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Education Up Front

Good schools need good leaders

Somebody wise and quotable once said something to the effect that "education can't make us all leaders, but it can teach us which ones to follow."

The saying may allude to education's role in teaching people to follow the right leader; but the linkage between education and leaders also cues our attention to the need for good leadership within our school system, particularly at the local neighborhood, elementary, middle or high school.

Leadership in public education today is so often focused at the district or even state level as elected school board members, appointed superintendents, legislators and the like grapple with the issues that make headlines in public education. But, nothing happens at those lofty levels unless individual schools embrace the initiatives and then exercise leadership at their level to make it happen.

It goes without saying that in order for a school to be good, it needs a good leader as principal. Over the course of my career as a teacher and principal, I can't think of a good school that didn't have a good or even outstanding principal. Good schools don't create themselves any more than good companies do without good management.

Yet, we have a critical shortage of really good school leaders who are capable of occupying the principal's offices in our public schools. That's not to say we don't have good principals in our schools. We most certainly do. But we don't have enough to meet the demand in the short-term future. We therefore need to allocate more resources to identify, train and support principals who can be top-flight instructional leaders at their schools. There are some resources in place that can provide good training for present and prospective principals.

In addition to the master's and doctoral programs available at various schools of education, The University of San Diego's Educational Leadership Development Academy, together with San Diego Unified School District, has created a partnership to try to address in limited fashion the shortage of qualified candidates for principalships. The program has just completed its second year, working with 14 administrative interns from the 180-school district. Participants take academic work at USD and work as full-time "apprentices" to mentor principals.

The Principals Executive Program (PEP) at UCSD is designed for already outstanding and motivated school leaders. Some eight monthly seminars are structured to provide significant time for critical reflection, planning and action with colleagues from other schools, nonprofit and government organizations, local businesses and other stakeholders from the school's local community.

What's particularly valuable about the PEP program is the exposure principals get to non-education enterprises. In this forum, they see and hear first hand the similarities between companies that need to improve their products and services by building bridges to their customers and schools that need to improve their "product" -- student achievement -- while doing a better job of connecting with teachers, parents and other community members.

Yet another resource for school site leaders is the San Diego County Office of Education's Leadership Development Center, led by Dr. Sheridan Baker. This program not only works with administrators, past and future, but teachers, classified staff, parents and community members through the development of group process skills of job-alike groups, school teams and other school configurations. The program builds capacity and empowers participants to work productively together in future collaborative activities -- a skill that cannot be overemphasized in this area of many stakeholders and shared governance structures.

In fact, consensus building -- the ideal product of productive collaboration -- perhaps has become the most powerful tool in a successful school leader's kit. If there is anything that differentiates effective from ineffective school leaders, it would be the skills needed to help those in their charge to reach consensus.

An article in a recent issue of the National Staff Development Council's

Journal of Staff Development suggests that consensus gives leaders the moral authority of the group to proceed with initiatives and confront resisters.

One thing consensus should not be confused with is unanimity. Not everybody is going to agree on important policies and procedures. While school leaders should strive for unanimous support for an improvement initiative, they should be prepared for the more typical scenario in which all parties don't always agree.

How, then, does an effective school leader use consensus to move an initiative along when not all parties agree?

The journal article suggests there needs to be a point reached when all the points of view have been heard and the group's will is evident, even to those who oppose it. When those who resist the initiative do acknowledge the group's will, the leader must be prepared and willing to press for action and move ahead. That entails clarifying the specific responsibilities of each participant and then monitoring each person's attention to those responsibilities -- whether or not they were in favor of the initiative in the first place. Their focus should be on ensuring that all staff members act in ways that will advance the initiative itself. As people gain experience in the improvement process and begin to see the benefits, their enthusiasm for and commitment to the process will likely increase.

If, however, a leader is unable to achieve clear consensus on a particular initiative, then he or she should pilot the initiative on a smaller scale with a willing group of participants. Good school leadership is not an "all-or-nothing" proposition; it requires collaboration and negotiation before implementation can take place.

Consensus building is the chief failing of so many school leaders. The need for good instructional school leaders has never been more critical, given the high stakes that are now part of the state's standardized testing program. Test scores go up, the leader and others are rewarded. Test scores don't go up, the leader is history.

In public education today, school leaders must inspire, lead and support their teaching staffs to provide the best educational system possible to enable every child to reach their maximum potential. Good schools take great leadership.

Great educators dare not leave home without it.

Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at ginger.hovenic@sddt.com.

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