School Principals Should Be Trained Like MBAs
In this Dec. 16, 2014 photo, Water Canyon School Principal Darin Thomas looks at a thank you note from his students posted on his office door in Hildale, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
When it comes to educator effectiveness, we, as a nation, are almost singularly focused on classroom teachers. We debate the content and focus of teacher education programs. We seek more and more metrics for measuring teacher effectiveness. We ask how to change the demographics of those looking to spend their careers in the classroom.
Yet in the educator effectiveness discussion, we often overlook important research on school principals. School leadership is second only to teaching among school influences on student success: According to research conducted by both the Wallace Foundation and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, principals account for at least 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement. So how can we ensure that we are preparing the next generation of principals for the rigors, challenges, and opportunities ahead of them?
Sadly, current school leader preparation programs -- those that typically offer an M.Ed. to successful principal candidates -- are generally poor. Admissions and graduation standards are often the lowest among programs offered by education schools, a reality detailed in my own research for the Education Schools Project. Coursework is largely unrelated to the positions prospective school leaders are preparing for, and the clinical portions of the program are often weak. These programs are thought of as the easiest route to a master’s degree, the quickest path to the salary bump they bring.
Both higher education and K-12 have known for far too long that the vast majority of school leadership preparation programs are inadequate. Yet they’ve done little about it because demand for such programs remains high.
But we should demand such a redesign. We are in dire need of effective solutions to address the twin problems of achievement gaps in American education. First, well resourced U.S. schools still rank below those of many other nations -- such as Finland, Singapore, and China -- on measures of student achievement, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Second, too many of our high-need urban and rural schools still fall too far below domestic benchmarks for student achievement, causing significant achievement gaps within and between states.
The current model of school leader preparation is ill-equipped to provide long-term answers to these problems. With an emphasis on seat time and a goal of graduating as many M.Ed. seekers as possible, as quickly as possible, many current programs lack a rigorous clinical experience and strong mentoring support. We need a new, more rigorous terminal degree to prepare school leaders.
Our education schools do not hold all the solutions in isolation. They need to look to the answers found in other academic pursuits, particularly in business administration. This is not saying that our schools should be run like companies. But there is no denying that understanding and mastery of topics such as budgeting, human resources, strategic planning, and other areas in which our business schools excel are now non-negotiables when it comes to running schools with multimillion-dollar budgets. What would such a program look like? How do we blend the best that our education schools and our business schools have to offer? We only need to look to exciting new efforts like those pursued in Indiana and Wisconsin to see the future of education leader preparation.
There, school districts are working with business schools to identify and establish the conditions that will enhance the effectiveness of the future of such programs, while driving sustainable gains in student achievement. Instead of pursuing the traditional M.Ed., they are working toward an MBA, studying topics such as leadership, quality management, talent management, data analysis, and organizational change—all provided through an education lens.
Through the integration of clinical and academic instruction, prospective principals in Indiana and Wisconsin are drawing on the most innovative thinking on leadership preparation today. All participants have a two- to four-week immersion experience, either in a strong high-need school domestically, through a residency at a high-performing school in another country, or in an organization that helps develop necessary expertise in specifically identified areas. Such preparation is supplemented with three years of executive coaching once they have assumed a role as a school leader.
As Kari Serak, a Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellow and teacher at Brownsburg West Middle School in Indiana noted, “this program gives me the opportunity to create systems and processes for schools that will allow our students to gain skills in order to complete globally.”
Soon, we will see graduates of these programs assuming roles as leaders equipped with the skills, knowledge, and experiences to lead tomorrow’s schools. We will see these programs serving as a model for other universities and school leader preparation programs, as we recognize that the preparation pathways of the past are insufficient to meet the needs of the future. And ultimately, we will see these MBA-prepared school leaders serving as true instructional leaders in their communities while closing the dual achievement gaps.
This is no longer an issue of what we could do or what would be nice to do. The role of a school leader will continue to grow more complex and more demanding. The preparation programs of old will grow more and more inadequate with the start of each new school year. We must redesign how we prepare our future school leaders, and the work underway in places like Indiana and Wisconsin demonstrates how it can be done.