Crossing the Ideological Divide

As Checker says, it's true that we need better school leadership to improve American K-12 education. With a large percentage of U.S. principals retiring within a decade and with a revolving door to many superintendents' offices, we need new solutions if we are going to recruit, prepare, and retain school leaders who can meet the challenges of these hugely demanding (and poorly compensated) professional positions.

The argument, however, is about exactly HOW to select and prepare those new, improved public-school administrators. Better Leaders for America's Schools: A Manifesto offers a now familiar conservative policy palliative: simplify entry requirements, introduce competition among training programs, and relax the terms of employment for school leaders.

As a confirmed member of the "education monopoly," the Manifesto's solutions seem familiar indeed, and in some respects threatening. Yet the Manifesto also contains important convergences with my own thinking. I stand on the opposite end of the policy spectrum from many ideas proposed by the Fordham Foundation, but as I read the Manifesto, I discovered many points of agreement:

*We agree that there is an urgent need for improved administrator quality. The demands of NCLB require not only highly qualified teachers in every classroom but also highly qualified leaders in every school.

*We agree that such leaders shoulder a huge responsibility and in far too many instances are under-compensated and over-worked.

*We agree that the communities in most need are the same ones desperately searching for school leaders who are capable of thinking beyond the ordinary.

*Perhaps surprisingly, we agree that good administrators can and do emerge even if they haven't taken all the education courses prescribed by most states and almost all teacher education institutions.

These points of agreement are significant. Indeed, I also concur that current preparation experiences for administrators are often (not always!) inadequate for those who assume leadership positions. Too few administrators have all the preparation they need for leadership success - frequently the result of weak or ineffective programs. The Manifesto's solution to this quality problem, however, is to eliminate the program requirement. Mine is to strengthen it.

That said, I might be inclined to sign the Manifesto but for two issues that are less ideological than educational.

Issue One: Principals must understand teaching and learning processes in order to shape a vital school environment.

The Manifesto argues for distributed leadership - namely, that principals need not be instructional paragons so long as someone in the school is. That concept has doubtful utility for all schools, but especially small schools. While school leaders need not be exceptional teachers, they must understand instruction. A great basketball coach need not be a great player, and few are. But a successful coach understands the structure and complexity of the game. Similarly, a school's principal needs to know how to provide instructional guidance, to know different learning strategies, and to understand when and why teachers should use each strategy. Though principals need not demonstrate that they are personally exceptional in using the techniques, if they are responsible for a school's learning environment, every parent should expect administrators to possess such understanding. The Manifesto does not require it. It should!

The Manifesto's hypothetical principal is politically savvy, resourceful, managerially competent, and focused, among other things. Even in larger schools where "distributed leadership" is possible, however, it is questionable whether a school leader can succeed without an in-depth understanding of learning theory and pedagogical processes. Small schools, where distributed leadership is impossible, could find themselves with NO instructional leader.

Interestingly, the Manifesto "prepared" principal must use data to improve instruction (I agree) but does so, I presume, without any deep understanding of how young people learn. Anecdotal evidence in the Manifesto is used to argue that vision, resourcefulness, and political savvy are sufficient for school leadership. I have no doubt that the testimonials are genuine, but question whether they are sufficient for grounding such a significant policy direction.

Issue Two: Administrators must possess certain skills and dispositions before they assume leadership roles.

There is a growing body of knowledge that school administrators need to internalize before they assume responsibility. See www.cepa.gse.rutgers.edu/whatweknow.pdf.

Yes, some large city superintendents come from business or the military. The Manifesto cites examples of some who made it despite the absence of traditional preparation. What it does not discuss are the failures and their consequences. This is particularly important because the context is almost always urban - where America's most vulnerable children live and where the consequences of failure are most profound.

Reasonable people may debate precisely what body of knowledge a prospective administrator should possess. But the Manifesto rejects all the extant professional literature in favor of certain personal characteristics that develop and are refined through on-the-job training. Such a personally competent but professionally limited person would be responsible for directing and evaluating a multiplicity of educational functions with limited understanding of many of those functions.

These two issues are deal breakers and keep me from signing the Manifesto. The Manifesto will surely gain attention, readers, and signers because many of the criticisms it levels are valid, such as the fact that many who graduate from traditional programs either eschew administrative roles or are ill-qualified to succeed in them. Indeed, the Manifesto's key failing is not its attack on traditional preparation programs. The real flaw is that its vision of a school administrator resembles a savvy manager more than an educational leader. If schools sold widgets, the former is most certainly needed. They don't! They focus on helping students learn essential skills and knowledge which requires school leaders to be more than skillful managers.

Becoming an effective educational leader requires professional preparation. The future of our children and perhaps our nation hinges on our ability to work together to recruit and prepare the best educational leaders possible. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two ends of the ideological spectrum. If it does, then more dialogue and debate are needed.

Thomas Lasley is dean of the school of education and allied professions at the University of Dayton.

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