Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Educational Leaders Always Fall Short

Here is the skinny on educational leadership. No matter how good school leaders are, they can never be good enough. America's diversity generates immutable disagreements regarding what schools should teach and how they should teach it. The only way to generate consensus is with vague slogans — for example, "Every school a good school!"Since we don't agree on what these slogans mean, however, implementation quickly bogs down in endless disagreements.

What individuals want from schools and school administrators changes with their circumstances. In certain situations they want schools that are temples and educational leaders who are moral leaders — high priests of rectitude and knowledge. In other circumstances they want schools to be business-like and school administrators to be executives or production managers. In still other circumstances they want schools to be town meetings where policies and procedures are subject to negotiation, politics, and compromise and administrators are arbitrators mediating disputes.

Even the most gifted administrators finds such different roles very difficult to play. And if they must be played simultaneously, it becomes impossible.

A school administrator's troubles do not end there either. Irreconcilable organizational conflicts also are built into school leadership. To the extent that school leaders exercise power, they undermine morale. To the extent that they follow policy, they must ignore individual differences. To the extent that they pursue authorized goals, they must limit their subordinates discretion. In short, school administration involves a series of difficult and unclear choices. What does all this imply? That a school administrator's job performance will inevitably fall short of many people's expectations.

Many educational pundits imagine that school administrators can be miracle workers — pedagogical shamans who magically reconcile competing expectations for schools and schooling through the purity of their motivations and the force of their will.The literature on "transformational" school leadership, for example, is replete with solemn assurances that visionary change agents, expert at dealing with complexity and ambiguity, can successfully convince everyone to serve goodness, righteousness, duty, and obligation.

This is pure humbug —just more of the wishful thinking that too   often substitutes for thought in education. And for a wide variety of reasons, it's dangerous to expect educational leaders to achieve the unachievable. The best any school administrator can hope for is partial success. Sometimes, however, that can make the needed difference.

To examine these and similar issues further, see

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