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The Bottom Line

Visualize Becoming a Visionary

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Visualize Becoming a Visionary


Bravo to Ben Rodriguez, the new principal of Buckeye Union High School in Buckeye Arizona. He recognizes that you “become the visionary as the principal.” These words echo what Don Nielsen, program chair to the American Center for Transforming Education, writes in his book, Every School, “A visionary principal always leads an effective school.”  

However, too often schools are not left in the hands of visionaries, but with managers. Why is this?

The answer is two-fold. The present system advances education leaders not on proven leadership , but upon who wants to be an education administrator. As Nielsen argues, “Leadership development in public education is a process-driven system, not a competency-driven system. Further, the quality of leadership training provided is at best mediocre.”

Principal certification is usually a one-year program and graduates receive either a master’s degree in school administration or simply a principal’s certificate. Nielsen points out that “as a consequence of this system, what we have in education is leadership by accident, not by design. It is the only system in our society that I know of where promotion is done by self-selection. Nearly every teacher who seeks to become a tenured principal will become one, regardless of their lack of leadership and management skills.”

Richard Elmore, professor of educational leadership at Harvard, agrees: “[T]he vast majority of people who are certified as educational leaders still come from largely part-time, cash-for-credit certification programs in small institutions, operating under traditional state-certification requirements, without significant research capacity, and staffed heavily by part-time faculty members.”

In short, we have a subpar process of selecting leaders in public education based on self-selection rather than leadership ability as well as poor leadership training.  

To fix this broken process, two steps are needed. First, certification laws should be eliminated. To this point, Nielsen argues that “without these laws, education schools would have to improve to retain their existence, and other schools on a university campus could be employed in preparing both our teachers and our leaders for a future in education.” In addition, leaders in the business, military, or medical fields could be recruited, for the educational benefit of all children.

The next step would be to set up what Nielsen refers to as “Leadership Institute Academies,” as previously explained here, are multidisciplinary institutions that set high standards for admission and graduation, and turn out truly gifted leaders who have a passion for education.

In order to “become the visionary as the principal” as principal Rodriquez states, a dramatic shift in how leaders are selected and trained within public schools is needed. Doing so will enhance the education of all children.