The supply of public education leaders is greatly outstripping the demand. The demand comes from parents, teachers, and students—that is, groups immediately impacted by leadership, or lack thereof.
Don Nielsen, Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute sums up the cause of this leadership shortage in his book, Every School: “School leaders, whether they are principals or superintendents, are not trained to lead their school/district. They are trained to manage their school/district.”
This is a consistent issue across all school levels. Nielsen argues, “The difference is that a leader will look for ways to improve performance, will innovate and will not be satisfied with the status quo. Managers, on the other hand, are trained to take what they have and make sure it continues to perform (and, hopefully, improve).”
Nielsen goes on to advocate for a “change agent,” referring to a leader who possesses the drive, knowledge, and skill bring about meaningful change. Change agents have the ability to build strong relationships on the basis of trust, are patient and persistent, and ask the tough questions that others circumvent.
In essence, these public education leaders are CEOs of their schools or districts. With the great responsibility that entails, new and more rigorous training is needed. Nielsen argues “They will have to understand finance and budgeting (something not taught today), as they will control their school’s or district’s funds and the allocation of those funds. In addition, they will be responsible for the hiring and evaluation of staff and building an effective organization.”
What would this new training look like? Nielsen suggests the creation of “Institutes for Educational Leadership” which would “have extraordinarily high admission standards and would be populated with instructors from business, education and public policy schools as well as leaders from business, the military and current school systems.”
The best parallel may be United States military leadership training, whose purpose is to produce military leaders with a deep commitment to defending the nation. In this case, however, the institutes would create innovative education leaders—akin to educational entrepreneurs! Nielsen states that to “incentivize these teachers and principals to go back to school, they should remain on the payroll of the state and should not pay tuition while they are being developed into the leaders we need. If desired, these candidates could be treated like applicants to the military academies who sign on [to a post-graduation commitment], prior to attending school.” The objective, as Nielsen puts it, is “to create leaders ‘by design’ who will create new types of schools for the 21st century.”
It is worth noting that the military services have three different commissioning sources: academies, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and OTS/OCS (Officer Training or Candidate School). The three sources come with very different price tags and approaches to producing a commissioned officer, which should be considered when assessing the best approach to training education leaders. The bottom line, however, is the status quo is inadequate to today’s needs. We’re in desperate need of new leaders who can transform our under performing schools.