Democratically Accountable Leader/ship: A Social Justice Perspective of Educational Quality and Practice

By Mullen, Carol A. | Teacher Education Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Democratically Accountable Leader/ship: A Social Justice Perspective of Educational Quality and Practice


Mullen, Carol A., Teacher Education Quarterly


If a primary educational goal is to create and sustain more democratic schools by enabling the growth of practitioners as democratic leaders (Cochran-Smith, 2003; Giroux, 1992; Jenlink, 2002), then teachers must be given opportunities to express their tacit beliefs as developing democratic-accountable leaders. Democratically accountable leadership can be understood as a dynamic force that shapes the social justice work of organizational leaders. Responsive preparation programs in educational leadership foster both the democratic capacity of aspiring leaders and their readiness for the challenges of accountability-driven systems.

A significant issue in public education regards ideological-based accountability restrictions on the educational process. In this discussion, I attempt to refocus attention on the quality of K-12 education in the United States, away from standardized test scores and teacher credentialing toward democratic leadership. My strategy involves exploring ideas relevant to aspiring leaders of democratically accountable educational systems with respect to tensions between democracy and accountability. I propose a conceptual framework known as democratic accountability that places democracy and accountability in harmony as well as in opposition. This orientation to educational leadership fits with the "ideology, or social justice question" that Cochran-Smith (2003) posits as one of the eight key questions that serve as overarching frameworks for problematizing multicultural teacher education (p. 11). I also use teacher quality to refer to the capacity of educators to deal effectively with the underlying forces of accountability and democracy that drive the educational enterprise and their work. Rice (2003) confirms that the teacher characteristics affecting education reform and policy are "preparation in both pedagogic and subject content, credentials, experience, and test scores" (p. 2). Hence, the characteristics applicable herein exist outside the nomenclature of teacher quality that prevails within school and policy contexts.

As a leadership professor charged with preparing future school leaders, I am curious about the ability of educational leaders to manage the promises and pitfalls of competing accountability and democratic agendas within the multiple contexts of the classroom and school. This narrative case study of educational quality from the perspective of teachers and leaders has the potential to inform the current democracy-accountability debate. It could prove informative to learn how education practitioners conceptualize democratically accountable leadership and take ownership of their ideas and beliefs. Through an emergent analysis, I identify relevant ideas and contexts, as well as the dispositions, attitudes, and behaviors of such leaders.

Up-to-date preparation programs in educational leadership focus on the necessary dispositions, knowledge, and behaviors that educational leaders should have to effectively lead 21st century schools (Clark & Clark, 1996). As Giroux (1992) asserts, these programs are "trapped" in a "discourse of leadership" that is entrenched "in a vocabulary in which the estimate of a good society is expressed in indices"; missing, then, "is a vocabulary for talking about and creating public cultures and communities" (p. 5). In recent years, this argument has centered on preparing aspiring leaders as critical, democratic thinkers in the areas of citizenship and ethics, social justice, and diversity (e.g., Allen, 2006; English, 2003; Giroux, 1992; Shields, 2006). However, such programs in general have yet to promote sustained dialogue around democratic leadership and its multiple forms in schools and society (Allen, 2006; English, 2003; Giroux, 1992). Democratic schools are "where the voices of teachers, practitioners, parents, and students are heard" (Jenlink, 2002, p. 30); they are active in decision making, support diversity and equality, and value creating and sustaining the community (Jenlink, 2002; Jenlink & Jenlink, 2006; Mullen & Johnson, 2006; Ringo, 2006). …

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