Images of the school administrator have been shaped over the past century by various ideas serving to focus practice. While the behavioral sciences image that influenced preparation curricula after World War II has lost its luster, the earlier managerial perspective that sees the school as a system of production remains, pervading educational reforms. This perspective appears in current pressures to measure and assess performance and in expectations that adjusting instructional strategies will improve learning outcomes. However, this view overlooks the complexity of schools and the nesting of schools within larger institutions.
What constitutes effective educational leadership today? This paper explores three arenas to provide a partial answer to this important question: special conditions of the work itself, forces in the school’s environment that shape leadership challenges, and recurring dilemmas inherent in leading schools and districts. Public educators have a special responsibility to be deliberately moral. Resources of time, money, materials, and staff are limited, and choices with moral consequences must be made. For example, a decision about whether to invest resources in math courses for gifted students or in improving the existing math curriculum affects students’ futures. Good school administrators wrestle thoughtfully with moral dilemmas and recognize the centrality of managing value in their work. What is in a child’s best interests is a recurring concern, and the answer often is not clear.
School leaders must also act as stewards in developing public understanding of and support for schools. They must encourage communities and their elected representatives to reduce disadvantages that interfere with children’s academic success and to understand that improving academic achievement for all students requires significant changes in curriculum, instruction, and leadership. Moreover, school leaders must foster students’ intercultural competence among children and show communities how better schools will benefit them. It is increasingly clear that the relationships among teaching, learning, administration, and school organization are complex. The effects of administrative action on teaching and learning are difficult to assess, since teaching is not fully understood and since tremendous diversity characterizes teachers and students. While some research indicates that interventions to improve student engagement are beneficial, learning outcomes are affected by many variables, and uncertainty remains about what works, even as states and schools boards expect improved outcomes.
Leaders rely on face-to-face interactions to accomplish goals that involve people working together to influence others. “People work” is more important and complex in schools than in other organizations. Workgroup norms critically influence teaching practices for better or for worse, and changing schools requires administrators who can change teachers’ beliefs about effective practice by gaining trust and discussing practice. Resistance to change in schools is a cultural challenge, and the school administrator is a key agent in shaping and reinforcing shared meaning directed toward reform. Central contextual forces shaping school leadership include changes in school demographics, hybrid school governance, accountability frameworks, and professionalization of teaching. Educational leaders cannot ignore or resist these often conflicting forces. Rising student population in public schools is associated with overcrowding. Demographic analysis shows greater ethnic and linguistic diversity in schools. Also, single parent households among school age students are increasing. This change is significant, since single mother households are more likely than others to be impoverished. Meanwhile, more students receive special education services, and economic pressures make it harder for parents to support children and schools.
Schools face governance that features both local and centralized control. Site-based decision making has become more prevalent, placing new demands on teachers’ time, while public education financing compels strong dependence on central governments as well as systematization of policies throughout districts. Widespread accountability trends like standardized state assessments and school report cards have also complicated school leaders’ roles. External constituencies increasingly drive accountability frameworks, including business leaders pressuring schools to raise student achievement to meet the needs of the information economy, state governments implementing and assessing accountability plans, and a federal government requiring increased accountability.
Critics of external accountability mechanisms suggest that these mechanisms reduce local autonomy and narrow curricular and instructional options. Some critics think that school-based accountability mechanisms may be a more effective means of changing classrooms. A new professionalism is characteristic of teaching today, as entry requirements and professional standards rise and teaching concepts move toward more collaborative relationships, including mentoring, teaching teams, and continuous professional development. Teachers see themselves as members of a professional community involving both in-school and external groups. Some reforms and existing structures work to perpetuate standardized controls that conflict with professional concepts of teaching. Administrators thus work in contexts that may put them at odds with teachers even as they endeavor to address teachers’ needs.
Recurring dilemmas for educational leaders involve competing values, such as the professional value of classroom autonomy and the organizational value of cooperation that requires teachers to work together. Representative dilemmas involve tensions between leading and managing, addressing the system and the environment, and encouraging participatory decision making while concurrently striving to preserve teachers’ individual authority. Administrators must lead schools toward improved instruction while managing schools so that they function effectively. This traditional dilemma is becoming more difficult to handle as public expectations for improved schools rise. The dilemma is especially significant in poorer and smaller districts with fewer resources. As communities become more heterogeneous, schools must serve more students who are poor and whose native language is not English. Such pressures on school stability intensify the challenges of leading school improvement. Leaders must also manage internal operations of school systems at the same time as they address external exigencies. While superintendents have traditionally focused externally, today they must often focus internally. They must monitor individual school performance while they respond to governmental demands on their districts. Principals too must attend to their traditional internal role of managing schools while responding to external demands. The closer links that are being forged between schools and communities also require leaders to balance competing demands. School administrators must balance participatory leadership with the imperative to make difficult decisions that may not be collectively endorsed. Since participatory leadership requires the involvement of teachers and parents, administrators must invite participation while they are faced with circumstances that require immediate action. Accountability trends pressing leaders to make difficult choices that may not be satisfactory to all in the school community complicate leaders’ efforts to encourage participation and foster a consensus model.
Today’s educational leaders must grapple with complex, dynamic educational systems while responding to social and political pressures. It is unclear how school systems will change under demands for new leadership. Bureaucratic frameworks may become more entrenched under pressure to implement standards and accountability testing consistently. Or, school systems may become increasingly autonomous, as parental school choice and market-style leadership gain favor. Alternatively, dissatisfaction with bureaucratic and market visions of schools could lead to schools increasingly focused on social justice. In any event, administrators face a difficult fusion of roles, contexts, and challenges. Effective educational leadership in the 21st century will require administrators committed to enacting strategies that make it possible for all children to succeed academically.