Academic journal article Education Next

The Accidental Principal: What Doesn't Get Taught at Ed Schools?

Academic journal article Education Next

The Accidental Principal: What Doesn't Get Taught at Ed Schools?

Article excerpt

If school leadership is the key to school improvement, then school principals are the people who know where the key ring hangs. In an era of accountability, of charter schooling and merit pay, of data-driven standards and skill management, school principals are the front-line managers, the shop stewards, the brigade commanders--the ones who will lead a team to new levels of effectiveness. Or not.

Indeed, the principal's critical role in the No Child Left Behind era may just be taken for granted. There is growing evidence to suggest that the revolution in school organization, management, and curricular affairs may have left principals behind. In a 2003 report, the nonpartisan research organization, Public Agenda, reported that today's school superintendents want their principals to display prowess in everything from accountability to instructional leadership and teacher quality, but principals themselves don't think they are equipped for these duties. Just 36 percent of them, according to Public Agenda, believe that their tougher scrutiny of weak teachers is leading to tenure denials and only 30 percent report that student achievement is being factored into their teacher evaluations. Most worrisome, perhaps, some 96 percent of practicing principals say that colleagues were more helpful than graduate studies in preparing them for the job. In fact, two-thirds of the principals polled by Public Agenda report that "leadership programs in graduate schools of education are out of touch" with what principals need to know.

A recent four-year study by the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, Arthur Levine, raised the stakes in this debate by harshly assessing the quality of educational administration programs. Based on a survey of practicing principals and education school deans, chairs, faculty, and alumni, as well as case studies of 25 school leadership programs, Levine concluded that "the majority of [educational administration] programs range from inadequate to appalling, even at some of the country's leading universities." In particular, the study found that the typical course of studies required of principal candidates was largely disconnected from the realities of school management, though the content of these courses was not analyzed. Among Levine's thoughtful solutions: to create an education management degree like the M.B.A., to eliminate the Ed.D., and to stop districts from offering pay raises for course credit. Such structural changes are certainly welcome, but Levine's study raises a more fundamental question as to whether the content of preparation courses, in addition to their structure, must be reconceptualized.

Given that 48 states require principals to be certified in educational administration, the disappointing state of principal preparation is disturbing news. Why does there seem to be such a wide gulf between what principals say they need to know to do their job and what they are taught in education programs required by state departments of education? Given what practicing principals say, schools of education seem to be missing a golden opportunity to contribute to school improvement.

What the Syllabi Tell Us

What are preparation programs asking future principals to learn? Beyond the recent Teachers College study, which did not seek to systematically explore the content of instruction, that question has remained unaddressed since researchers last conducted reviews of what was taught in University Council for Educational Administration preparation programs, in 1987 and 1992. Much has changed in American education since then, with principals today being asked to do many more and varied things, including using information from sophisticated accountability systems to evaluate teachers and enhance school improvement. Have education schools responded to these new challenges?

To provide some preliminary answers to these questions, we examined the course syllabi used in a cross-section of principal-preparation programs from across the United States (see sidebar, page 37, for our methodology). …

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