Out with the Old: University-Based School Administration Programs Are Incoherent, Undercapitalized, and Disconnected from the Districts Where Graduates Are Most Likely to Seek Employment. There Is Much to Be Learned from the Way Business and the Military Train Their Leaders

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LIKE FREDERICK HESS (SEE "LIFTING THE BARRIER," PAGE 12), I BELIEVE that the nation's graduate schools of education have largely failed to develop the kinds of leaders needed in K-12 education. However, I fear that his solution--virtually abandoning licensure--would return the process of appointing principals in public schools to the highly politicized state that once prevailed.

My ideal alternative would be to replace the current licensure system with one based on performance. Instead of taking a prescribed set of university-based courses in school administration to obtain a license, aspiring principals would run schools on a trial basis under close supervision and be subject to a high-quality assessment of their performance. Those who made the grade would receive licenses. Under a performance-based licensing regime, other providers, such as school districts, states, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit companies, could compete against universities for the opportunity to offer training that would help candidates earn their licenses.

Of course, political realities make the world less than ideal, and it may take many years before performance-based licensure becomes a reality, if it ever does. In the meantime, schools desperately need principals who are trained to bring about massive turnarounds in performance. Hess and others argue for deepening the pool of potential candidates by opening school leadership positions to those without a license or teaching experience, but I doubt that will work. People who do not understand teaching and learning--the core business of schools--would require a great deal of training in those areas, followed by years of mentoring, before they would be able to pass the kind of performance assessments I have in mind as the basis of licensure. You can't coach people in a craft, especially a complex craft like teaching, unless you know the craft; you can't help teachers be outstanding instructors, which is the central role that school leaders should play, unless you understand teachers and the classroom challenges they face.

Given the unlikelihood of reforming the licensure system anytime soon, in the short term it seems wise to focus mainly on revamping the means by which the nation selects and trains leaders for its schools. Today's principals and district officials are woefully unprepared for the challenges they face. The era of accountability, speeded along by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, is now demanding dramatically better academic performance with little or no increase in the funds available to do the job.

Training on the Cheap

There is an inadequate pool of candidates qualified to take on these new challenges. The pay for principals, calculated on an hourly basis, is low relative to that of teachers, and the stress of the job is beyond bounds in an environment in which the principal bears all the burdens of the new accountability movement but has very little control over most of the things that determine whether students achieve at high levels.

Making matters worse, the pool of candidates for the principalship is entirely self-selected. Today the chief requirement to become a school principal is to earn a degree in school administration, and individual teachers decide whether they want to pursue one of these advanced degrees. People who apply to the programs are seldom evaluated on the likelihood that they will be effective school leaders, a fact that astounds the military personnel and businesspeople I've spoken with. In their fields, potential leaders are hand-picked for management training based on their performance and leadership potential. In education, by contrast, few individuals who meet the minimum academic requirements are turned away from school administration programs. In fact, their salary schedules give teachers an incentive to take these courses in order to increase their pay, without their having any intention of becoming a principal. …