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Preparing School Leaders—Shared Responsibilites

By Ted Sanders — April 05, 2005 8 min read
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Several parties contribute to the problem of ill-prepared school leaders, and all of them must play a role in fixing it.

In the landmark 1987 report “Leaders for America’s Schools,” the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration—a blue-ribbon panel composed of elected officials, state school officers, and academics—made headlines with a scathing indictment of the university-based programs that prepare the vast majority of the country’s quarter-million principals, superintendents, and other school administrators.

Everywhere they looked, commission members found evidence that this once-proud discipline had fallen into disrepair. Hundreds of universities were teaching substandard courses to virtually anybody willing to pay tuition. Things were so bad, argued the commission, that out of 500 or so graduate programs across the country, roughly 300 should be shut down altogether, as they lacked even the capacity to improve. The rest would need to be overhauled.

Nearly two decades later, where do we stand? Instead of 500 leadership programs, we now have more than 600. Substandard courses continue to flourish, mediocre faculties abound, standards remain negligible, and many education schools are willing to accept anybody with a valid credit card.

The only real difference between then and now is that the critics have become a lot less patient. The current trend—exemplified by the 2003 manifesto“Better Leaders for America’s Schools,” published jointly by the Broad and Thomas B. Fordham Foundations—is to give up on education school programs entirely. A number of states, frustrated by the lack of improvement, have thrown open the doors to alternative certification, allowing for-profit institutions, nonprofits, university business schools, and just about anybody else to try their hand at preparing administrators. And many districts have abandoned certification altogether, in the hope that a retired admiral, basketball coach, or corporate CEO will offer the kind of effective leadership that traditional candidates have been largely unable to provide.

But the fact remains that university-based training for school leaders continues to be the norm, and it isn’t likely to go away any time soon. For most of the nation’s aspiring principals and superintendents, the surest and most convenient route to career advancement still goes through the nearest school of education. If administrative candidates are ever to receive the kinds of instruction, supervision, and support they need to be effective leaders, reformers will have to persist in trying to fix the system we have, rather than throwing up their hands and walking away from it.

That’s why a new report by Arthur E. Levine—simply titled “Educating School Leaders”—is so timely. Today, what’s needed is not another diatribe against university-based leadership preparation, nor another exhortation to let a thousand alternative programs bloom. What’s needed, and what Levine offers, is a clearer explanation of how leadership programs came to be so awful in the first place, along with a sensible strategy for helping them improve. (“Study Blasts Leadership Preparation,” March 16, 2005)

Among political pundits, it’s often said that only Nixon could go to China. Likewise, one might argue that only an education school insider like Art Levine—the president of Teachers College, Columbia University—could initiate a constructive dialogue between education schools and their most vociferous critics. That was the idea, anyway, that motivated Levine and a journalist colleague to conduct an exhaustive, four-year study of the nation’s schools of education, combining survey research and interviews of deans, faculty members, students, and program alumni with extensive site visits to a wide range of campuses. The report on leadership programs is the first of four to be drawn from that research.

Many of Levine’s findings confirm what critics have suspected about administrator-preparation programs for years. For instance:

Very few graduate schools provide a specialized course of study for aspiring principals and superintendents. Rather, the typical curriculum consists of little more than a hodgepodge of the generic survey classes offered by other parts of the school of education. Thus, reports Levine, 80 percent to 90 percent of students take Educational Psychology, Research Methods, and a handful of other standard-issue courses that have no particular relevance to the work of administrators.

When surveyed, school principals were very critical of their own graduate training and of education school programs in general.

When surveyed, school principals were very critical of their own graduate training and of education school programs in general. Almost 90 percent of respondents said that schools of education fail to adequately prepare their graduates to cope with classroom realities. Moreover, faculty members tend to be particularly out of touch with the realities of educational leadership: Just 6 percent of full-time education faculty members have ever worked as school principals, and only 2 percent have been superintendents.

