School & District Management

Policy Focus Converges on Leadership

By Lynn Olson — January 12, 2000 10 min read
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After years of work on structural changes—standards and testing and ways of holding students and schools accountable—the education policy world has turned its attention to the people charged with making the system work.

At the classroom level, that has meant a flurry of efforts to attract and train good teachers and keep them in their jobs. But nowhere is the focus on the human element in public education more prevalent than in the renewed recognition of the importance of strong and effective leadership.

Widespread agreement that U.S. schools face a dearth of administrators capable of providing that leadership has in recent months roused a broad and influential group of policy contingents to action. Among the players are the U.S. Department of Education, the Broad Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, state governors and education officials, and the leaders of several national corporations.

The remarkable degree to which these and other groups are coming together to focus on a single issue is bringing with it millions of dollars in research grants and program funding, with a strong emphasis on reshaping the training and preparation of principals.

“Virtually everyone I talk to is focused on leadership at the school level in terms of the principal, and at the district level in terms of the superintendent and the school board,” said Susan Traiman, the director of education initiatives at the Washington-based Business Roundtable. “Some are homing in on the crisis in leadership in urban school districts, but other groups feel that there’s a nationwide crisis.”

Yet despite the consensus that leadership counts, deep philosophical and political disagreements remain about what kinds of educational leaders are needed, where they should come from, and how they should be trained.

“There’s just a whole lot of ground that needs to be plowed,” said C. Kent McGuire, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. “I don’t think any of us feel that we’ve got our arms around this issue in a way where we’re prepared to place really significant bets on any one thing.”

Already, long-standing rivalries and political turf battles threaten to undermine attempts at broad, sustained improvement in the quality and quantity of school leaders.

Many policymakers, for example, criticize the preparation of school administrators in colleges and universities as outmoded and ineffective. But those institutions—which produce the overwhelming majority of principals and superintendents—have been left out of some of the recent discussions.

And the national organizations that represent school administrators fear they, too, may be bypassed. “Foundations are going to make a critical mistake if they don’t deal with groups like ours,” said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “We’re tired of sitting on the sidelines, and we’re going to be players in this—serious players.”

Large-Scale Efforts

The recent focus on leadership brings together philanthropies, government, and education policy organizations:

•The Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership has received a total of $1.2 million from the Ford Foundation and the Education Department to serve as a hub for burgeoning leadership efforts. In part, the IEL hopes to synthesize existing research on the subject and identify promising strategies.

•At the third National Education Summit in October, state governors and business leaders committed themselves to providing school leaders with competitive salaries and better professional development. The references to leadership were added to earlier drafts of the meeting’s policy document after many participants raised it as a topic of concern.

•The National Center on Education and the Economy, also based in Washington, has received $200,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to devise the prototype for a national institution to train principals.

•The Broad Foundation has committed $100 million to improve governance, management, and labor relations in large urban school systems. The foundation is particularly interested in recruiting, supporting, and training entrepreneurial leaders and innovators. So far, the Los Angeles-based philanthropy has offered challenge grants to the San Diego and Sacramento school systems to develop training programs for principals.

•Educational administration’s three leading professional groups—the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals—have reached a preliminary agreement to create a national board for leadership certification, similar to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The board would establish rigorous standards for exemplary work by school administrators and then oversee the process by which administrators would become board-certified.

The groups are also exploring the use of the Internet to provide online courses to principals and other administrators.

•The DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund is about to launch a multiyear initiative on school leadership.

•The Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based in Providence, R.I., plans to announce a task force on the future of school districts this winter that likely will address leadership development as part of its agenda.

•The Panasonic Foundation, based in Secaucus, N.J., is working with seven school districts on a Leadership Associate’s Program that introduces school and central-office administrators to ideas about organizational theory, strategic thinking, public engagement, and systems change. Middle-level officials are vital to the continuity in any district, said Sophie Sa, the executive director of the foundation. “Even with changes at the top, there’s this cohort that’s been working, and they’ll stay,” she explained. “They’ll outlive three or four or five superintendents in their lifetimes, maybe more.”

•Several universities—including such leading institutions as Harvard, the University of California system, and Teachers College, Columbia University—have begun leadership-training programs in the past year.

•School districts such as Houston, New York City’s Community District 2, and Philadelphia have made recruitment and development of principals a top priority.

•More than half the states have adopted or adapted new standards for school administrators crafted by the Interstate School Leaders’ Licensure Consortium, a collaboration of states and professional organizations. The standards are built around the premise that good leaders are those who can improve teaching and learning.

Why Now?

