Academic journal article High School Journal

The Characteristics of High School Department Chairs: A National Perspective

Academic journal article High School Journal

The Characteristics of High School Department Chairs: A National Perspective

Article excerpt

Department chairs occupy a potentially important leadership position in high schools, yet little is known about them, particularly with regard to who they are and how they compare to other high school teachers. This is surprising given growing expectations for distributed leadership practice in schools. In this study, I utilize a national dataset to provide a large-scale look at the characteristics of department chairs. Additionally, I provide insight into the characteristics of chairs that appear to be important to theft serving in the position.

Keywords: department chairs, high schools, school leadership


There is growing recognition in both the theoretical and empirical literature that leadership is often carried out by multiple school members in both formal and informal positions (Gronn, 2000, 2002; Heller & Firestone, 1995; Leithwood et al., 2007; Ritchie & Woods, 2007: Spillane, 2005; Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2001, 2004; Spillane & Healey, 2010). In their study of 100 elementary schools, for example, Cambum, Rowan, and Taylor (2003) found that leadership functions were distributed across up to seven positions in each school. At the high school level, Flores and Roberts' (2008) case study of three mathematics departments revealed that principals shared instructional leadership roles with department chairs.

The expectation and need for distributed leadership in schools appears to stem at least in part from the complex and ever-increasing array of responsibilities associated with the principalship (IEL, 2000: Knapp, Copland, & Talbert, 2003; Murphy et al., 2007; Swaffield & MacBeath, 2009). In a 2005 meta-analysis, Marzano, Waters, and McNulty identified 21 responsibilities associated with effective principals. As they and others have argued, the job of the principal has become too big and complex for one person to perform effectively (Harris, 2007; Harris & Spillane, 2008; IEL, 2000).

Among principalships, the high school principalship is viewed as being particularly challenging due to the generally larger size and organizational complexity of high schools compared to elementary schools (Copland & Boatright, 2006; Siskin, 1997). Academic departments emerged with the establishment of larger high schools during the district consolidation movement so that principals could enable others to assume some administrative and supervisory roles (Kidd, 1965; Zepeda & Kruskamp, 2007). Departments remain central to the formal organizational system in high schools (Copland & Boatright, 2006; Little, 1993; Siskin, 1994, 1997; Siskin & Little, 1995). Indeed, Siskin and Little (1995) described academic departments as "a fundamental feature, and a highly stable structure, of secondary schooling" (p. 16). Perhaps even more important than providing organizational and administrative structure, departments have been identified as the critical space in which high school teachers interact and develop their professional identities and skills (Bennett, Woods, Wise, & Newton, 2007; Siskin, 1994; Siskin & Little, 1995). Moreover, Copland and Boatright (2006) suggested that the department structure in high schools might be viewed as a "powerful lever for change" (p. 7) given the generally limited subject expertise of individual school leaders compared to the expert knowledge typically found within each department.

Department chairs occupy a formal and unique position within the departmental structure. Situated between school administrators and teachers, the chair position has been cited as a leadership opportunity within high schools (Bliss, Fahrney, & Steffy, 1995; Jarvis, 2008; Louis & Miles, 1990; Siskin, 1997; Weller, 2001; Worner & Brown, 1993). Yet, in contrast to the attention paid to school principals, scholars and policymakers have paid scant attention to department chairs. As a result, relatively little is known about those who hold the position or about the actual roles that department chairs currently play in U. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.