Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Sleeping With the Enemy

By Lew Smith — May 24, 2005 8 min read

I must confess. I have been sleeping with the enemy. Or to put it more precisely, I am married to the competition. Please allow me to explain. After working for 20 years in public schools, a period that included two tours of duty as a principal, I moved to the world of higher education. I am an associate professor of educational leadership at Fordham University, where I have revamped, directed, and continue to teach in a master’s-degree program preparing teachers to become assistant principals and principals.

It should come as no surprise that I believe university programs can prepare individuals to become successful school leaders. We have proven that at Fordham, where our two-year program’s record of placing tough, savvy urban school leaders is impressive.

My wife, Jann Coles, on the other hand, has been one of the architects of New Leaders for New Schools, an alternative route to leadership preparation. New Leaders is a nonprofit that conducts a one-year “fast track” program for aspiring principals. Jann is involved in training the coaches and mentors who work directly with residents enrolled in the program. Over the five-year life of New Leaders for New Schools, she has played an active role in the rigorous selection of New Leaders fellows in New York; Chicago; Washington; Oakland, Calif.; and Memphis, Tenn.

Should university preparation programs concede the game to the competition?

Jann and I walk different paths to the same destination. We are wedded, both literally and figuratively. We share common beliefs about what a successful school looks like and what kind of leaders we need for those schools. We believe in public schools (all four of our children have graduated from them), and we believe you cannot have exemplary schools without exceptional leaders.

At the moment, whether or not university programs are up to the task of preparing these school leaders is at the center of a controversy. The front page of Education Week’s March 16, 2005, issue carried a story on the debut report of the Education Schools Project, headed by Arthur E. Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University. Focused on administrator-preparation programs, the Levine report blasts schools of education, calling their programs appalling and inadequate. (“Study Blasts Leadership Preparation,” March 16, 2005.)

Specifically, it charges that university programs are characterized by curricular disarray, weak faculty, low admission and graduation standards, an inadequate internship experience, and inappropriate degrees. It says, in effect, that we have the wrong people in irrelevant programs that do not prepare aspiring leaders for the jobs they will assume.

Levine has touched some of the necessary bases, pointing, for example, to the need for a coherent and reality-based curriculum rather than a “grab bag of survey courses.” But he has not hit a home run. In fact, some of my university colleagues across the country have charged him with a number of errors.

A quartet of these critics—Michelle Young, Gary Crow, Terry Orr, and Roger Ogawa, all nationally active in strengthening educational administration programs—has issued a strong rebuttal. They object to the following elements of the Levine report:

  • It ignores the focused efforts under way to improve leadership development.
  • It disregards the newly developed national standards for programs that prepare administrators.
  • It uses data built on surveys about all education programs (teacher preparation, counselor preparation, and leadership preparation) to demonstrate disappointment in leadership preparation.
  • It paints leadership programs with a broad brush, failing to take a careful look at those programs of quality that exist across the country.
  • It discounts the very passionate and active conversation being conducted by organizations such as the University Council for Educational Administration and others.
  • I am encouraged by the debate and discussion. For a long time, I have felt that our leadership-preparation programs could be strengthened. But the task is not as simple as Levine suggests. For example, while a full-time internship experience is ideal, its cost is outrageous. A teacher would need to be hired to replace that full-time intern.

    The Young, Crow, Orr, and Ogawa critique presents some sound recommendations: a clearinghouse for information and ideas, more research that looks at the effectiveness of leadership preparation, increased involvement of practitioners in shaping programs, an emphasis on demonstrated competencies, stronger partnerships connecting universities and school districts, and a redefinition of degree programs.

    Although the Levine report has stirred the pot, it is not the most threatening news for university programs to make the front page of Education Week. Two weeks before news of the Levine report hit the paper, a story appeared praising the work of New Leaders for New Schools, which had just secured a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (“New Leaders Group to Train Principals in Baltimore,” March 2, 2005.)

    My wife’s organization, it seems, is being viewed as an attractive alternative to university preparation programs. New Leaders for New Schools’ strong reputation has even led the state of Maryland to award it certification-granting status.

    Should university preparation programs concede the game to the competition? Let’s look at the lineups. Universities, for the most part, bring to the playing field strong institutional reputations. They are a presence in their communities and usually have fruitful relationships with the local school districts.

    Universities also are committed to generating knowledge through high-quality research, which is frequently tied to school-based concerns. They provide exceptional resources, such as libraries, meeting places, and technology. Most important are their human assets—experts with national reputations in fields such as school finance, school design, and others. Universities also are subject to national accreditation standards and undergo rigorous external reviews.

    Non-university programs such as New Leaders for New Schools are capable of bringing much to the table. Fast Company, a business publication that highlights innovation, creativity, and leadership, has recognized Jonathan Schnur, one of New Leaders’ founders, and the organization itself as a model of social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs, in the magazine’s view, have initiated better ways to solve social problems than traditional government and institutional agencies. Their programs are built on constant feedback and do not wait for extensive studies or lengthy reports.

    It's time to learn from the best features of both university and non-university models of leadership development.

    New Leaders for New Schools is not tied to a small set of instructors and facilitators; it draws from a pool of nationally recognized university faculty members and other experts. A team is charged with developing the curriculum for the program, a clearly defined set of learning objectives for residents in all of the participating cities.

    The emphasis is on instructional leadership and student achievement. In addition to completing a yearlong, full-time residency, New Leaders for New Schools graduates receive support during their first two years on the job.

    But nothing is perfect. Each approach has serious limitations. Universities are frequently frozen in their own traditions. Bureaucracy, procedures (“This is how we do things here”), and multiple levels of required approval can stifle creative initiatives. Research is usually an individual enterprise and, consequently, individual entrepreneurship overshadows team initiatives and projects. Universities give their highest value to research and university teaching; fieldwork in schools is relegated to third place. Tenured professors don’t have to be compelled to do things differently from how they have done them for years (or decades).

    The new providers have their own set of problems. New Leaders for New Schools does not have a home or a permanent community presence. The organization rents office space and depends on other organizations, such as corporations (and universities) to lend it meeting space. Until now, New Leaders lacked the power to grant state certification; it counted on universities to partner with it for processing that certification. Despite its new certification-granting status in Maryland, it still lacks the presence of researchers as a critical piece of its organizational structure. And because of its full-time, yearlong residency experience, the program is quite expensive. The organization is dependent on external funding generated from corporations and foundations. If funding dries up, the program is finished.

    Where do we go from here? I think it’s time to learn from the best features of both university and non-university models of leadership development.

    Peter Senge, the management expert and best-selling author of The Fifth Discipline, makes a distinction between discussion and dialogue. Discussion, he notes, “has the same root as percussion and concussion.” Its purpose is to win a point. People do not listen to each other because they are readying their next argument.

    Dialogue, on the other hand, comes from the Greek words for “through” and “meaning.” Dialogue is designed to create a common conversation. In Senge’s words, “The purpose of dialogue is to go beyond one person’s understanding.” Dialogue is all about suspending assumptions, listening to another person’s point of view, and having a group explore together complex issues.

    What issue could be more complex and more important than leadership and our desire it develop it? It’s time for us to talk. It’s time for a real dialogue. And it’s time to change what we do.

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