Guiding the Growth of California's School Leaders: California School Leaders Face Unique Challenges and Extra Demands. Leadership Development Programs Are Key to Helping Administrators Excel in Their Complex Roles

Leadership, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Guiding the Growth of California's School Leaders: California School Leaders Face Unique Challenges and Extra Demands. Leadership Development Programs Are Key to Helping Administrators Excel in Their Complex Roles


California's principals and superintendents have long had to balance challenging and complex roles. They are instructional leaders supporting student learning, managers handling the operations of their institutions, and communicators maintaining productive relationships with their local, state and federal stakeholders.

With the advent of standards-based reforms, today's administrators are also expected to oversee the transformation of their schools and districts into innovative learning organizations that continuously assess their own progress in raising student achievement. These complex roles require effective leaders at the school and district levels who can respond to state academic content standards and the needs of their communities, articulate clear goals, and provide the tools to meet them.

Superintendents and principals need to have both the capability and the time to lead as well as manage--and that presents particular challenges in California compared to elsewhere in the United States.

To begin with, California administrators, as a whole, serve students who are more disadvantaged than those in most other states. Students who lack fluency in English or who come from low-income families generally require more help to succeed academically. California has a higher percentage of English learners than any other state and ranks 13th in the number of students living in poverty, based on 2005-06 National Center for Education Statistics data.

In addition, California administrators work under a state-controlled school finance system that requires more paperwork and allows less flexibility in how funds are used than is the case in many other states. About a third of California's total school funding comes from categorical aid for special programs or groups of students.

In part because categorical aid is often used to strengthen the academic safety net for English learners and low-income students, schools and districts with large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds often have a higher percentage of funds from categorical aid.

Stanford University researchers in one study, "District Dollars: Painting a Picture of Revenues and Expenditures in California's School Districts" (2006), show that high-poverty districts generally receive a larger portion of their total funding through categorical aid. Although such aid provides critically needed funds, these funds are typically accompanied by spending restrictions and reporting requirements that put extra demands on school district administrators.

Syracuse University researchers in another study, "Understanding the Incentives in California's Education Finance System" (2007), found that handling the paperwork involved with categorical funding "places additional constraints and responsibilities on school districts." In addition, they found that higher proportions of categorical aid lowered district efficiency related to student performance.

Despite the difficult challenges superintendents and principals face in California, administrators in this state are also typically responsible for much larger numbers of students than their counterparts elsewhere in the United States. The most recent data from NCES put the ratio of total students to administrators in California at 274 to 1, which is 100 students per administrator more than the national average. California ranks 49th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia; only Arizona and Nevada have higher ratios.

As the chart above shows, the ratio differs dramatically among the five most populous states, with California having the largest ratio of students to administrators, followed closely by Florida. Notably, in Texas there are less than half as many students per administrator as in California and Florida. Texas has the eighth-lowest students-per-administrator ratio.

Increased expectations for student achievement have placed the most pressure on school site leaders, who are expected to manage a complex facility and also serve as the instructional leader for the school's teachers. …

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