooling and merit pay, performance standards and entrepreneurial management, school principals are the team leaders who are asked to rise to the challenge and seize new opportunities.

Ominously, the evidence suggests that the revolution in school accountability, organization, and management has so far left the nation’s principals behind. In 2003, Public Agenda reported that today’s superintendents want their principals to display prowess in everything from accountability to instructional leadership and teacher quality, but principals themselves say they are not equipped for these duties. Just 30 percent of principals report they are factoring student achievement into their teacher evaluations. Why so few? One cause may lie in their graduate training, which 96 percent of principals report was less useful than the advice provided by colleagues in preparing them for the job.

A comprehensive study of educational administration conducted by Arthur E. Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and released in March raised the stakes in this debate with its harsh assessment of the quality of such administration. (“Study Blasts Leadership Preparation,” March 16, 2005.) Based on an extensive set of surveys and case studies, Levine concluded that “the majority of [educational administration] programs range from inadequate to appalling,” and that the typical course of study required of principal-candidates was largely disconnected from the realities of school management. Levine’s recommendations included creating an education management degree like the M.B.A., eliminating the Ed.D., and stopping the practice of linking salary increments to course credit. Such structural changes are sensible and welcome, but Levine’s study raises the further question of whether we need to devote as much attention to rethinking the content of preparation as to reforming its structure.

Put another way: What skills and knowledge are preparation programs teaching to the leaders of 21st-century schools? Are programs teaching what principals need to know?

While Levine’s study did not delve into these particular questions, last year we examined more than 200 core-course syllabuses from a national cross section of principal-preparation programs. Our sample included elite schools and mainstream ones, large programs and small ones, in roughly equal measure. Altogether, we reviewed syllabuses from 31 different programs, including almost 2,500 total weeks of instruction and more than 1,800 reading assignments.

The bottom line was that scant attention was paid to managing with accountability, using data, or making tough personnel decisions. Crucially, we found that just 2 percent of 2,424 course weeks addressed accountability in the context of school management or school improvement, and just 4.5 percent included instruction on managing school improvement using data, technology, or empirical research. Of 350 course weeks devoted to personnel management, just 11 weeks so much as made mention of teacher dismissal, and just eight touched on teacher compensation. Just 11 percent of course weeks devoted to personnel management—or fewer than 2 percent of all weeks—paid any attention at all to the recruitment, selection, or hiring of new teachers.

What about data-driven management? Just 11 percent of instructional weeks made any reference to statistics, data, or empirical research. While new principals are being asked to operate in a world of public school choice, increased decentralization, and community engagement, just 1 percent of course weeks dealt with school public relations or small-business skills, and fewer than 1 percent addressed parental or school board relations.

In general, traditional management practice or lessons learned in sectors other than schooling attracted little or no attention. Of the 50 living most influential management thinkers, as determined by a 2003 survey of management professionals and scholars, just nine were assigned in the 210 courses. Their works appeared only 29 times out of 1,851 assigned readings.

In a companion study that analyzed the content of 11 of the most commonly assigned principal-preparation texts, we found lots of rhetorical nods to performance and achievement but little attention to providing guidance on topics like using accountability, removing ineffective faculty members, or improving organizational efficiency.

These findings have implications for discussions of principal licensure, traditional principal-preparation programs, and district practices.

The evident lack of attention to issues like accountability, ensuring teacher quality, or using data to make decisions raises important questions about whether licensure really means that graduates are uniquely equipped for 21st-century school leadership.

First, proponents of principal licensure have long argued that training programs teach crucial skills and knowledge without which principals would be ill equipped for the rigors of real-world school management. However, the evident lack of attention to issues like accountability, ensuring teacher quality, or using data to make decisions raises important questions about whether licensure really means that graduates are uniquely equipped for 21st-century school leadership. If graduates are not so equipped, it would suggest the value of considering those alternative approaches to recruiting and training principals that produce principals with critical training and skills. This is the tack that states and districts take in partnering with the New York City-based New Leaders for New Schools.

Second, although traditional principal-preparation programs have demonstrated a willingness in recent years to tinker with program design and internship arrangement, it is not clear that such reforms have entailed a serious rethinking of course content or a meaningful effort to broaden the skills principals are being taught. The Southern Regional Education Board, whose leadership initiative is driving preparation reform in 16 member states, has wryly cautioned, “Redesigning leadership-preparation programs does not mean simply rearranging old courses—as staff at some universities and leadership academies are inclined to do.” Education school programs may have much to learn from those new providers, such as New Leaders for New Schools or the Knowledge Is Power Program’s principal training, which actively cull management ideas and candidates with vital skills from outside K-12 education. At the same time, we should take a hard look at new and nontraditional programs and ensure that their content is equal to the challenge.

Finally, for district leaders, questions of licensure or of redesigning preparation programs do little to help address the pressing challenge: finding talented individuals who are equipped to tackle the challenges of school management. In the here and now, the findings suggest that districts cannot assume new principals will be prepared to leverage accountability, research, or new flexibility regarding spending or staffing. Similarly, they may be ill equipped to seek out new efficiencies or compete for students against charter schools or in a public choice system. Consequently, districts should make every effort to provide access to high-quality professional development that focuses on these critical areas and includes management lessons from outside education. This might require recruiting nontraditional candidates possessed of nontraditional skills, arranging internships and mentoring opportunities outside the world of K-12 schooling, or refocusing professional development on overlooked skills.

Effective school leaders are the key to most of the reform strategies in our schools today. Accountability, charter schooling, small schools, site-based budgeting—all hinge on the ability of school leaders to forge effective schools. Too often, however, today’s preparation programs are not even attempting to teach the skills and knowledge required for 21st-century school leadership. Remedying this gap requires that we attend to the content of preparation as well as its shape.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, and Andrew P. Kelly is an education policy researcher at AEI. They are the co-authors of the new studies “Learning to Lead?” and “Textbook Leadership?,” both of which are available online at www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg.

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