Every day, millions of Americans rely on the teachers and educators across the country to provide their children with the fundamental skills and knowledge that will last a lifetime. These same Americans want their children to have every advantage, including obtaining the best possible education. Unfortunately, the public educational system doesn't always provide that option to parents.
This dissatisfaction with the public school system has resulted in an increased interest in an educational voucher system, whereby parents can choose where their educational dollars go, and which school their child attends. That movement has spawned an increased interest in the subject of educational leadership.
Educational leadership is simply the vision, skills, and capabilities that superintendents and principals need to possess to build and maintain their local school districts. Those same qualities are used to attract talented teachers, and create educational programs that can provide children with a superior academic environment.
So what exactly are these skills that superintendents and principals are expected to possess? Back in June of 1999, a Policy Forum on Educational Leadership was convened to help answer this question:
What needs to be done to improve the quality of leadership in the education system for the next century?
The following is a summary of the group's findings.
Participants in the forum believed that educational leadership could be described along four dimensions:
It was these characteristics that superintendents and principals needed to possess in order to provide effective leadership in today's school environment. The following sections describe these characteristics in more detail.
Perhaps the single most important characteristic of an effective educational leader is their ability to provide instructional leadership. Ironically, studies suggest that as many as 75% of current principals are not skilled as instructional leaders.
Superintendents and principals are demonstrating instructional leadership when they devote time and energy to improving the quality of teaching and learning. Instructional leaders have a commitment to the academic success of all students, especially those that are struggling to learn.
Principals should understand the importance of providing feedback that encourages both teachers and students. Successful principals will engage the entire school with continuous messages about what a good teacher does, and the quality of work expected from students. In this type of environment, success is often measured in terms of the gains made by students in learning.
Finally, most experts agree that instructional leadership goes beyond the simple communication of expectations. Principals, and often superintendents, spend considerable time in the classroom not only observing but also participating in teaching students. Instructional leaders are not there to undermine the traditional role of the teacher; rather they are there to provide teachers with support and guidance.
Educational leadership is in many ways the ability to understand the balance that is needed in a school or district. That's the case when it comes to management skills. Running a district or a school in today's environment is a demanding job. Success depends on balancing the needs of politicians, parents, and other constituents.
Success also depends on the management skills of the leaders in the school. While the traditional focus was on budgets, buildings, and facilities; today good managers need to also stay in-tune with the needs of their community and communicate effectively.
As the role of the educational leader widens, so does the need for these leaders to build relationships with people inside, and external to, the school's internal network. The traditional approach of top-down decision-making no longer reflects the new distribution of power and sources of motivation.
The true community in which school systems exist consists of leaders, teachers, students, parents, and other members of the school district's neighborhood. Educational leadership is all about bringing that community together to support the goals of the school, and even helping to achieve those goals.
This is one of the reasons why communication skills are so important for superintendents. An effective superintendent must be able to not only understand the school board's point of view, but also able to work with the board towards the pursuit of a common vision.
True leaders are also able to articulate a clear vision of where they see their school system heading, and they have a clear plan for getting there. We've talked about vision in some of the other leadership articles appearing on this website. When it's shared with others, it often becomes a point around which change revolves.
Role models for educational leadership understand the importance of having a vision, sharing it, and the importance of taking risks. Followers cannot fear risk, because risk is involved when challenging oneself to do things differently.
Given all of the above requirements for educational leadership positions in today's school districts, it's no wonder that those types of positions are becoming less and less attractive. High turnover rates, and a lack of qualified applicants, only serve to compound the problem.
Unless the public school system can reverse this trend, parents and policymakers will continue to pursue alternatives such as vouchers and privatization of the public school system. The system cannot wait for leaders to appear. They need to restructure jobs, and begin preparing individuals that are skilled and committed.
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