The sheer abundance of such activity reflects a widespread—and growing—recognition that without strong leaders at the helm, larger efforts to improve student achievement will likely falter, if not fail entirely.

“I’ve never been to a great school where they don’t have a great principal,” Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware said at the education summit last fall. But, the Democrat added: “We haven’t focused all that much in my state, and my guess is in most of the states around here, on principal leadership.”

Certainly, the idea that strong leaders are important for good schools is hardly new. In the 1960s, the Harvard scholar Ron Edmonds noted that effective schools tended to have effective principals. And in the 1980s, Madeline Hunter traveled around the country urging principals to be strong “instructional leaders” who could coach their teachers on more effective practices.

But compared with other issues, leadership has largely been ignored in the most recent bout of educational improvement efforts. “To my satisfaction it’s never really been talked about,” said the NASSP’s Mr. Tirozzi, a former Connecticut education commissioner and assistant U.S. secretary of education. “While we seemed to involve every other group and organization, the principalship pretty much seemed to be left out of the discourse.”

Those involved point to a host of factors that have raised leadership to the top of the policy agenda.

Most noticeably, the push for standards-based reform—and the pressure on schools to deliver in terms of academic performance—have raised the demands and pressures on principals and brought an unprecedented level of public scrutiny to their job performance. In some cases, principals’ salaries and contracts are now dependent on gains in student achievement.

But the focus on leadership also reflects a belated recognition that standards and procedures alone can’t energize a dispirited teaching staff or bring parents and community leaders together to turn around a failing school.

“People are saying, in order for a school to be effective, you need a principal who is strongly committed to and focused on teaching and learning,” said Paul Reville, the executive director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, based in Cambridge, Mass. “And we don’t necessarily have people in those positions now who have that background or interest or expertise.”

At the same time, the student population is becoming more diverse, increasing the demands placed on schools.

Nor have the management functions traditionally associated with school leadership gone away— if anything, they’ve become more demanding. Principals are expected to exert more control over budgets and hiring and to work more collaboratively with their communities.

The university-based programs that traditionally have prepared administrators have not responded adequately to such demands, many policy observers say. “There is widespread unhappiness and disillusionment with the lack of relevance of most administrator-training programs,” said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.

Few districts have made it a priority to identify and groom potential leaders, despite a wave of pending retirements and chronic difficulties in finding candidates. In a 1998 survey, about half of 403 randomly selected districts reported a shortage of qualified candidates for vacant principals’ positions.

That same year, the National Association of Elementary School Principals reported that the median age of K-8 principals was 50, and the average principal planned to retire at age 57. More than half of superintendents are also between 50 and 59 years old, with an average tenure of five years.

Indeed, one of the primary reasons for the heightened concern about leadership is that so few people appear ready—or willing—to take the job, whether it’s a big-city superintendency or the principalship of the local high school. “These positions are no longer highly desirable in a professional career,” argued Mary Lee Fitzgerald, the education director for the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund.

‘Casting a Wide Net’

But while most people agree on the broad outlines of the problem, the lack of consensus about solutions is reflected in the wide range of initiatives under way, as well as their exploratory nature.

“Are we talking about a single person or about a distributive model of leadership?” Mr. Reville of the Pew Forum asked. “How do we give teachers adequate guidance, direction, and support for the kinds of changes in instruction they’ll need to be making and, at the same time, attend to the significant responsibilities of managing these complex school environments?”

The forum’s efforts will seek to answer those and other questions, he said. “We’re trying to convene people to begin to think through what does the new, realistic, instructionally focused model of leadership look like in schools,” he explained.

Mr. Usdan described a similar role for the IEL’s fledgling School Leadership for the 21st Century Initiative: “One of the issues that has to be addressed is, how does one define educational leadership? Is it just school leadership?”

Sibyll Carnochan, the director of policy and research for the Broad Foundation, said that originally her organization had planned to focus its $100 million effort primarily on the problem of attracting, training, and keeping urban superintendents. But, eventually, it settled on a much wider agenda that also focuses on principals, school board members, district-level managers, and union leadership.

“The leadership issue is bigger than the superintendent,” Ms. Carnochan said, “though clearly there’s a lot of work to be done there as well.”

Despite all the discussion, some remain skeptical that the focus on school leadership is serious.

“There’s a lot of talk. I haven’t seen a lot of money being put into this problem the way, certainly, it has into quality teaching,” said Joseph Murphy, a professor of educational leadership and organization at Vanderbilt University.

“When people realized quality teaching was indispensable, resources began to flow,” he argued. “I’m waiting for some energy and resources that would convince me the interest is reality, not just conversation.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Policy Focus Converges on Leadership


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