Are educational leadership faculty seen as ‘leaders’ by the leaders that they serve?

Here’s a recent Twitter conversation that I had, followed by some additional thoughts…

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Okay, Russ, I’ll bite. How should it be?

Well, of course, in an ideal world educational leadership faculty should be seen as "leaders of leaders." If we’re preparing educators for formal leadership positions such as principal, superintendent, or special education director, we should be seen as credible authorities and thought-leaders. And we educational leadership faculty are sometimes seen as "leaders," I believe, in specialized arenas like research and (maybe) policy circles. 

I'm not sure, however, that educational leadership faculty often are seen as "leaders" by administrators in the field. Sure, we're usually seen as good people who often provide a decent (or at least not horrible) credentialing experience. But that's not the same as being looked to for leadership. 

I think this situation occurs because educational leadership faculty typically are not deeply engaged with schools and/or the people who lead them. Other job demands and institutional reward structures both work against tenure-track faculty spending a lot of time in the field. To be honest, many higher education faculty also aren't that interested in being too involved with K-12 practitioners. A great number of us are pretty introverted (as Sir Ken Robinson notes, we faculty 'live in our heads'), a trait which is okay in academe but typically isn't associated with great success in K-12 school administration. 

If success in academia is a four-legged stool – research, teaching, service/outreach, and grants/external funding – service/outreach is definitely the short leg of the stool. When we do define "service" in academe, it's primarily seen as disciplinary service such as serving on editorial or advisory boards, as journal editors, as officers in academic organizations, as proposal reviewers for conferences, and so on. The idea of service as "active engagement with and assistance of K-12 educational practitioners" is not very high on most faculty members' agendas. Often we see our teaching and credentialing (and an occasional meeting of a statewide committee or task force) as fulfilling that role of service to the field. When educational leadership faculty ARE involved with schools (i.e., we actually leave the university and go inside school buildings), it's often simply for a research project that may or may not have much tangible benefit to the participating school organization. We also like to have our 'clinical faculty' (i.e., non-tenure-track and thus, at many universities, "lesser" faculty) be the ones that primarily go out and work with schools, not us tenure-track folks.

We can point to isolated examples where what I've said here is inapplicable, and I'm sure that some of my academic peers across the country would take great exception to this post, but I believe that I've accurately described the general trend for most educational leadership faculty at most universities (particularly our most prestigious research universities), whether we want to admit it or not.

As those of you who regularly read or interact with me know, I'm a bit of an anomaly within my academic peer group. I see university education faculty as being in a service profession, one which should be serving the needs of K-12 (or higher education) practitioners. That's why I struggle with our definition of "service" as internally-focused service to ourselves rather than externally-focused service to others. That's why I struggle with academic publication hierarchies that value an article in a "prestigious" academic journal that no practitioner ever reads over an article in a still-selective practitioner journal that's read by tens of thousands of school administrators. That's why I struggle with a system that, for myself, can't (or won't) figure out how to value things like

  1. trying to serve as a thought leader that hopefully can mobilize an entire state's (and maybe down the road an entire country's) K-12 leadership community to move their schools into the digital, global era; 
  2. providing professional development and technical assistance to tens of thousands of administrators and teachers on issues that are really important; or 
  3. blogging, podcasting, and providing other online resources that reach hundreds of thousands of educators all over the world.

Will my "roll up my sleeves and get into schools / write in places where others can find me / actually try to be helpful" path be successful in the long run in academe? Will my current university figure out how to place a value on the things that I do? Should other educational leadership faculty view writing and/or service/outreach more like I do? Only time will answer these questions. In the meantime, however, don't hold your breath waiting for much help or thought leadership or, in fact, any kind of "leadership" for K-12 administrators from educational leadership faculty. The system that currently exists places value on other activities and it's not changing any time soon.

11 Responses to “Are educational leadership faculty seen as ‘leaders’ by the leaders that they serve?”

  1. I’m a cautious idealist, Scott. I answer a resounding “Yes! (hopefully)” to all of your questions. I think the farther away from the classroom the decision-makers are, the worse off the education system is. I just feel like being around students is the most effective way to keep students’ needs up front. Sounds like we’re on the same page.

