School Leadership Matters: Why Are So Many School Leaders Mediocre?

Why is the quality of school leadership, to be polite, so mediocre?  Everyone who visits schools on a regular basis comments on the lack of effective leadership – exceptional school leaders are hard to find.

The first question: Is this a new phenomenon, or, have principals always been mediocre?  Let’s remember, we have had decades of low achieving schools. Scores of large high schools have been closed, high schools that were dropout factories, and, schools in which the powers that make policy seemed  not to care. The lowest achieving schools were staffed with the substitutes, called PPT’s (Provisional Preparatory Teachers), teachers who could not pass the required pre-service exams. There was an unofficial triage system: some schools were sacrificed so others could survive. The most effective teachers and principals found their way to the highest achieving schools.  An (in)famous surreptitiously filmed video showed a principal boasting, “Just because I paid for my job doesn’t mean I’m not competent.”  I spent my career working in a “good “school,  with mostly effective teachers and principals; all of whom “cut their teeth” in high poverty schools and figured out how to move on to a “better” school.

There were exceptions, dedicated teachers and principals who worked with the neediest children, it was a struggle, higher salaries in the suburbs, parent associations that raised tens of thousands of dollars, highly motivated kids, easy transportation into safe neighborhoods, the allure of moving on was great.

An answer to the first question: the past may not have been as bright as it appears in retrospect.

Does the age and lack of experience of current school leaders account for the mediocrity?

Over the last dozen years the Department has closed over 150 schools and created hundreds of new schools. Twenty-five years ago there were about 125  high schools, comprehensive and vocational schools, now there are over 400 high schools, mostly small schools, additionally, the Department has also closed middle schools and created much smaller schools: hundreds upon hundreds of new school leaders thrust into positions of school leadership,

Virtually every school of education has a leadership program, you take the courses, complete an internship, usually in your own school, and pass a state exam and you receive certification, the program admission standards are low.  New York City Department of Education has a Leadership Academy – part of the program selects teachers and fast tracks them to school leadership positions, under the current administration the candidate must serve seven years as a teacher, under the former regime there was no requirement. Are these new, younger, less experienced school leaders less effective than predecessors?

Does teaching experience impact the success of the school leader?

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell lays out the much quoted “10,000 hours rule,”  simply put: gaining mastery requires 10,000 hours of “deliberate” practice.

The principle holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field.

But a new Princeton study tears that theory down. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains. 

  • In education, a 4% difference
  • In professions, just a 1% difference

In it, Johansson argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. For example, in tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. 

But in less stable fields, like entrepreneurship … rules can go out the window… mastery is more than a matter of practice. 

“There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued,” the study’s lead author, Brooke Macnamara, said in a statement. “For scientists, the important question now is what else matters?”

Others questions emerge: are “highly effective” teaching skills a prerequisite to becoming a “highly effective” school leader?”  How do you assess leadership skills prior to entering a certification program? And, the most controversial, and core question: can leadership be taught, or, is it an innate skill or quality?

In his book The Sports Gene, David Epstein muses over the question of athletic prowess.

In high school, I wondered whether the Jamaican Americans who made our track team so successful might carry some special speed gene from their tiny island. In college, I ran against Kenyans, and wondered whether endurance genes might have traveled with them from East Africa. At the same time, I began to notice that a training group on my team could consist of five men who run next to one another, stride for stride, day after day, and nonetheless turn out five entirely different runners. How could this be?

We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they?

In other words, is athletic prowess nature or nurture?  Is there a hereditary predisposition to some sport or is it a learned behavior?

Does “practice make perfect” or, is there such a thing as a “natural?” Schools of Education argue school leaders can be made through coursework and an internship; however, we still don’t know how leadership skills are acquired.

Is leadership an inherited trait, is there a genetic predisposition to leadership?  Once upon a time it was commonplace for the football coach to become the principal or the superintendent: do coaching skills translate into leadership skills? To be blunt: are there “natural” school leaders?

A new term is “churn rate,” the percentage of teachers that leave a school each year. Under the Department of Education Open Market Transfer Plan any teacher can move to any school only requiring the approval of the receiving school. Some schools have high “churn rates,” teachers spend a year or two in a school and leave. Yes, some to move to a better school in a better neighborhood, others to get away from a school leader who is less than effective.

School leaders are frequently frustrated, mistrusted and criticized,

* “The teachers nod and agree and nothing chances, they don’t take me seriously.”

* “The principal spends all of his/her time on school climate and discipline and nothing changes.”

* “The principal spends all of his/her time in the office complaining about paperwork.”

* “The kids think the principal’s a joke,”

* “I don’t get any support – I feel like I’m left adrift to sink or swim.”

I was visiting a school co-located on the top floor of another school – both middle schools. As I walked upstairs I heard angry yelling coming from classrooms (“Get into your seats!!”), kids wandering in the halls, as I walked onto the top floor, the school I was visiting, a kid walked up to me, introduced himself by name, and asked if he could be of assistance. I was impressed and told the folks in the office – all the kids were trained to act that way with any visitor. The classrooms were interactive, the kids seemed engaged. In the lunchroom some teachers were sitting with kids – teachers were paid to tutor during lunch (called “Lunch and Learn”). What was the difference?  Why was one of the schools chaotic and the other orderly?  Why did the school leaders have such different skill sets?  Different training?  Different life experiences? All the kids came from neighborhood elementary schools; they all lived in the nearby crime-infested projects.

