Filling the School Leadership Vacuum

Published: 3/14/2005

At a time when high-quality educational leadership is critically needed for the nation's schools, the quality of most preparation programs for principals, superintendents and other education leaders ranges from "inadequate to appalling," according to a major study by Teachers College President Arthur Levine.

The four-year study, "Educating School Leaders," was based on an extensive national survey of deans, faculty, alumni, and principals, as well as 28 in-depth case studies. It is part of a broader four-part series of reports by Levine, known as The Education Schools Project, drawn from the most extensive study ever conducted into the strengths, weaknesses, and overall performance of the more than 1,200 departments and schools of education at colleges and universities across the country. The Project plans to release equally comprehensive reports on teacher education in fall 2005 and research on education next year.

The Project's first report -- released on March 12th -- comes at a time when the need to prepare dynamic, visionary leaders has never been more acute. The nation's schools are struggling to adapt to the profound changes called for under state improvement plans and the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, even as more than 40 percent of principals and even higher percentage of superintendents, are expected to leave their jobs over the next decades. Yet "Educating School Leaders" finds that university-based education leadership programs are simply not up to the task of filling the leadership vacuum. On the contrary, asserts Levine, many of those programs are engaged in a counterproductive "race to the bottom," in which they compete for students by lowering admission standards, watering down coursework, and offering faster and less demanding degrees.

Education schools are not entirely to blame, Levine says. The downward trend is exacerbated, the study finds, by states and school districts that reward teachers for taking courses in administration whether or not the material is relevant to their work, and whether or not those courses are rigorous. Further, many universities treat leadership education programs as "cash cows," using them to bring in revenue for other parts of the campus and denying them the resources that might enable them to improve. And the expectations placed on education programs are unrealistic.

"Schools and school systems complain about the quality of people entering the leadership and teaching professions, yet they are paying the low salaries that help determine the applicant pool," Levine told Inside. "They complain that education schools don't provide ongoing mentoring for new teachers once they're in the job, yet no other professional school today performs that function. And all teachers are expected to perform at an equal level, regardless of how long they have been in the field - and typically new leaders and teachers are thrown into some of the toughest schools. That's like saying to a new lawyer, thank God you've finished law school, tomorrow you're arguing a case before the Supreme Court."

Still, regardless of the causes, the problems of leadership programs are visible and pronounced. "Too often these new programs have turned out to be little more than graduate credit dispensers. They award the equivalent of green stamps, which can be traded in for raises and promotions, to teachers who have no intention of becoming administrators," says Levine.

"These programs have also been responsible for conferring master's degrees on students who demonstrate anything but mastery. They have awarded doctorates that are doctoral in name only. And they have enrolled principals and superintendents in courses of study that are not relevant to their jobs."

Offering a set of nine criteria by which education leadership programs should be judged, Levine's report - which was funded by the Annenberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation -- calls for the elimination of incentives for reducing program quality, higher standards for leadership programs, the shuttering of poor-quality programs, and a new core curriculum of study. Levine also argues that the Ed.D. degree in Educational Administration should be eliminated and replaced by a new  Masters in Educational Administration, while the doctor of philosophy degree (Ph.D.) in school leadership should be restructured and awarded solely to those who are preparing for a career in research.

More specifically, the study found that most education leadership programs are characterized by

An irrelevant curriculum. The typical course of study "amounts to little more than a grab bag of the survey classes" - such as Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education, Educational Psychology, and Research Methods - taught elsewhere in the education school with little relevance to the job of school leader. Nearly 90 percent of program alumni surveyed said that schools of education fail to adequately prepare their graduates to cope with classroom realities.

Meanwhile, the drum beat of competition sounds louder and louder. The study notes that practitioners and policy makers have created an array of alternatives to prepare school leaders - including programs operated by states, school districts, school networks, and private organizations. These alternative programs rely more on business school faculty than educational leadership faculty, and they place a greater emphasis on clinical experience than classroom-based learning. Yet the report notes that there is little proof of their effectiveness. "At this point, we know that the alternative programs are different than those found at universities," Levine writes. "But we have no idea whether they are better or worse."

Further, the report notes that university-based programs offer a number of advantages over possible alternatives and suggests that, "It would be best if education schools and their educational administration programs took the lead in bringing about improvement. But the clock is ticking, and it would be a grave disservice to our children and schools if the problems of the field remain unaddressed."

To that end, Levine and the Education Schools Project will work during the coming months to promote well-informed and non-partisan policy debate on how best to prepare the teachers, administrators, and researchers who serve the nation's school children.

"We must change the system and find new models for establishing strong leadership in our schools," Levine says. "In the long term, I hope the report will play a part in broadly changing the system nationally. But we'll begin by trying to turn our recommendation into action on individual campuses and in some states."