Guest Column

Leaders Count in Education, Too


Generals, coaches and business CEOs matter. More than ever, so do school superintendents and school principals. They share a common obligation to produce results.

Standards-based accountability is requiring school administrators to oversee the improvement of student learning and to accept responsibility for organizational achievements. That shifts the administrative role from managerial maintenance to instructional leadership. It also presupposes adequate knowledge and skills to intervene in teaching and learning in ways that expand opportunities to all children.

Unfortunately, many who hold these positions lack the knowledge and skills to meet their new responsibilities. More than half of the nation’s school superintendents are between the ages of 50 and 59. Often, their preparation for the job focused on the managerial requirements of another era. Principals, too, have grown up within bureaucratic systems that no longer work. There are few opportunities to reinvent the positions to address today’s new educational environment.

Left To Languish
The school leadership dilemma goes far beyond the qualifications of individuals. First, the positions themselves are undervalued. No major university has invested significant resources to redesign administrative preparation programs. Little research has carefully investigated these evolving positions or the new requirements for success. Leadership programs thrive in schools of business and government. They languish in schools of education.

Second, promising models are scarce. If existing educational leadership roles are inadequate, they are at least familiar. There is scant research and development to guide principals or superintendents through the onslaught of new policies driving the standards movement. New responsibilities require new job descriptions and redesigned systems to support new learning.

Third, the focus of school leadership, all too often, is simply wrong. The core business of schooling is learning. Administrative certification marginalizes instruction in favor of the "hard" subjects of business and management. Principals are required to produce educational results but lack deep understanding of how students learn. Principals evaluate teaching performance with inadequate knowledge of what constitutes good practice.

Fourth, the isolation of school leaders limits their development. Principals have few opportunities for clinical rounds, and critical friends are rare. School comparisons based on high-stakes testing discourage professional collaboration. Superintendents lack role models within their profession. They are the significant singletons within the school system.

A Model From Yesteryear
Today's interest among educators in distributed leadership has its roots in collaborative models that have emerged in business settings. No one person is expected to have all the expertise to achieve a corporate goal. School leaders, who must grapple with budgets and bus schedules along with children’s learning, have job descriptions that render success far harder to define or measure, let alone achieve.

But educators in search of direction in solving the leadership dilemma can look to their own history as well. Before the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," there were "open classrooms" that in many schools literally meant tearing down classroom walls and thereby encouraging a more collegial professional setting.

For all that open classrooms and open-space schools did not accomplish, they definitely promoted collaboration. They reduced isolation and provided access to group learning by students and staff alike. They forced a more thoughtful assessment of instructional strategies because one teacher's decision affected another's. Principals were engaged because they had to be. School staff at all levels depended on each other because they had to.

The open-space philosophy was realized in some districts in the form of a single, collaborative staffing model. A district was divided into multiage instructional units of 300 students supervised by a unit leader on a 12-month contract. This leadership position was a teaching position--created to provide instructional expertise to the decisions made by the unit. All decisions regarding curriculum, pedagogy, schedules, textbooks and teaching materials were made at the unit level. The team was responsible for producing quantifiable results and for reporting them publicly to the board of education. The unit leader was on a performance pay contract tied to the achievement of students.

Principals were hired to manage buildings and oversee non–instructional functions of the units assigned them. In this setting, the superintendent played the key role of coach, or lead teacher, to the unit leaders, building the team from the ground up and taking responsibility for its development and achievement. Teaching was centerfold, clearly the core business of the system.

Wise Counsel
Clearly then, it isn't that public education has not produced good ideas. Sometimes it lacks the confidence in itself to make innovative improvements, relying instead on external pressure and models to guide change.

"Great groups start with superb people," says Warren Bennis, the noted authority on collaborative leadership. The corollary, "Great groups and great leaders create each other," is wise counsel for reinventing education leadership.

Mary Lee Fitzgerald, a former superintendent and state education commissioner in New Jersey, is director of education programs at The Wallace Foundation , which recently launched "Leaders Count," a national school leadership initiative. She can be contacted at 2 Park Ave., 23rd Floor, New York, NY 10016. E-mail: