The Chronicle Review

From the issue dated April 15, 2005


Change in the Principal's Office: the Role of Universities


I can't even begin to count how many people in the past two weeks have asked me if I am optimistic about the prospects for overhauling the programs that prepare future school principals and superintendents. My answer is that I am cautiously optimistic.

The questions are the result of a report I wrote, "Educating School Leaders," which was released in mid-March. It was the first product of a four-year study of the nation's schools of education, sponsored by the Annenberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation. The research involved surveys of thousands of education-school deans, faculty members, alumni, and school principals. It also included case studies of 28 schools and studies of the degrees that education schools award, the programs that they offer, and the dissertations that their students write.

The report concluded that educational administration is the weakest program that schools of education offer. It found that few strong programs exist; most vary in quality from inadequate to appalling. Their shortcomings include irrelevant and incoherent curricula, low admission and graduation standards, inadequate clinical instruction, weak faculties, degrees that are irrelevant to the jobs students eventually hold, insufficient financial support, and poor research.

The report suggested that the many failing programs that cannot be turned around should be closed and the remaining programs should be redesigned. It proposed that the current master's program in educational administration -- which seems little more than a random collection of courses -- should give way to the equivalent of an M.B.A. in education, a rigorous terminal degree combining classes in education and management. It recommended that the doctoral degree for practitioners, generally the Ed.D., should be eliminated because it is now a watered-down degree unnecessary to the job of being a school administrator. Instead, advancement through the administrative ranks should occur through a series of short-term certificate programs geared to a school leader's career stage and the needs of his or her school.

Mine is the latest in a long line of reports going back decades that have decried the state of school-leadership programs. In recent years the pace of such criticism has accelerated, but the programs have for the most part continued to conduct business as usual.

So why am I cautiously optimistic? There are three reasons.

First, awareness is growing that education-leadership programs are weak, along with reluctance to defend them. I expected to be throttled for my report; instead the reaction thus far has been surprisingly positive. While taking issue with certain aspects of the report, a joint statement from the national professional associations for elementary-school principals, secondary-school principals, and superintendents said the report "confirms much of what school leaders have said for decades, that many university preparation programs fall woefully short. Many programs simply do not teach what it takes to run a school or school district." I had expected, perhaps unfairly, those organizations to reject the report's findings since the vast majority of their members have earned leadership degrees from education schools.

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education is another organization that I thought might be critical of the report because that group has taken on the task of accrediting the nation's school-leadership programs. Instead its president, Arthur E. Wise, wrote on the council's Web site, "I agree with the analysis and most of the recommendations in the report 'Educating School Leaders.'" While he considered the report too bleak, he agreed with the general idea that it is time for all parties concerned to encourage school districts, universities, and their students to contribute the effort required for more rigorous education-leadership programs.

Perhaps the most influential and visible figure in the field of school leadership, Joseph Murphy, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, did criticize the report, but not for the reasons I had anticipated. He said it did not go far enough, and proposed that states impose a three-year sunset provision on school-leadership programs, closing all programs that failed to achieve adequate standards in that time.

I received many, many e-mail messages. Only a small percentage were negative; many included personal accounts of the ways that leadership programs had failed the writer.

The angriest responses were the e-mail messages, public statements, letters, and phone calls from leadership programs. They criticized the writing of the report for giving aid and comfort to critics. They said the problems described in the report did not exist on their campuses or even in their states. They criticized the study's methodology, its intent, and, in some cases, its failure to recognize their programs' advances. They said the study ignored the major improvements that have occurred in the school-leadership field in the past decade.

The second reason for my cautious optimism is that state action seems more likely than in the past. Governors and legislators have become increasingly impatient with inadequate programs that fail to properly prepare their principals and superintendents. Raising the quality of school-leadership preparation was a topic at the recent National Education Summit on High Schools. The Wallace Foundation has invested nearly $100-million in more than 20 states to encourage a rethinking and improvement in the entire state system of school leadership, including preparation, recruitment, licensing, and support for leaders. In addition, several states, like Louisiana, have taken Mr. Murphy's recommendation to heart and are setting deadlines for leadership programs to prove their worth or else close their doors.

Last week I ran into one of the most respected education governors in the country, who thanked me for the report. His remarks were less a comment about me or my report than an expression of his and his peers' determination to deal with the problem. If state leaders choose to act, they have the ability to demand the reauthorization of every leadership program within their borders. That could lead to the elimination of failing programs, the strengthening of marginal ones, and support for the strongest.

A third reason the present might be a better time for change than the past is that leadership programs are facing a rising number of non-university competitors, and the states are opening pathways into leadership professions that bypass education schools. Consider this: In 2003 a majority of states had no requirements for top-level school administrator positions, or they had alternative certification programs or a policy of exceptions that allowed candidates without education-school preparation to become superintendents and principals. In the years ahead those numbers are likely to increase. It is not an exaggeration to say that school-leadership programs are at risk of becoming superfluous.

Indeed, several of the nation's largest cities have taken advantage of that flexibility by hiring candidates without degrees in education or people who aren't even educators to head their school systems. Major cities like Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia have hired lawyers, government officials, business people, military officers, and others with records of successfully leading large organizations. At the same time, a growing number of competitors -- including states, school districts, individual schools, foundations, professional associations, and other nonprofit and commercial organizations -- are developing their own programs.

Whether or not university-based school-leadership programs choose to clean their own houses, change will occur. The simple fact is that those programs are being replaced. Yet my hope is that universities and their educational-administration programs will embrace change rather than watch the states and the marketplace take away their franchise.

I am deeply saddened the situation has come to this. I am an insider, a member of the family, who cares deeply about education schools, having spent most of my career as either a faculty member or president of a school of education. I want our leadership programs to be better, not to be replaced.

University-based leadership programs actually have inherent advantages over the alternatives. As part of the academy, they bring linkages with many other fields -- teacher education, child development, business, and law. They also have established longstanding relationships with school systems and their leaders. Finally, because such an extraordinary number of school administrators are needed in the years ahead as people retire, it is unrealistic to expect that alternative programs can fill the gap. Aside from being unproven, they are too few and too small, even with their recent proliferation.

But university-based leadership programs are not fulfilling their promise now. And they need to do that -- not merely for self-preservation, but for the sake of our children and our schools.

Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College at Columbia University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 32, Page B16

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education