Leadership Development in US Schools: The Opposite of Good

A teacher decides he or she wants to be a principal and enrolls in an expensive degree program, earns a degree made up of an assortment of courses then, with little or no training, becomes a supervisor and takes on functional management responsibilities that don’t prepare them to be a principal.

Everything about the typical US K-12 leadership system is the opposite of best practice. We don’t:

  • proactively identify talent;
  • provide progressive developmental experiences (e.g., team leadership and project management opportunities);
  • expose leaders to a map of required competencies and help them assess their gaps to build a personal development plan;
  • provide learning experiences linked to their developmental roles or goals associated with their development plan; and
  • match them with appropriate communities and environments.

A Big Waste

Educators don’t get paid much comparatively. It is unfortunate that that aspiring leaders pay a lot for degrees that are often of questionable value. Degree requirements are largely dictated by an accreditation body and not the needs of schools.

In a related waste of of time and money, thousands of teachers earn masters degrees to earn a pay bump. The practice doesn’t appear to be of value to anyone except colleges. Many teachers choose EdAdmin because their district requires a masters or they’re ready for a raise, and there aren’t many other options that actually benefit their craft.

Certification is broken. Accreditation is broken. Pay incentives for degrees is ineffective. This set of practices and policies amount to a big rip off for educators and a loss of productivity for schools.

What if teachers took all that time, money, and energy and channeled it into actually learning more about how to do their current jobs better and prep for future roles? What if districts (like most large employers) provided training and development associated with professional growth instead of requiring teachers to gain degrees of limited value?

Best Practices

Last week I spend a day with a business leader that has scaled four brand name retail chains. He said the key to success at scale was creating effectives systems and structures–with clarity between providers, central office, and operating units on who does what. Having spent some time scaling a national retailer, his advice rang true.

In school districts and networks, principals are often considered “building managers” where the primary role is execution of a playbook, a list of local, state, and federal programs. Over the last 15 years, districts trying to ensure consistent rigor in every classroom implemented programs of managed instruction, a common curriculum, shared lesson plans, pacing guides, periodic assessments, and associated professional development.

Even with the increased focus on execution, there are substantial differences between the role or principals in most school districts and unit managers in high performing organizations.  

Components  Unit Manager Principal
Role Clearly defined roles and authority Muddy roles, impacted by two dozen department heads
Goals Clearly define objectives Test scores are clear but narrow inadequate measures
Hiring Can hire/fire within budget Confined by position budget, multiple contracts/policies
Development Utilize centralized blended resources District department provided, purchased, teacher directed
Compensation Tied to experience and performance Lock step tied to longevity

The biggest differences between most principals and unit managers in high performance organizations is a lack of role clarity and a lack of authority.

The path to becoming a unit manager is quite different than a principal. High performing organizations identify and cultivate talent; they provide a sequence of progressive developmental roles with associated learning opportunities.

Following is a summary of the journey to unit manager:

Components Unit Manager Principal
Identification Performance-based Self initiated
Experience Ladder of development roles Teacher to AP to Principal
Feedback Frequent candid performance Formulary annual review
Learning Job linked blended learning + mentorship Degree program of random courses

Unit Manager To Design Leader

Schools that go beyond reading and math test scores and prepare young people for college and careers. Schools, like High Tech High, that promote deeper learning experiences are based on what Larry Rosenstock call a common intellectual mission–a common conception of what kids should know and be able to do and a shared view of effective learning experiences.

Smaller districts like Mooresville NC have demonstrated that a common mission can be shared across a system with distributed leadership. To some extent, a common intellectual mission can be shared across voluntary networks like National Academy Foundation and New Tech Network.

It’s hard enough being a principal in a managed instruction district or network where high fidelity implementation is the goal and test scores are the metric. Leading the development of a school that promotes deeper learning and real college and career readiness is an adaptive design challenge.

Most of the schools on our list of 100 schools worth visiting were created by a leader and team that built a community around a vision and then built a coherent school where the structure, staffing, schedule, and systems all support powerful learning.

Unit Manager To Change Leader

The shift from print to digital creates the opportunity for personalized and blended environments, and that means designing and managing a big multi-phased project that changes pedagogy, budgets, and staffing patterns as well as technology.

The change process requires principals to identify and leverage teacher leaders as project managers and multi-classroom leaders.

The shift requires principals to be community conversation leaders crafting a series of agreements with teachers and parents for each phase of the change process.

Deeper learning aims and blended means create new demands on school and system leaders that, in most cities, don’t have the benefit quality preparation and support.

Solution. States should ditch outdated accreditation and certification policies and, as recommended by Digital Learning Now, adopt performance-based policies where educators gain certification based on demonstrated performance, something that “will become increasingly important as the number and type of roles for learning professionals expands.”

States that influence teaching salaries should drop that masters degree incentive and should support a variety of multi-classroom leadership roles (as described in OpportunityCulture).

School districts should:

  • Embrace deeper learning goals: in addition to mastering core academic content, like reading, writing, math, and science, young people should learning how to think critically, collaborate, communicate effectively, and develop an innovation mindset;
  • Identify teachers with leadership interest and potential and provide them with developmental projects and roles (e.g., multi-classroom leadership);
  • Encourage teachers to develop an individual growth plans and support them with personalized, blended and competency-based learning; and
  • Identify specialized leadership roles (e.g., new school formation, turnaround, blended learning) based on regional needs and individual interests/abilities.

Leadership demands broader goals, higher expectations, and blended environments are higher than ever but old practices and policies are leaving a preparation gap. Educators are wasting time and money on degrees that aren’t as valuable or relevant as they should be.

States have a great opportunity to create a better school leadership development system.


This post is part of our “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” series.  If you have thoughts about what today’s school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we’d love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject “Preparing Leaders” for more information.

For more information on Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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