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A Race to the Bottom
The nation's school leadership programs are not producing the educational administrators we need

By Arthur Levine

Our university-based education programs which prepare most of the nation's school principals and superintendents are unable to produce the leaders we need. Not only does the nation require better prepared principals and superintendents to help lead schools and districts to raise student achievement to meet new federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, the United States will need to replace more than 40 percent of principals, and an even higher percentage of superintendents, who are expected to leave their jobs over the next decade.

How well prepared are the nation's school leadership programs to produce the increased number of outstanding leaders we need for the future? While there are a few strong programs, most range from inadequate to appalling. These programs confer master's degrees on students who demonstrate anything but mastery. They award doctorates that are doctoral in name only. Many of these programs are engaged in a counterproductive "race to the bottom." In an effort to boost enrollments and rake in more revenue, they are lowering admission standards, watering down coursework, and offering faster and less demanding degrees.

This downward trend is exacerbated by states and school districts that reward teachers for taking courses in administration whether or not the material is relevant to their work, and whether or not those courses are rigorous. Degrees from leadership preparation programs too often are glorified "green stamps," which are traded in for raises by teachers who have no intention of becoming administrators. Further, many universities treat leadership education programs as "cash cows," using them to bring in revenue for other parts of the campus and denying them the resources that might enable them to improve.

Credit dispensers
Too often these new programs have turned out to be little more than graduate credit dispensers. A school librarian was baffled by how a teacher can simply collect 20 or more units a semester to earn a doctoral degree. "A few years of weekend and summer study at one local university is a comparatively easy way to obtain a Ph.D. in education here, unlike the rigorous years of training required in other fields, such as physics or law."

A retired school superintendent told me he quit lecturing at university-based leadership programs because the quality of the programs was so poor. One superintendent wrote: "Anyone with the money and patience to go through the course work can earn an administrative credential or advanced degrees. We need a screening process other than the academic testing done now for graduate schools."

That is a far better summation of my own report ("Educating School Leaders," which was recently released by the Education Schools Project) than I wrote myself.

Training should be specific to the type of district one aspires to work in. Training for a small district, under about 7,000 to 8,000, should be different in some ways from that of a large district.

Universities foster the idea that the pathway to the superintendency should be through the doctorate. Anyone who had a good undergraduate and master's program can review literature and has the ability to do analysis, think critically and write. We need a way to assess superintendents' ongoing review of educational literature and research-perhaps peer review-and a way that superintendents can have ongoing professional dialogue with researchers, writers and colleagues.

Falling short on all criteria
The Education Schools Project evaluated leadership-education programs using nine criteria, and found that in most cases programs fell short. The problems were the following:

  • An irrelevant curriculum. The typical course of study amounts to little more than a grab bag of survey classes-such as Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education, Educational Psychology, and Research Methods-taught elsewhere in the education school with little relevance to the job of school leader. Almost nine out of ten (89 percent) of program alumni surveyed said that schools of education fail to adequately prepare their graduates to cope with classroom realities.

  • Low admission and graduation standards. Education school faculty give students in leadership programs their lowest ranking on academic motivation and performance. The standardized test scores of prospective students are not only among the lowest in education related fields but are among the lowest in all academe. Elementary and secondary level teaching applicants outscore them on all three sections of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and while they score at the national average on the analytic portion of the GRE, their scores trail the national average by 46 points on the verbal portion of the exam and by 81 points on the quantitative section.

  • Weak faculty. Programs in educational administration depend too heavily on adjunct professors, most of whom lack expertise in the academic content they are supposed to teach. Their dominant mode of instruction is providing personal anecdotes from their careers as school administrators. At the same time, programs employ too many full-time professors who have had little, if any, recent experience as practicing school administrators-just six percent of all education faculty have been principals, and only two percent have been superintendents.

  • Inadequate clinical instruction. Although many aspiring administrators say they want opportunities to connect university study with practical experience in the schools, meaningful clinical instruction is rare. It tends to be squeezed in while students work full-time, and assignments tend to be completed in the schools where students are employed already, so they are not exposed to diverse leadership styles, and the leaders with whom they are paired may be less than exemplary. Moreover, few leadership programs help set up mentoring relationships for students. Most full-time professors are unable to serve as, or effectively supervise, mentors.

  • Inappropriate degrees. There are too many degrees and certificates in educational administration, and they mean different things in different places. The doctor of education degree (Ed.D.) is reserved by some institutions for practitioners, but others award it to academics and researchers as well. The Ph.D. tends to be thought of as a degree for scholars, but some institutions award it to practitioners. Some universities award only one of the degrees, some offer both, and others offer an entirely different degree. Further, aspiring principals and superintendents too often work toward a scholarly degree-the doctorate-which has no relevance to their jobs.

