Perspective: New Leadership

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Leadership must change in substance and style to meet the demands of the times

In the November/December issue, I discussed the newest "crisis" in education: the growing shortage of good principals. ("Leaders Needed"). Last month, I had an opportunity to see some of the complexities of the problem firsthand during a visit to two K-8 schools in a major urban district.

The schools have much in common. All their students are African Americans who live in poverty. Test scores at both have climbed from the bottom half of the city's rankings to the top half. And both have hard-working, dedicated teachers and strong, veteran African American principals.

The principal of School A proudly led us on a tour of his school. The building was clean, the students orderly, and the classrooms colorful and stocked with computers. He was confident, articulate, passionate about his work, and deeply committed to education. During an hour's conversation in his office, he talked knowledgeably about his students, his teachers, his test scores. He spoke highly of his teachers (though none joined us) and his unflagging support for them. With a smile, he boasted that he even lets teachers make decisions—when he's sure that they'll make the decision that he wants. He didn't once mention state standards or say anything significant about classroom instruction. He relies on two commercial vendors to provide inservice training for his faculty from time to time during the year.

The principal of School B also gave us a tour of her equally clean, orderly building, then led us to a common room where we were soon joined by half a dozen or so teachers, who were as knowledgeable and articulate as the principal. The conversation was lively and wide-ranging and made very clear that everyone in the school is intensely focused on teaching and learning. Teachers collaborate regularly and meet frequently to discuss how to translate state standards into lessons, how to improve their teaching, how to deal with a particular student. The teachers plan and conduct their own inservice training (usually rooting it in recent research), and they gush over its positive impact on their daily work. Information is available to all, and teachers help make important decisions. The principal and the teachers were effusive in their praise of each other and excited about the work they are doing and how their professional lives— though more demanding—have been enriched.

The visits to these two schools helped me realize that leadership must change in substance and style to meet the demands of the times. The principal of School A is the kind of effective and charismatic leader whom, most would agree, every school needs. A fine manager, a caring human being, and an effective motivator, he is the traditional and widely accepted model of the outstanding principal.

But, in fact, schools need leadership much different from the "Lone- Ranger" style he practices. Though many educators still do not realize it, standards-based reform— with its commitment to high academic expectations, public disclosure, and rigorous accountability—threatens the traditional structures, relationships, and processes of schooling. If public schools are to survive and succeed in such reform, their very culture will have to change. And that is a task that even the most formidable and charismatic leader cannot do single-handedly.

The principal of School B knows that. She realizes that changing a culture must be a collective effort, requiring leadership at every level. She believes that everyone has the potential to lead on a particular issue at an appropriate time. Her main task is to make them aware of that—to identify expertise wherever it exists, legitimize it, and then focus it like a laser on improving teaching and learning. The teachers at School B told us how surprised they were to discover that they are leaders.

This approach is sometimes called "distributed leadership," and it is recognized in business, the military, and virtually every social institution except education—which, sadly, has always underestimated the potential leadership of teachers, students, and parents. At the conclusion of my two visits, I was convinced that I'd met two outstanding principals. But one exemplifies the best of the past, while the other represents the best hope for the future.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 11, Issue 6, Page 6

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Perspective: New Leadership
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