Some argue that knowledge of culturally relevant pedagogy is essential to becoming an effective school leader: learned skills. Others imply that race is an important component in relating to students of color: implying teachers and principals of color are desirable. Are prior leadership/team experiences necessary? namely, is participation in group/team activities (sports, dance, orchestra, etc.) prerequisites?

In my view leadership programs should be as selective as law schools and medical schools – too many candidates should never have been accepted in the first place.  School leadership requires a unique skillset.

Advice to principals:

* Spend at least half your time out of the office – most of it talking to students.

* Teach a class – maybe not every day – show off your skills.

* Include the union rep and teachers in all planning activates.

* Meet with parents and the community in structured meetings – not complaint sessions.

* Listen, listen, listen … most principals talk too much and listen too little.

* Say thank you … to everyone who deserves a thank you.

* Don’t settle – be tough and fair – set high standards for everyone – especially yourself.

* Exercise regularly – maybe with staff…

* Be a leader – and, if you have a problem defining what that means we have a problem.


7 responses to “School Leadership Matters: Why Are So Many School Leaders Mediocre?

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    Excellent advice to principals! I just shared it with a new AP.


  2. I worked with 10 to 12 principals in my thirty years as a teacher, and the best, be far, was Ralph Pagan. He trusted his teachers and organized us into teams to deal with different aspects of running the school from the ground up, but he was a principal in a district run from the top down by micro managers (idiots and dolts in my view) who did not like Ralph with his bottom up management style.

    Ralph was the principal that hired me for my first full time teaching contract after I had been through a full time urban residency credentialing program and subbed for two more years. Ralph spoiled me becasue after he had his stroke from all the pressure caused by the micromanaging autocrats in the district office, it didn’t take long to discover with all the principals I worked with after Ralph, that Ralph was rare, unique and an endangered species, because the pschos that crave power can’t stand independent, critical thinking problem solving administrators like Ralph was.

    Ralph talked with a soft voice and always had a smile ready for teachers, children and staff.

    How dedicated was he to the educational atmosphere and safety of his school? My first year on the job, Ralph warned the staff to never leave the school grounds and walk into the community because the odds were we would never be seen again. Giano Intermediate was surrounded by dangerous, violent, multi-generational street gangs, but Ralph did not follow his own advice. Unknown to most of the staff, Ralph went into the local community often. He called all the known gang leaders and had dinner at their homes. He gained their trust, their respect and forged agreements with them that they their gangs would not cause problems on our middle school campus, and it worked.

    When Ralph was hired to turn Giano around, that intermediate school had a repudiation as the worst and most dangerous school in the San Gabriel Valley. How dangerous? For instance, one weekend one of our better 8th grade students went across the street from his parents house to ask the neighbor to turn down their loud music so his family could sleep. The neighbor, a hard core gang member, shot him dead and then stuffed his body in a nearby culvert.


  3. Ken Karcinell

    Mediocrity in every field of endeavor, is close to an acceptable norm. In all of our sports leagues where there are numerous competitors, the majority are mediocre, only some approach excellence in achievement. In medicine,law, policing, politics,and anything else you can think of, excellence is a virtue only a relatively small number of individuals achieve. Schools are no different. Excellence in the classroom is shown by some but not by most. Excellent School leadership ,the same.The basic ingredient to attaining excellence is by those who decide who should be in position to promote excellence.Who hires a Tony Larussa, and why does he get hired. What are his core beliefs about how he goes about his business. For all these reasons, such criteria as test taking for positions, pupil achievement levels, should not carry all the weight that it presently does in measuring excellence, or the potential for excellence. Certainly, in school achievement, in my opinion is linked with a strong behavioral management code. In this present day and age, that kind of thinking is “verboten.”. The speedy removal of incompetent teachers and supervisors continues to be talked about , but never acted upon. So the wheels keep spinning, and folks keep marching, and no one goes anywhere, let alone travel the road to excellence..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have the pleasure of working with my principal who does all these things and more. This person has made what could have been a nightmare year in a receivership school manageable.


  5. Jacqueline Foil (retired teacher and concerned citizen)

    The very first principal I worked with was Sol Siegel of PS 135K on 1960. He was the best principal in my over thirty years as a New York City elementary school teacher. He was hired because he passed a competency based exam, scored well and not at the whim of a local school Board who chose their friends to be principals without regard to competency.
    Peter Goodman’s suggestions at the end of this article is very well thought out and probably should be on the desk of every principal, no matter what his/her grade level.
    i also agree that “leadership programs should be as selective as law schools and medical schools – too many candidates should never have been accepted in the first place. School leadership requires a unique skill set.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Eric Nadelstern pressure Superintendents to hire those Leadership Academy graduates as principals with little or no classroom experience when he was Deputy Chancellor?


  7. Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    apply this higher ed admin


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s