School & District Management

Reporter’s Notebook

September 27, 2000 4 min read

Future of School Leadership Open to Debate

School leaders appear increasingly willing to assess the state of their profession and how they might change it and attract a stronger pool of candidates.

At the recent Leaders Count conference here, the first held by the Wallace-Readers’ Digest Funds, much discussion focused on how to bridge the gap between what superintendents and principals have commonly done in their jobs and how those jobs are evolving. The New York City-based philanthropy has begun to direct some of its giving toward better defining the role of school administrators and determining ways to find the best people for the jobs.

Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, told a ballroom of hundreds of attendees that school leaders must work to spread achievements from individual schools and classes to entire districts, cities, and the nation.

Anthony Alvarado

The dirty little secret here is were asking people to do something we don’t know how to do,” Mr. Elmore said at the Sept. 14-15 gathering at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We encourage people to make it up as they go along.”

Schools and districts need vast changes, he argued, so that they can focus on how students are taught, and almost nothing else. He also stressed the need for better university training, complaining that education schools “actively promote mediocrity and incompetence."The much-publicized shortages of teachers and principals, he said, offer “a huge opportunity to fill these jobs with people who actually fit the job description.”

Some speakers here said that one pool of well-qualified prospects for administrative jobs, especially superintendents, remains largely untapped: candidates who happen to be women.

“It is the women of this country, overwhelmingly, who have that kind of instructional knowledge and skill,” said Anthony Alvarado, the chancellor of instruction for the 143,000-student San Diego school system and a former district superintendent in New York City.

Women are sometimes the chief academic officers in school districts, but the public, more charismatic role of superintendent is often reserved for males only, some speakers noted.

“Relegating the academic position to number two relegates women” to a backseat position, argued Diana Lam, the superintendent of the 30,000-student Providence, R.I., district.

“We have a two-tiered system,” agreed Gerry House, a former superintendent of the 112,00-student Memphis, Tenn., schools who is now the executive director of the Institute for Student Achievement in Lake Success, N.Y. She suggested making the chief academic officer the top leader in school systems, if instruction and learning are truly to be the focus.

Districts don’t have to look outside education to find the kind of leaders they need, Ms. House added, disputing the idea that strong, knowledgeable leaders can’t be found or developed within districts that have thousands of employees.

“People who cut their teeth in education can also ask the tough questions,” Ms. House said.


Another way to draw on a larger and stronger pool of administrator candidates is to make schools better places to work and learn, said Rod Paige, the superintendent of the 220,000-student Houston schools. Candidates from within education and outside the profession want jobs that are important and where they can reasonably achieve their goals, he said: “Good people are not going to work in an incoherent environment.”

In a speech to the group, Harold O. Levy, a former corporate executive who became the chancellor of the New York City schools this year, said that better teaching and student-achievement results were important goals. But the little things are crucial, too, he said.

He recalled, for example, entering the New York board of education’s headquarters, where he was greeted by an unwelcoming sign warning against bringing firearms into the building. “It was filthy,” he said of the building. People can do better if challenged to do so, he added.

Gerry House

“How do you do it? You do it,” he said. “It is not unsolvable. There’s great strength in our systems.”

Ideas were plentiful on how to broaden and increase the pool of candidates for school leadership positions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley unveiled in general terms a plan to establish a national school leadership academy, which he described as “something like a West Point for principals.” A step toward that goal, he said, would be for Congress to approve his plan to provide $40 million to pay for regional school leadership academies across the country.

He also called for states to support the development of national standards for administrators, and for states to reward educators who completed a process of meeting such qualifications, which he described as similar to certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Mr. Riley also asked for more states to follow North Carolina’s lead in providing and forgiving loans for graduate-level students in educational administration programs.

Asked to brainstorm about what kind of leadership and management systems might work better, panelist James Lytle, the superintendent of the 12,000-student Trenton, N.J., schools, suggested vouchers and complete family choice could build a system fully supported by the public.

“The last thing I would look at is an organizational chart of most school districts,” said Marla Ucelli, the staff director of the Annenberg Institute’s task force on the future of school districts.

Rudolph F. Crew, who preceded Mr. Levy as chancellor of the New York City schools and is now the executive director of the University of Washington’s Institute for K-12 Leadership in Seattle, exhorted the administrators here to think even harder about what they do and why they do it.

“I would not ask them to manage what is,” Mr. Crew said, but rather to “create something that doesn’t exist.”

—Alan Richard

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