The vast majority of educational leadership programs—including many housed at prestigious research universities—lack meaningful admissions standards. Indeed, they have the lowest admissions standards of any graduate programs in education and, thus, one of the highest acceptance rates in all of academe. Applicants for teaching degrees—hardly the most competitive application pool in higher education—handily outscore them on all three sections of the Graduate Record Examination. On the verbal portion of the exam, administrative candidates score 46 points below the national average, and on the quantitative section, they lag behind by 81 points.

Perhaps most shocking, while Levine and his associates scoured the country looking for rigorous, high-quality graduate programs in school leadership, they were unable to locate even a single exemplar. They had to travel to England to find a program worth emulating.

As Levine documents, the vast majority of school leadership programs have made an implicit bargain with their students, whereby they accept tuition dollars in return for providing fast, easy, and convenient ways for teachers and junior-level administrators to accumulate the credit hours and certificates they need to increase their salaries and advance their careers.

No doubt, many faculty and alumni will protest this description, arguing that high standards are in place in their own programs. However, when one surveys the entire field, Levine reports, one can’t help but reiterate the conclusions reached by the National Commission on Educational Leadership in 1987: Too many leadership programs have become little more than diploma mills. By and large, students describe the coursework as lightweight; alumni complain that their programs failed to prepare them to handle their new roles as principals and superintendents; faculty members describe their students as the weakest and least motivated on campus; and even education school deans, when pushed, tend to admit that they view their own program as a disgrace.

The question is, where do we go from here? When it comes to the preparation of school leaders, how do we make sure that 20 years hence we do not experience what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again”?

The most useful thing about Levine’s report is not merely that it offers a detailed, insider’s account of what’s wrong with education school programs. Rather, its real value has to do with the effort to reframe what has long been a dysfunctional policy debate whereby critics hurl blame at leadership programs and exhort them to change, without ever admitting that those programs are just the most visible part of a larger dynamic. The fact is that education schools have not been alone in creating our terribly ineffective approach to preparing school administrators. Several parties contribute to the problem, and all of them must play a role in fixing it.

If we are truly intent on providing our schools with the leaders they need, we will have to learn to share not only the blame for the system we have, but also the responsibility for fixing it.

For instance, as Levine points out, the single most dramatic improvement we could make would be to stop rewarding teachers for piling up advanced credits and degrees. Every state and 96 percent of the nation’s school districts currently do so. While universities can be faulted for taking advantage of credential-hungry teachers and administrators, they are not to blame for whetting that appetite in the first place.

So long as pay raises and career advancement depend upon the mere accumulation of credits—regardless of course quality or student outcomes—then educators will have an enormous incentive to seek out the easiest, cheapest, and most convenient degree programs, whether or not they actually wish to become administrators. Take away this incentive, and university enrollments will shrink dramatically and for the better, as only truly motivated students will have reason to attend. Leave this incentive in place, and program quality will continue to suffer, whether the programs are run by universities or alternative providers.

Likewise, the universities themselves are not to blame for a licensure system that allows just about anybody to be certified an administrator without having to demonstrate particular skills or knowledge. The universities may be all too happy to furnish the necessary certificates, but it is up to the states to provide strong oversight and quality control in the licensure of principals and superintendents. Historically, they have abdicated that role, choosing not to do the hard work necessary to ensure the integrity of university degrees. But if those degrees are ever to stand for anything more than an accumulation of credit hours, states will in fact have to play a more aggressive role in defining and regulating program quality.

Levine’s report includes a number of other provocative recommendations—calling for the abandonment of the Ed.D. degree and the possible creation of state leadership academies, for example—but the core point is this: Education schools must be willing to admit their shortcomings and to put their own house in order, but their critics must be equally willing to admit that education schools were not alone in creating the mess.

Having enumerated the many things that are wrong with university-based educational leadership programs, it may be tempting to blame them, berate them, and move on in search of alternatives. But if we are truly intent on providing our schools with the leaders they need, we will have to learn to share not only the blame for the system we have, but also the responsibility for fixing it.

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