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Educational Leadership

A Challenging Environment, Preparing Recruiting and Sustaining School Leaders, Leadership in the Twenty-First Century

Schools are social institutions that play an important role in what is arguably the most complex responsibility of society: the healthy development of children. The people who lead schools must have a deep understanding of the many dimensions of this task, yet the challenges fall within the general category of crafting and carrying out agreements among many stakeholders. Some of these agreements have long timelines and reach into the heart of the enterprise. The bulk of the agreements, however, are short, temporary arrangements that get the various stakeholders–students, teachers, parents, policy makers–from one step in the process to the next. Effective schools are places in which these agreements are fashioned and honored successfully. Effective educational leaders are people who make that happen.

In the United States, the responsibility for public schools falls within the jurisdiction of the states, but from an operational perspective schools are the business of local government. The authority of principals and superintendents derives from that basic structure, and educational leadership is traditionally associated with the people in those positions. Accordingly, principals and superintendents are the parties most responsible for crafting the essential agreements upon which schools either succeed or fail.

The role of these leaders has evolved as society has changed and as schools have been asked to take on responsibilities that far exceed the basic literacy and numeracy skills that were expected in the early days of American public schools. As communities grew and schools increased in size beyond the point where a single teacher could meet the needs of all pupils, and as the amount of schooling required of all children increased, the position of principal–a term that literally implies the first teacher–or headmaster was created to provide instructional leadership to ensure coordination among the teachers. When the continuing growth of communities forced them to create multiple schools, the superintendent position was created to coordinate the system within those schools operated.

Beginning in the early 1960s with the advent of comprehensive high schools and consolidated school districts, and eventually in response to increased demands placed upon schools by the states and the federal government, there was dramatic growth in the number of other administrative positions in the district's central office. These school leaders are more specialized, working, for example, in a single area such as finance or curriculum.

School administration also became differentiated through positions associated with content-area specialists and, in some cases, basic assistance for the principal. During the last decades of the twentieth century, there was steady growth in the number of educators working in districts who did not participate directly in the instruction of students. Pressures throughout the schools and districts, including the supervision of these new administrators, and the steady flow of multiple mandates from state and federal government, began to erode the opportunity principals and superintendents once had to provide real leadership.

In the late 1990s, another notion about educational leadership arose. Recognizing the value of distributing leadership responsibility to those people who were closest to student learning, some educators began to talk about the need for teacher leadership. The concept was unusual in a system that associates leaders with people who have specific titles. Also, the idea that teachers might be expected to provide leadership for their peers, their schools, and their profession while remaining in the primary role as teacher was a radical departure from the norm.

A Challenging Environment

The basic context in which schools operate makes leadership difficult. Everyone, it seems, has a vested interest in schools. Each of the nation's chief executives has regularly tried to identify himself as the "Education President." Governors make similar assertions, and states have a chief school officer, either appointed or elected, who is surrounded by an administrative staff to oversee the proper operation of schools. Money, and who provides that money, gives another road map to lines of authority, and for all but the nation's poorest schools, the combined contributions of state and federal dollars do not equal the dollars provided by local government and local taxpayers. That balance leads to a large amount of authority vested in school boards, typically elected officials, who run for these offices for a variety of reasons, or appointed people who have their own allegiances.

Thrown into this mix are teacher unions, connected with powerful national associations, and other unions serving the needs of support staff. Anyone trying to lead a public school cannot take lightly the contract a district has with a bus company, for example, or with the maintenance staff who have control of very basic parts of the operation. This list of interested parties is far from complete, and the challenges of leadership have outpaced the profession's capacity to recruit, prepare, and sustain those who take on that responsibility.

Preparing Recruiting and Sustaining School Leaders

As public schools became larger and more complex, the professional path to becoming a school leader became more prescribed. As with other professions, the responsibility for preparing school leaders came to rest within the universities and particularly in graduate departments of education. In keeping with the traditional patterns of the academic world, preparation was defined by certain courses of study and the successful accumulation of credits. School administration became an actual course and eventually was broken up into a series of courses that included everything from finance to labor relations to organizational behavior. While most graduate degree programs include a practicum or internship, this part of required study has been minimal.

The states have been involved in the formalizing and conceptualizing of what skills and credentials a person must have in order to become a principal or superintendent. States prescribe these skills and credentials within a certification process. Because supply and demand for principals and superintendents varies over time and sometimes puts districts at risk of losing good candidates or not having enough candidates to fill positions, many states have alternative paths to certification and interim permissions that can be granted in lieu of certain requirements or until those requirements can be completed.

This standard approach to preparing principals and superintendents has been questioned during the school reform era that began in the early 1980s. One response, directly related to an increasing concern over the quantity and quality of the candidate pool for principals, was the rise in what are called aspiring principal programs. These programs require educators who hope to become principals to spend large amounts of time with successful principals on the job. The belief is that while formal courses can help prepare people to become principals, the more important skills are acquired through apprenticeship.

The principalship has changed significantly since the 1960s. With the growth of strong central offices and increasing unionization of teachers, principals began to be removed from their role as first teacher or headmaster. They lost the authority to hire and fire their own teachers and were no longer in a position to provide leadership for curriculum and instruction. In many cases, principals are not even the highest paid educators within a school building, while they regularly work a longer school year than teachers do.

Principals have a difficult time finding the authority to secure agreements among the key stake-holders, and they seldom have the resources necessary to support such work. These conditions are not conducive to encouraging educators who have passion and vision about teaching and learning to consider moving from the classroom to the principal's office.

