Eight Barriers to Change

Changing school leadership programs has been difficult in the past. Report after report has identified exactly the same problems in the field with little or no improvement in their aftermath. Those reports, including “Educating School Leaders,” have encountered a number of barriers, typified by the following attitudes and assumptions:

• “This too shall pass.”
Because there have been so many reports over the years, each in the spotlight for a moment and then forgotten, those who direct school leadership programs do not feel the need to act on the recommendations.

• “There is no problem.”
A common response is a claim that the report is out of date, that it fails to mention key changes that already have occurred in the field. Or alternatively, program faculty and administrators may say the problems described are a reasonably accurate depiction of the field in a broad sense, but that their own program is an exception.

• “We’re looking at it.”
Here the argument is that this issue is so important that we are studying it in our program, school, system or state. Because the pace of study and decision making in academe moves with glacial speed and can be derailed sometimes by a single professor, these studies are likely to consider and debate a reform impulse to death rather than act upon it.

“You’ve got it wrong.”
This response discredits the report or the author, saying one or both should be dismissed. Pointing to perceived weaknesses in the research methodology, author motivation, data interpretation or conclusions, opponents announce that the report should be ignored. In a time of sharp political divisions, criticizing methodology when one dislikes the findings of a study is becoming increasingly vicious.

“We disagree with a proposal.”
A controversial or unpopular proposal can serve as a barrier to change. In the case of “Educating School Leaders,” the call to eliminate the Ed.D., the most contentious of the six recommendations, became the most discussed, overshadowing the other five. When this occurs, the reform plan seems more radical, thereby creating a barrier to implementation.

• “You can’t make us. We’re satisfied just the way things are.”
In a decentralized culture such as colleges and universities that are high in autonomy and collegial in decision making, designing, implementing and sustaining substantive institutional change is extraordinarily difficult. Faculty members who have much to lose by the prospects of change or who are genuinely satisfied with their programs have no incentive to change. Even a minority of resistant faculty can derail or stall to death a well-intended reform effort. Without a serious impetus or attractive incentive for change, programs are likely to change only marginally, if at all.

“We don’t have the power.”
School leadership is one of those fields in which change is governed by a multiplicity of actors — governors, state legislators, state education agencies, school boards, school districts, education leaders, unions, university administrators, faculty members and trustees to mention just a few. A common theme in discussions with constituents of these groups is “we can’t do this by ourselves,” no matter how important it is that changes be made.

• “It’s impractical.”
Potential students in education leadership programs generally want programs that are fast and easy. Practitioners want the opportunity to earn a doctorate whether they need it or not. The barrier to change is a marketplace that does not want higher standards and more meaningful degrees.

— Diane Dean