Improving Schools By Improving Leadership

Amid all of the Washington talk on who is going to move into what ED job and whether the reformers or the status quoers were going to be in a position of authority over on Maryland Avenue (I’m assuming the little red school houses will come down, regardless), there are actually some discussions of substance and purpose.  Case in point — the Education Trust conference happening this week across the river from our nation’s capital.

One of the more interesting strands of discussion was that of educational leadership.  More importantly, it was about leadership at the school and the district level.  At a session sponsored by the Wallace Foundation and facilitated by Wallace President Christine DeVita, nearly 1,000 activists and practitioners from around the country heard about the need for leadership development in our principal ranks and a glimpse at what has been working to transform the principal from building manager to instructional leader.
Coming off a Wallace Foundation study on the subject, Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond offered some of the more interesting tidbits of the afternoon.  Why are current school leadership programs failing?  Because they focus on the wrong things.  According to Darling-Hammond, too many educational leadership programs take whoever wants to enroll (versus identifying and recruiting future leaders), offer courses focused on school administration (teaching only about schools as they are, instead of schools as they could be), and prepare future leaders for generic schools (instead of prepping them for the real challenges of both urban and poor rural schools in need of real leadership).  
What should these programs be doing?  First, they need to recognize they are educating the next generation of teachers and leaders.  Second, the need to focus on core issues such as instructional leadership, organizational development, and change processes.  They need to position their lessons around real school reforms in real districts.  And they need to focus the next generation of leaders to commit to moving schools to the next level.  
For Darling-Hammond, that means principals and school leaders developing instruction, and not just administering it.  It means holding all kids to high standards.  It means helping teachers develop the skills needed to achieve school goals.  It means recognizing we have to change, and knowing the constituencies we need to work with (and how to work with them) to get that change to happen.
When we talk about professional development, we usually think of it in terms of the classroom teacher.  Few really focus on PD for the leadership.  We assume that you give a teacher a graduate degree, offer five or seven years of instructional PD as part of the in-service program, and BOOM, they are qualified to lead the building as a principal.  We assume that good teachers make good principals.  We assume great teachers can make great principals.  And in doing so, we often pull the best teachers out of the classroom.
From today’s Ed Trust presentations to research study after research study to missives such as NAESP’s Leading Learning Communities, we know that good principals are those that are both effective building managers and strong instructional leaders.  Those skills comes from a focused and sustained effort in leadership development.  It comes from recognizing that we need to change principal training to to reflect the changing challenges of the job.
What does all this mean?  First and foremost, we need to think of the job of school principal differently.  Second, we need to better understand the connections between school leadership and student achievement.  And third, PD is for all those in the education continuum, not just for those newbie teachers in search of a better understanding of pedagogy.
Leave it to Ed Trust to open up conversations that too few are engaging in.  Maybe as a new Congress and a new Administration begin to look at the issue of PD under Title II, they will look at it for the teacher, the principal, and the superintendent.  Now if only we could find a way to offer educational PD for the parent, then we’d have the perfect storm for school improvement.

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