One positive development for principals began in 1981 when the first Principals Center was created at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This center was founded to provide a professional community for principals, who often are the most isolated educators in their schools, and to encourage the kind of lifelong learning that would improve the skills of principals as leaders and managers of their schools. The concept spread rapidly, and within ten years, more than one hundred similar centers had been founded throughout the United States and in other countries. These centers are connected through their own international association.

Superintendents have had similar difficulties. Their domain is connected with local politics, the elected or appointed school boards and mayors and city councils that often play a significant role in approving budgets. These challenges have been exacerbated in large urban districts that saw their tax base decline in the last four decades of the twentieth century, their middle class families depart, and a growing number of special challenges related to rapidly changing populations, high levels of poverty, and a physical infrastructure that was crumbling. Many urban districts also face a disproportionate increase in the number of school-age children and a decreasing amount of money to support them. In many cases, these financial pressures lead to greater state subsidies for these districts and the accompanying demands, all of which only add to the political climate surrounding the work of superintendents.

One measurable result of these increased pressures has been the length of time the average superintendent remains in that position, which by the late 1990s had dropped to under three years. Given the difficulties of leading these complex organizations, such a rapid turnover among superintendents makes it nearly impossible for any meaningful change to take place.

Public school superintendents have responsibility in four basic areas: managing a complex enterprise, managing multilayered politics, building community and public support for schools, and leading a whole systems improvement process. Most superintendents accept inherited agreements made by their predecessors in the first three areas. They come into their jobs with all of those areas in place and little opportunity to refashion agreements. Their vision for the fourth area cannot easily penetrate the existing structure of the district, much of which is already dictated by a variety of contracts with teachers, administrators, and different support staff. The budget, too, is often already established, and given the large percentage of school budgets that is earmarked for salaries, benefits, and maintenance, there are very few financial resources superintendents can deploy to help support their initiatives. As is the case with principal preparation programs, university-based programs leading to advanced degrees and certification have had a difficult time keeping up with the rapid changes in the field and the demands placed on these district leaders.

Leadership in the Twenty-First Century

State standards enacted in the 1990s defined a new goal of helping all students graduate ready for further learning, work and citizenship. States, frustrated by the slow pace of progress in too many schools, began to attach consequences to school failure. Although few could argue with the validity of this new proposition, it challenged the beliefs, assumptions, structures, and practice of the American educational system, and required school leaders to craft new agreements. It also multiplied the complexity and difficulty of educational leadership. By 2000, state assessments regularly were diagnosing the health of schools and were testing the success and strength of the agreements that school leaders either crafted or inherited.

Low-performing schools suffer most from a lack of leadership. The agreements made or tolerated in these schools leave children ill-prepared for the world they will inherit and do a particular disservice to disadvantaged youth. The identification of lowperforming schools often results in a variety of district and state interventions. To be effective, these interventions take the shape of new agreements designed to create a clear focus, improve curriculum and assessment of student work, and strengthen staff evaluation and professional development.

While those strategies often find fertile ground in elementary schools, they seldom are enough to improve secondary schools, especially those that are large and comprehensive. In these schools the agreements that exist among stakeholders are simply not conducive to the national goal of leaving no child behind. The first task that the principals of these schools must confront, in concert with their superintendent, is leadership focused on redesigning their large comprehensive high schools into small learning communities.

System Leaders as Agreement Crafters

Least well understood, and central to all of these roles, is the question: how should the system work? With growing diversity, emerging opportunities and challenges of information technology, evolving knowledge about high performance organizations, and the new proposition that all students can and should achieve at high levels, it is often not clear what success at scale looks like. The new proposition of the standards movement–that all students should leave high school prepared for college, work, and citizenship–is easy to accept in theory but much more difficult to actualize. As school districts grapple with standards, high-stakes tests, growing frustration among taxpayers and politicians, and new alternatives to the public schools, the most important agreement that every superintendent and principal must craft is around the basic way that the district and the schools should work.

Given the multiple layers of federal, state, and local bureaucracy in education, and decades of piling layers of programs and policies onto schools, the first challenge of system leaders is to create coherence–making everything work together for students and teachers. Leaders can either attempt to create coherence, or alignment, throughout the system or create a system where schools achieve their own unique form of coherence.

Whatever the answer to the question about how a school or district should work, the system leader must be able to describe the organizational strategy in simple terms and support it with consistent organizational behavior. In order for that vision to take root, the leader must bring many parties to the agreement. Radically changing the way a school system works takes a reshaping of virtually all of the agreements between the district and schools and many of the basic agreements inside schools. Making any answer work requires a sustained effort, perhaps over a period of at least a decade.

The role of agreement crafter implies the need for new experiences and skills for both principals and superintendents. Superintendents and principals need opportunities to study a variety of approaches and the context in which they are being deployed. They need to adopt, modify, or reject the agreements that they inherit based on a deep understanding of the local context and exposure to strategic options.

Agreement crafters must be politically savvy, possess sophisticated consulting skills, and be adept change managers. Principals and superintendents need to be aware of community power structure, key influencers, and political decision makers. The demands of diversity, technology, and standards, particularly at the secondary level, require a set of consulting skills to design and facilitate a series of linked conversations that lead to adult learning and shared vision. As change managers, principals and superintendents must sequence complex tasks in a way that is manageable for the staff to incorporate.


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DEAL, TERRENCE E., and PETERSON, KENT D. 1998. Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

FULLAN, MICHAEL. 2001. Leading in a Culture of Change. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

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