Nothing matters more to an organization's success than the quality of its leadership, and nowhere is that clearer than in public education. Twenty years of research have shown that effective schools nearly always have strong principals and that successful school systems nearly always employ effective superintendents. Yet there are not nearly enough qualified people to lead some 91,000 public schools and nearly 15,000 school systems.
What challenges do they and we face in trying to get more strong leaders for U.S. schools? The policy research organization Public Agenda recently set about to answer that question. It surveyed 1,800 principals and superintendents. The results are fascinating, sobering, and fraught with policy implications. Key findings include the following:
1. "Superintendents and principals voice confidence that they can improve public education but say their effectiveness is hampered by politics and bureaucracy." Four-fifths of superintendents and half the principals cite that as the main reason talented people vacate those roles. Among their foremost gripes: excessive litigation, "teacher union fanatics" and school board meddling.
2. "What principals and superintendents need most, they say, is more freedom to do their jobs as they see fit especially the freedom to reward and fire teachers." Fewer than one-third say they have the autonomy and authority either to "reward outstanding teachers and staff" or to "remove ineffective teachers from the classroom." (By contrast, four-fifths say they have the freedom to deal with student discipline.)
3. "School leaders are far less worried about standards and accountability than about politics and bureaucracy." Although principals and superintendents have multifarious complaints about standardized testing as used in their districts and superintendents are far more bullish about test-based accountability arrangements than are principals they're much more bothered by the shackles on their wrists.
4. They are concerned about money. Yet almost three-quarters say they can manage with the budgets that they have. Most vexing on the resource front are external mandates that limit their ability to spend those budgets as they think best. The worst offender is special education for disabled youngsters. "According to 84 percent of superintendents and 65 percent of principals, special education issues exact an inordinate amount of district money and other resources."
5. Administrators believe that today's university-based training programs for "school leaders" are not adequate. Sixty-nine percent of principals and 80 percent of superintendents say such programs are "out of touch with the realities of what it takes to run today's schools." One principal commented, "If you want more qualified superintendents, change the focus of prep programs from making researchers to creating practitioners."
Public Agenda president Deborah Wadsworth concludes this report on an upbeat note, observing that the most remarkable quality of today's public school administrators is their "optimism and confidence." Still, one can hardly read this path-breaking survey without recognizing that finding executives able to lead U.S. schools out of their present quagmire would be a whole lot easier if we'd agree to cut the red tape and really put them in charge. Charter schools, anyone?
Chester E. Finn Jr. is a professor of education at Vanderbilt University and a distinguished visiting fellow and member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education at the Hoover Institution.