  • Poor research. Educational administration is overwhelmingly engaged in non-empirical research that is disconnected from practice. Currently, research in educational administration cannot answer questions as basic as whether school leadership programs have any impact on student achievement in the schools that the graduates of these programs lead.

Changing incentives and degree offerings
While it is tempting to call for reforms solely of the education schools and their leadership programs, there can be few meaningful improvements in the preparation of educational administrators unless states, school districts and universities change as well. Improving conditions at the nation's school leadership programs requires concerted action by education schools and their leadership programs, the universities that house them, and school districts and states.

Eliminate the incentives that favor low-quality programs
States and districts must find alternatives to salary scales that grant raises merely for accumulating credits and degrees. The most desirable alternative would be to tie raises to attaining the specific skills and knowledge that administrators need to do their jobs. This would shift the focus from simply acquiring credits to learning and then demonstrating-on the job and through examinations-the skills that are necessary for leading schools and promoting student achievement.

A short-term measure would be for school systems to stop rewarding educators for earning credits that aren't relevant to their work. For example, raises might be given to teachers for degrees and credits that deepen, expand or update their teaching skills and knowledge. In contrast, teacher salary incentives for taking educational leadership classes would be granted only when the teacher assumed an administrative position.

Universities must champion high standards for education schools and leadership programs by embracing financial practices that strengthen those programs. Currently, many university administrators use revenues from educational leadership programs to fund other university programs. Not only does this practice demonstrate their low regard for the field and its educational mission, but it gives tacit approval for those programs to remain marginal in status and poor in quality.

Set and enforce minimum standards of quality
Weak programs should be closed. Most programs visited in the course of this research were of poor quality. Some can be improved substantially; many cannot and should be closed. It is the responsibility of leadership programs and education schools, their home universities, and the states to ensure that all programs achieve minimum acceptable standards on criteria that are laid out in the Education Schools Project report. If leadership programs and education schools fail to act, then universities must step in. If universities do not carry out this assignment, then the states have the responsibility to do so.

Redesign educational leadership programs
The program for aspirants to school leadership positions should be the educational equivalent of an M.B.A., the traditional two-year master of business administration degree. It might be called an M.E.A., master of educational administration, consisting of both basic courses in management (e.g. finance, human resources, organizational leadership and change, educational technology, leading in turbulent times, entrepreneurship, and negotiation) and education (e.g. school leadership, child development, instructional design, assessment, faculty development, school law and policy, school budgeting, and politics and governance). The faculty would consist of academics and practitioners of high quality; the curriculum would blend the practical and theoretical, clinical with classroom experiences; and teaching would make extensive use of active learning pedagogies such as mentoring, case studies, and simulations.

The M.E.A. should become the terminal degree needed by an administrator to rise through the ranks. Subsequent professional development would come in the form of short-term programs geared to an administrator's career stage, the needs of his or her school or school system, and developments in the field. These programs would be targeted at specific issues and needs and would award certificates rather than degrees. For instance, rather than enrolling in a traditional doctoral program, a school administrator hoping to move from principal to superintendent might sign up for a nine-month program combining classroom instruction and an apprenticeship, followed by mentoring once on the job.

The Ed.D. in school leadership should be eliminated. Today, it is a watered-down degree that diminishes the field of educational administration and provides a back door for weak education schools to gain doctoral-granting authority. An Ed.D. is unnecessary for any job in school administration and creates a meaningless and burdensome obstacle to people who want to enter senior levels of school leadership. It encourages school districts to expect superintendent candidates to have doctorates, and it leads affluent public schools to hire principals with "Dr." in front of their names.

The Ph.D. in school leadership should be reserved for preparing researchers. The ambiguity in the meaning of the Ph.D., currently awarded both to practitioners and scholars, should be eliminated by redefining this doctorate as a rigorous research degree reserved for the very small number of students planning on careers as scholars of school leadership. By and large, only schools of education at the nation's most research-oriented universities have the faculty resources needed to offer an adequate doctorate. Only these schools should grant Ph.D.s in educational administration.

Initial momentum
These recommendations are not only necessary; they are doable, and many states are already taking steps to act upon them. Louisiana is probably making the most far-reaching effort to reevaluate its leadership programs and its preparation of school leaders. All 16 Southern Regional Education Board states are seeking ways to improve the quality of their school leadership programs.

The clock is ticking, and I urge more states to take action. It would be a grave disservice to our children and schools if the problems of the field remain unaddressed.

Arthur Levine is president of Teachers College, Columbia University, and is the author of "Educating School Leaders," which was recently released by the Education Schools Project, a four-year study funded by the Annenberg, Ford, Kauffman, and Wallace Foundations.

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National CrossTalk Summer 2005



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