The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

school leadership needs
PS 64 Manhattan Principal Marlon Hosang (Photo by Yuridia Peña/CSA)

Training programs abound, but few do a first-rate job of preparing principals and superintendents for today’s challenges. Given the rising demands of the job descriptions – not to mention the tough choices necessitated by budget cuts – it’s little wonder that the pools of able, available principals and superintendents aren’t especially deep.

The Wallace Foundation has noted that the problem is exacerbated in large, hard-to-staff districts, which “tend to attract fewer candidates, with generally weaker credentials and less experience.”

The seemingly simple solution to the supply problem – expand existing programs or create new ones – misses the mark. A Google search for “education leadership” yields millions of results, with courses offered online, at night and on weekends. Indeed, rather than a shortage, it may well be that there are too many programs of marginal quality.

Schools of education run more than 500 leadership programs, which each year award 15,000 master’s degrees in educational administration, according to a 2005 study by Arthur Levine. “But the record of these programs is poor – and it has been widely criticized by both education deans and those outside academia,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a February 2010 speech.

In 1987, the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration, which included education-school deans and then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, issued a report that said 60 percent of the nation’s principal preparation programs were so abysmal that they should be shut down. Nevertheless, throughout much of the 1980s and 90s, as Linda Darling-Hammond has noted, the “significant role of the principal in creating the conditions for improved student outcomes was largely ignored.”

Levine, arguing similarly, wrote that many leadership programs are engaged in a “race to the bottom” in which they lower admission standards to admit anyone who can pay tuition while also making it easy to obtain a degree quickly and painlessly. His study concluded that the majority of leadership programs “range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the country’s leading universities.” And the rise of for-profit colleges, like the University of Phoenix and National University, has facilitated the spread of such programs.

One reason for the growth is sheer demand, as most union contracts stipulate higher salaries for teachers with advanced degrees. Another explanation is that states typically require teachers to take continuing-education classes to remain certified.

Among the chief criticisms of many leadership programs: they often provide insufficient in-school observation of successful leaders at work, they spend too much time on developing “politically correct” attitudes about education rather than on actually leading and managing a school, and they don’t emphasize instructional leadership.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has written: “We retain a system of recruitment, preparation, and induction that does not recruit the leaders we need, does not prepare them for their positions, does not reward them on par with their responsibilities and locks out candidates with vital knowledge and expertise.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – the challenges facing leadership programs, they are undergoing a radical transformation. States, school districts, university-based programs, and new nonprofit and for-profit organizations are all experimenting with different models. But because nearly 90 percent of the principals leading schools today were trained in traditional programs on college campuses, the focus for the foreseeable future will likely be on reforming the training offered in schools of education. A number of these programs now include in-school clinical training.

Meanwhile, partly out of frustration with university-based programs, many school districts are opting to train their own principals. In addition, some districts are welcoming candidates from private, nonprofit agencies that are subsidized by foundations and the federal government.

No matter the training program, the goal remains to create effective, results-oriented principals to run schools and superintendents to lead districts. One line of thinking – favored by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – holds that good leaders don’t necessarily need to have the traditional credentials or come from within the educational establishment.

Hess of AEI, who says it’s “naive and simple-minded to insist ‘you need to be an educator to lead schools,’” cautions that it’s equally problematic to imagine that any leader from the business world can successfully run an urban school system: “I think schools and districts pose a diverse array of leadership challenges, and that leaders facing different challenges will require various skills. Sometimes, familiarity with K-12 is a huge asset. Other times, the experiences, worldview, and skills that come with that background may actually be a hindrance. I see experience in a school district, in school leadership, or in dealing with the public sector as important assets, which ought to be weighed alongside know-how in transforming and redesigning organizations, boosting cost-effectiveness, recruiting talented personnel, managing vendor relationships, and so forth.”

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *