Leadership Matters

Years ago, the Brookings Institution published a report on what mattered for the success of students and learning outcomes in high school. After many years, I still recall that one of the two significant variables was leadership of the school principal. Perhaps that research was no surprise; leadership matters.

Those of us close to education know how critical good leadership really is to K-12 and higher education.   If we are to improve education, one of the most obvious, but occasionally overlooked, areas to do so is to appoint good leaders and give them the authority and responsibility to lead their schools. While this inherently means less operational interference from the district, board, and others, the benefits of good leadership mean a great deal.

We need leaders who are committed to making a real difference in their schools. We need transformative educational leaders. If the primary focus of a school’s leader is on self-advancement or self-protection it is tough to be a transformative leader. Self-protection is very easy to understand. Leaders are always in vulnerable positions. We admire those who do succeed. That is why we look back to people like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. They faced challenges, took risks, and the world – and this country – are different and better because of their leadership.

That is why I admire Tim Ham, the retired Superintendent of Madison School District in Arizona. A 2013 study of superintendents by the Brookings Institution concluded that it is quite rare for a superintendent to make a difference in student achievement. In 2012 in Penley on Education and Energy, I had written about how Mr. Ham made a difference. He led with a strategic choice – commitment to a school’s cultural changes in the face new digital learning tools. Mr. Ham took risks; he made strategic choices. He led. His schools were better for it.

We too often see the alternative – a school or college leader whose interest is in the next career step, a more prestigious school to head, or a higher salary. Such individuals may achieve what they want for themselves, but they are not good leaders. The school or college they leave behind is little changed by their time as its leader. Few strategic choices were pursued that would have made a real difference in the school. The superficial was their modus operandi; publicity and self-promotion were their rewards. That is not good leadership.

Good leaders, the kind who are recognized by the Rodel Foundation and make a difference in a school, face many barriers. External constraints inhibit changes and learning innovations. Long-time stability in the education industry presents a leader with a culture of steadiness rather than innovation. School leaders’ own career goals make risk-taking on behalf of the school questionable for them. Tenure, unions and the absence of valid, effective internal performance evaluation of teachers or professors limit them. It is much easier to be an administrator or a cheerleader than it is to be a good leader.

Good leaders make strategic choices that transform their schools. But strategic choices bring risk. We understand that from business. What we need to see are changes that result in the selection and encouragement of more good leaders of schools. This means changes to the selection process of school leaders. It means limits to the external constraints that we place on schools, especially K-12 but also the legislative constraints on public colleges and universities. It means changes to the boards with a focus on governance rather than operational management.

Realizing the goal of school and college improvement is not entirely a matter of good leadership, but that long-remembered Brookings study made it clear. Leadership does matter.

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