Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

The Lose-Lose Leadership Hunt

By Gordon A. Donaldson Jr. — October 03, 2001 7 min read
Scores of potential principals are right under our noses—but they may not want the job.

We are told we face a crisis in school leadership. High principal turnover, few candidates for openings, a shrinking pool of capable educators interested in principals’ work. And this on top of one of the most sustained periods of criticism and reform in American public education. We want and need school leaders who can foster improvement, but it seems that state and district approaches to reform are convincing our best educators to eschew formal leadership roles.

Our legislative hallways ring with calls for accountability, for statewide “high-stakes testing” and outcomes-based promotion and graduation. Districts are tying principals’ contracts to those test scores. Principals’ reputations are forever linked with the public “report cards” on their schools’ performance. School boards hand down requirements and policies the way a 12-year-old hands down clothes—expecting principals to “implement” them immediately.

Principalship, as it is currently structured, offers few possibilities for true school leadership.

These are hostile conditions for leadership at the school level. The prevailing view asserts that learning and teaching can be “turned around” by the “executive officer” of the school—that schools can operate the way a trim ship or a high-performing business purportedly does. If policymakers at all levels of government wish to attract our very best teachers into school leadership, they will need to recognize how this view of schooling neither supports effective teaching and learning nor promises to reward leaders for taking on the leadership of a school.

I work with many very capable Maine educators—teachers and principals alike. While they find much to celebrate in their work, many of them feel embattled by insistent public cries condemning their schools and, by inference, them. Calls for accountability imply they are not responsible or competent. Calls for high standards proclaim they have low standards. Calls for school takeovers by the state declare that “someone at the state” knows how to teach and lead better than they.

My friends and colleagues in schools view leadership in this environment as a lose-lose proposition. If they take on a principalship and do the bidding of the state and the board, they risk insulting the professionals on their faculties. If they walk in with a “high-stakes, high-standards” reform package, they know immediately that the culture and social architecture of the faculty can resist, subvert, and outlast them. And many believe that proposed uniform testing, outcomes, and curriculum will discourage the best teaching practices and suffocate the best teachers. In Maine, the average principal faces accomplishing these tasks with 35 faculty members and a support staff of seven, a supervisory load approximately three times that of middle managers in business.

On the other hand, if they seek to engage faculty members in designing their own reform from within, they risk straying from these state and district cures and eventually losing their jobs for “noncompliance.” If they listen to teachers, students, and parents and encourage them to follow their own lead, they invite the sort of unruly practices that the standards movement so often seeks to eliminate. Reform that honors educator judgment and the uniqueness of children is the kind of reform that the loudest critics of schools decry. Yet, according to some of our best observers of school change (Roland Barth, Michael Fullan, David Tyack, and Larry Cuban, for example), this kind of reform is the only lasting kind.

Stepping forward to “lead reform” has little luster from a purely pragmatic viewpoint. Even in a state the size of Maine, where staffs are relatively small, the average principal supervises 42 people. To accept that challenge—changing the practices of that number of people—seems crazy in comparison to the challenges and rewards of teaching. It’s made even more preposterous when educators recognize that school faculties are swept up every day by what I call the “conspiracy of busyness.” Every person’s primary responsibility in school is already a full-time job without adding to it the work of reform. In fact, collaboration on professional matters has always been “permissive rather than mandatory,” as Dan Lortie established 30 years ago in Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. “The subculture” of schools, he wrote, “defines the degree of cooperation as a matter of individual choice.”

What proud educators would take on leadership positions where the cards seemed stacked against them?

The good news is that capable teachers continue to explore leadership opportunities. Most states have vastly more educators holding administrative certificates than they have serving in or applying for administrative positions. Teacher-leader opportunities are expanding as well. Leaders can be found right under the noses of superintendents and central-office personnel. Their challenge is to make leadership achievable for those who will step forward with the will and the talents to lead. How might they do this?

First, they need to buffer principals from politics and administrative minutiae. Some public concerns about the quality of schooling are legitimate, but the public (and I include many state departments of education in this term) does not understand schools well enough to be full players in changing how schools function. Central-office personnel must be go-betweens, translating public concerns to schools and school efforts to the public.

There are plenty of capable leaders in our schools—most of them in classrooms and in schoolwide positions.

This means educating the public and school boards that they cannot expect the principal to change his or her school by edict, memo, or policy compliance and all the administrative chores that accompany them. School leaders must heed the signals from outside and see that their schools are managed well, but they need most the time, energy, and discretion to focus on the learning and teaching within the school, where their leadership is most crucial.

Second, central offices can foster creative reform-making by, simultaneously, expecting principals to initiate improvement and providing resources for this important work. To do one without the other plays into the lose-lose leadership scenario.

Our most effective school leaders build strong working relationships with and among the faculty. They develop clear purpose and nurture strong commitments to schoolwide goals among faculty members. And they inspire experimentation in teaching, reflection, and collaboration so that the entire faculty can “learn forward” together. These activities require time—time together, time for assessing current practices, and time for learning-in-action.

Superintendents can take a proactive approach to “growing your own” leaders. Start by recognizing that leaders cannot fully develop the capacity to lead anywhere but in the “action” of the school. University courses, leadership academies, and professional conferences can be helpful, but we can only learn the interpersonal and intrapersonal lessons of leadership by leading in a highly supportive and reflective environment. By providing mentorships, in-house leadership internships, study groups, and reflective practice groups for principals and teachers, central offices give current and emerging leaders ways to practice and reflect. In the process, they enrich the leadership mix in their buildings in ways that have an immediate impact on teaching practices and student learning. If district leaders want better principals, they need to support and nurture teachers who have demonstrated their ability to influence others.

Finally, they need to understand the shoals that such leaders will cross as they move from teacher leadership to administrative leadership, so they can help them navigate the transition. Teacher-leaders are widely respected for their pedagogical knowledge, their success with children, and their willingness to share and to speak up for improvement. They have earned professional authority by respecting colleagues, by their dedication to the profession, and by modeling high professional standards.

School boards and superintendents cannot expect a newly hired principal to abandon these leadership qualities. In taking on the administrative mantle, principals will need their bosses to understand that they must be both administrators and instructional leaders, that they must answer both to their faculties and to the central office, and that their truest allegiance must be to the children in their immediate care. The competing demands felt by these middle managers must be appreciated and honored if we want our best educators to thrive in the principalship.

The leadership crisis is real. The bad news is that smart educators are avoiding the principalship because, as it is currently structured, it offers few possibilities for true school leadership. The good news is that there are plenty of capable leaders in our schools—most of them in classrooms and in schoolwide positions, such as guidance and information services. The challenge for district leaders is to find ways to honor and nurture them—and to make the principal’s office, for those who seek to lead from it, a safe and nourishing place.

Gordon A. Donaldson Jr. is a professor of education at the University of Maine, the faculty chair of the Maine School Leadership Network, and the author of Cultivating Leadership in Schools: Connecting People, Purpose, and Practice (Teachers College Press, 2001).

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