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Is Your Child's School Lacking Leadership?

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Updated on Jun 23, 2008

You might be surprised to hear that one of the most concerning trends in education isn’t about curriculum or test scores, it’s about leadership. According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, schools around the world are experiencing a lack of leadership.

Not only are principals across the globe overburdened, underpaid and nearing retirement, the study says, but there are fewer qualified applicants ready and willing to step into those empty slots. And without strong leaders, students suffer the consequences.

Herb London, Ph.D., professor emeritus at NYU and president of the public policy research organization The Hudson Institute, says the key to school leadership is raising the bar for student performance. ”The maintenance of that standard requires courage and determination,” he says. “The problem we have in the U.S. is that there are relatively few leaders and relatively few people with the courage to maintain the rigor that is necessary in our schools.”

Courage isn’t all it takes, according to Elnardo Webster, Ph.D., Superintendent of Roselle Public Schools in New Jersey. He says an organizational plan in which everybody’s role is clearly defined is also a key part of being a successful leader and ensuring student success. “When everyone is working together efficiently and understands all of the goals we have as a district and what our plan is for achieving them, that’s when we’re able to maximize resources. When that happens, there is a prevailing positive attitude in our schools and the students benefit,” Webster says.

When that doesn’t happen, says Webster and the OECD study, it leaves teachers, students and parents discouraged: teachers can’t teach to standards they don’t know about, and students can’t learn what they’re not taught.

In Webster’s district, it’s not just principals and teachers who are part of the leadership team. Parents play an important role as well. Not only did the district implement an initiative known as the Home Learning Center program, in which parents are asked to set up a study area for their children and keep track of the amount of time spent there, but parents are also asked to spend 20 hours per year at school functions and create an Educational Improvement Plan for their children. Among other things, this plan lists 10 things parents can do to improve their child’s educational quality of life.

”It may sound like we’re asking for a lot,” says Webster, “but all we’re really asking is for parents to be our instructional partners. Our administrators and teachers are fully committed to giving students a quality educational experience. With our parents assisting in this effort, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”

With such innovative solutions in existence, why did the OECD study find that the numbers of people able to meet leadership challenges is declining? Simply put, the main reason is because many administrators are getting wrapped up in the bureaucratic tape and aren’t provided the resources to find their way out.

So, how does the OECD study suggest improving school leadership? By encouraging policymakers to provide leaders with the tools they need to be effective. And, Roselle Public Schools is leading the way; they’ve put a “principal-centered” model in place for their schools, allowing each school administrator to allocate resources based on the needs of their individual schools. They’re also looking at collaborating with other school districts for professional development purposes.

”First, you have to get people to believe in themselves”, Webster says. “They have to understand their purpose in the big picture of educating the next generation and they have to feel good about what they’re doing.”  With tools like ongoing professional development, more autonomy and clear organizational plans in place, it may be surprising how many people will believe in themselves, have the courage to step up and lead our children to have positive, successful educational experiences.

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