School & District Management Commentary

The Myth of School Leadership

By Irving H. Buchen — May 31, 2000 6 min read
Far from leading the way to change, most principals are currently hunkering down.

“An assistant pastor complained to his minister that wherever he goes people step on his toes. The minister replied: ‘You don’t give people room, so there is nowhere to step but on your toes.’”

Although there are many obstacles to school reform, they all come down to three essentials—inertia, indifference, and illusions—and range from the superficial to the subtle to the secretive.

The first of course is the familiar conventional wisdom: This is the way we have been doing it for generations, and if it was good enough for your parents and even grandparents, it has to be good enough for you as well. What makes that position particularly oppressive is that behind the facade of complacency and intactness is a formidable and massive triple-headed bureaucracy: public school administration; union administration; and local, county, state, and federal governments. Not incorrectly, it is collectively called the System, which appears so permanently and tenaciously with us that there does not seem much chance of ever changing or getting rid of it. Inert and inertia are the same.

The current indifference to the future of education by many educators may be impotence emerging in a passive-aggressive form. Perhaps never before in the history of public education has there been such questioning of the current system. Educational professionals increasingly find themselves being whipped, ridiculed, and maligned in the media. Every day and everywhere they turn they are being assaulted by a relentless agenda: vouchers, charter schools, performance bonuses, Edison Schools Inc. takeovers, school district report cards, attacks on colleges of education, and so on. The only positive passion around is to be found in minority leaders and educators who are hoping to rescue urban education with charter schools. The only other source of energy comes from the commercial or business sector taking over different pieces of the educational pie and nibbling away technologically at the curriculum. In short, a kind of exhaustion born of being shellshocked is spreading over the profession, and increasingly teachers are going around like the disillusioned Candide, looking down and urged just to cultivate their largely weedy garden

But perhaps the subtlest and most illusory pretense is the often-heard call for leadership by principals and superintendents. A recent issue of this newspaper contained two totally transparent, self-serving tributes to those champions of school reform, the school principal. (“Looking for Leaders in a Time of Change,” Commentary, March 29, 2000.) The first piece was tantalizingly entitled “School Reform’s Missing Imperative,” but the mystery was immediately cleared up when one found the author to be the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The claim was that nothing, at least nothing of any significance, will be accomplished unless we restore the principal to his or her role of leadership of everything and everyone. Little is mentioned about what these leaders have been doing during this period to justify such faith except that they are experts at crisis management, a contradiction in terms. And certainly there are no citations to arguments advanced that they may be part of the problem and not part of the solution.

I would argue that school reform needs to minimize the role of principals and perhaps even dispense with it.

The authors of the other Commentary (“Looking for Leaders in a Time of Change”) are with the Principals’ Center at Harvard University, hardly an unbiased group, dependent on the existence of principals as consumers of their education, workshops, and products. But probably the most unpalatable argument advanced is the claim that being a principal is a calling. I thought that nonsense was bad enough to ascribe to teachers; now it is being appropriated manipulatively for principals

Historically, saviors are called upon when situations are often beyond saving. I find little evidence that there has been a change in educational leadership that would warrant making them indispensable to lead school reform. In fact, I would argue instead that school reform, to be successful, needs to minimize principals and perhaps even to dispense with them. It is the teachers who should push site-based management all the way and become the managers of learning. Sadly, however, it is the teachers who often argue for the principals to be kept on even if their roles are primarily ornamental or bureaucratic.

Most principals are perfunctory. They do busywork that could be outsourced or done by hiring low-level specialists in maintenance, security, finance, scheduling, and other areas. Far from leading, most principals currently are hunkering down, obediently taking their cues from and doing whatever the superintendent tells them to do; just as the superintendent is doing what the school board tells him to do. Although newspapers, educational weeklies, and magazines can’t wait to tell another miracle story of incredible changes and accomplishments wrought by one miracle worker—the same thing happens in business with CEOs—the hunger for instant and total success is so intense that even allowing for the illusion of that mythology, what about all the other stories of leadership failure and inertia?.

The only leadership that will make a difference is that of teachers. They alone are positioned at the fulcrums of change.

The only leadership that will make a difference is that of teachers. They alone are positioned where all the fulcrums are for change. They alone know what the day-to-day problems are and what it takes to solve them. They, not the principals, should be the ones to hire new teachers. They know what is needed, and if they make a mistake they have to live with it. They should run the schools, the classes, the halls, the extracurricular activities. But, alas, they are brainwashed, they are fearful, they are dependent. They don’t know how good some of them can be as managers of learning. But sadly, unless they are forthcoming, the vacuum will be filled by the old leaders who helped create the paralysis in the first place; or, given the intensity and even the rapacity of the economics of entrepreneurs, there may be nothing public left to manage or lead. Even the national teachers’ unions cannot find common ground to join each other—so how can any unified front be forged

Perhaps, in the final analysis, union leaders and educational leaders are now two sides of the same coin. If so, then maybe we should not be wasting our time trying to save or keep intact roles and institutions that no longer are fluid, aspirational, and future-driven.

Teachers need to escape from the bondage of being led by pharaohs obsessed with preserving pyramids of power and reclaim their professionalism and passion. Really good leaders are dispensable, not indispensable. Moses did not make it to the Promised Land, but the rank and file did.

Irving H. Buchen is a professor of management at Walden University, a distance-learning graduate institution, and the chief executive officer of Performance Learning Systems in Fort Myers, Fla.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Myth of School Leadership


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