School & District Management Opinion

Ready Remedies for the School Leadership ‘Crisis’

By W. Norton Grubb & Lynda Tredway — January 19, 2010 7 min read
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California’s brewing “crisis” in school leadership has recently gained the attention of the press, with a detailed report appearing in this publication two months ago. (“Crisis in School Leadership Seen Brewing in California,” Nov. 4, 2009.) Presumably, the situation offers a warning to other states. But while observers are right to point to the basic economic and fiscal problems underlying shortages of high-quality principals, there are exemplary approaches to principal preparation—in California and elsewhere—that preclude the need for privately funded programs, such as New Leaders for New Schools, with high and unsustainable price tags. And despite the budgetary issues, there are concrete steps that universities, school districts, and states can take to improve school leaders.

We offer as one example our program’s approach. The work of the Principal Leadership Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, now in its 10th year, rests on several core beliefs. These may provide a useful outline for others attempting to launch or revamp efforts in school leadership development.

First, principals should be instructional leaders, capable of working with teachers to improve learning outcomes. We select strong teachers for the program based on teaching videos, since weak teachers cannot be models of instruction. We prepare them to use classroom observations as ways of identifying strong practices as well as diagnosing instructional problems, and then addressing them by improving from within through professional development.

Second, innovative programs need to prepare leaders for urban schools, since that is where the need is greatest. Graduates must be adept at addressing the special challenges of class, race, ethnicity, and language background, all concentrated in urban schools. To face these issues squarely, future leaders must understand their own identities in a multiracial, multiethnic society, and be able to facilitate conversations about race and class that advocate for racial minority children. Our aspiring principals learn how to lead what Glenn Singleton calls “courageous conversations” about these sensitive issues and how to create schools supportive of students of color and recent immigrants.

Some combination of higher salaries and redesigned jobs—having dual principals, for example, or expanded leadership teams—is needed to correct the shortage of candidates, especially in urban districts.

Third, leadership preparation programs should consistently integrate research and practice. Our curriculum is integrated, rather than segmented into traditional courses. Problem-based learning and co-teaching are fundamental to our approach, as ways of modeling distributed leadership. For example, an integrated course of school supervision and professional development builds on learning from the previous session, and is then revisited in the following semester as candidates review the legal issues of evaluating teachers. We employ practice-based assessments that mirror the work of a beginning leader throughout the program: curriculum and equity audits, classroom observations, and videotaping.

As another example, the program’s course on budgeting is always co-taught by a chief financial officer or a successful local principal. It focuses not on the nuts and bolts of budget numbers, but on the difficult relationships among money, effective resources, and outcomes. In addition, our “leadership action research project,” analogous to teacher “action research,” requires students to define a problem in their own schools, collaborate with teachers to create a response, and implement the solution. This process also engages them in evaluating research about alternative reforms. In these ways, we combine the lessons of research with the complexities of practice.

Over the first eight cohorts, 98 percent of our students have remained in education, the vast majority in urban schools. The retention rate for graduates who go into leadership positions requiring the administrative credential is 95 percent. We are now wrestling with the wickedly difficult problem of how to evaluate principals over time, something that no one has yet resolved, though some early efforts are encouraging.

Fourth, programs must expand outward, creating new ways to support both novice and veteran leaders. With the enormous responsibilities placed on principals, even a jampacked 14-month program such as ours cannot provide all the competencies and perspectives that they need. Continuing support for continuous learning will be necessary.

A central component of our effort in this area is a three-year induction program for leaders beginning in their first years of service, when they most need advice and support. They continue meeting with coaches and learn with their peers in monthly seminars through the Leadership Support Program, which uses analytic storytelling as a particularly powerful way of wrestling with issues of practice, such as the multiple and conflicting roles leaders play, the imponderables of decisionmaking, and the intense emotions stirred up in schools.

If such induction programs for principals were more common, new leaders would be better prepared, and turnover would be lower.

Another outreach program, the Leadership Studio, supports district leaders, offering retreats to examine policies. The Studio is currently tackling the thorny issue of leadership performance evaluations. These are usually based on the perceptions of teachers, parents, and supervisors, but such methods are insufficient if we are to understand the actions required to transform urban schools.

In tandem with stronger performance assessments, districts also could take a developmental approach to leadership. Ideally, they would foster leadership from the earliest glimmers of teacher interest through district-led training and induction, while the schools in which new leaders were placed would provide a trajectory of increasing responsibility and competence. We are now also working on support for veteran principals, and are using leadership experiences to craft professional development.

Carefully designed, university-based programs, working closely with surrounding school districts, can do much to improve the quality of leadership. But they can’t do everything. Some conditions undermining the supply of principals are beyond their control. The salary differentials between experienced teachers and principals are smallest in urban districts, for example, and don’t generally compensate for the increased hours and more-intense responsibilities. Some combination of higher salaries and redesigned jobs—having dual principals, for example, or expanded leadership teams—is needed to correct the shortage of candidates, especially in urban districts.

Another obstacle is that universities have been steadily increasing tuition—the University of California’s has doubled over the past decade, and will increase by another 32 percent starting this spring. Higher costs discourage new applicants, especially the teachers of color so badly needed in leadership positions. And instead of providing financial support for higher principal salaries, for internships in existing preparation programs, and for induction programs, California and most other states are cutting support for public education because of eroded and volatile tax bases. The financial foundation for strong principal preparation will not be feasible until states revise their tax structures.

States also need to understand that school improvement requires steady rather than intermittent progress. Building the capacities of schools—the instructional abilities of teachers, and the many competencies now required of leaders—is now their most pressing task, to complement the standards and accountability systems adopted over the past decade. But when funding dwindles—as it has in California, and during the current recession, in most other states—a subtle cost is the erosion of capacity, as teachers and leaders with too many responsibilities become exhausted.

So we now face a perfect storm of contrary conditions: teachers too burdened to sustain reform; leaders overwhelmed with increasing responsibilities; inadequate incentives for teachers to assume leadership positions; preparation programs lacking internships because districts can’t afford to release teachers; districts without coherent leadership policies; universities and states that have failed to support leadership-development programs.

Yet we do know how, as a state and a nation, to reverse these conditions. If we are to realize our highest hopes for public schools, we need collectively to restore leadership development as a priority.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as A School Leadership ‘Crisis,’ Despite Remedies


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