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.