  2. @ Scott
    I can’t say I disagree with much of what is in your post. I would, however, like to add a thought. I am not sure that when we get to graduate school we are there to be taught leadership. I think we either are or are not already educational leaders, but have a need to sharpen our skills and establish our own philosophy as to where we should be leading our “tribe”. I appreciate those who provide theory and do educational research and publish their results. These individuals, many who may never have been in the classroom or in an educational leadership position, provide the content which has allowed my fellow educational leaders and I to engage in conversation and philosophical debate. They do serve a purpose. I am not sure they are seen by any of us as leaders of leaders, but they are valued. There are also those like my professors in my current program who not only have earned their doctorate, and so are what you coined as lesser professors. They provide us with stories of their own personal experiences which also result in tremendous conversation and debate.
    I think that the job of those teaching graduate courses is better defined as facilitators of learning. Their role is to provide an environment and experiences which will allow each of us to establish our own personal vision/philosophy.
    The publication issue is one which has been brought up before and I whole heartedly agree that many of the most prestigious journals are never read by the practicing or potential educational leader. We ussually wait until someone does a synthesis of a number of these studies and look at those instead. I can honestly say that over the past two years in my current program, I have grown and learned a great deal. Some of what I have benefited from is the research I have read, some has resulted from the classes I have taken, some from the conversations I have had in class and some from those we have after class in the local establishements in Ames. A great deal of my growth and learning is a result in reading books on leadership and also in reading this blog and others like it. My interactions with others, even those whose views I strongly disagree with, have strengthened me as a leader. There are those at the university level who are leaders of leaders, but that is not nor must be the case for them to be respected for what they do contribute.
    I appreciate those individuals, like many who post here on this blog, who like to challenge the status quo and shake things up a bit. To me they are a catalyst for leadership development.
    I would comment that I think that this is a great post and can’t wait until I see what others have to comment here.

  3. Thanks, Dave, for chiming in. I’m glad you are having a positive experience here at ISU. Please note that I personally don’t believe non-tenure-track faculty are ‘lesser.’ Our clinical faculty here at ISU are extremely valued partners in our enterprise. But I do know that many of my academic peers across the country do not feel the same way…

    I don’t know if you come to ISU or any other educational leadership program to learn ‘leadership.’ At one level, I hope you do, because district-level leadership issues are different than building-level issues, for example. And hopefully we’ve learned something about leadership since last time you were in the university. But that’s not the issue here. I think the real issue is the lack of engagement with the field, the lack of thought leadership for practitioners by people who are in a great position to provide some. We have the time flexibility to read and think – that’s what we get paid for. If we would combine that with some real grounding and action and partnerships with the field, we could do so much. And yet many of my academic peers fail to see this opportunity which is just waiting for them…

    Thanks for the kind words. I hope some others chime in too!

  4. Where to start on this … First, the criticisms are dead on. Particularly I think the “leaders of leaders” criticism is astute. I know very few tenure-track faculty that are legitimately seen as leaders of current school leaders.

    I think Dave’s points are legitimate in that it may not be the role of all ed. leadership faculty to be leaders of leaders. Taking my principal classes there was a teacher that probably could be fairly regarded as a socialist and the course was basically a philosophical critique of American schooling. No one would put her in charge of a school or let her write policy … but she helped me a great deal to see some of the fundamental elements of our education system more clearly. So, I don’t think every ed. leadership faculty member needs to necessarily be a “leader” in the way we think of K-12 leaders. But, for a program to have legitimacy, some of the faculty need to be … and we, personally here at UK, have struggled with this due to turnover in faculty and a lack of consistent clinical hiring (and they are NOT lesser, that cannot be stressed enough).

    The institutional barriers really deserves a study of its own. They are deep and not easily moved. Hiring for instance, we are discouraged from hiring our own graduates … but we are the only R-I program in the state … meaning that to hire someone trained for research (whatever that means) we necessarily have to hire outside of the state … and those outsiders have no credibility with practitioners in the local area. By the time a faculty member gets enough years to actually build that credibility, another university usually snatches them away and the process begins anew. This is just one small aspect and doesn’t even touch on the monster of tenure and promotion, but it is indicative of the institutional barriers that prohibit an ed. leadership program from actually hiring ed. leaders.

    I could go on and on for days, but I’ll just say, great post Scott. I love when you post on ed. leadership programs.

  5. Many great points here, Scott. You seem to describe academia very well. A case could be made for “how things are for educators” in K-12 education, too, though.
    1) Focus on standardized test scores
    2) Ongoing battle with baggage from home impacting student learning
    3) Communicating with various stakeholders what “learning” is and is not (contrary to #1?!)
    …and the list goes on and on.

    I commend you for challenging the status quo in higher ed and keeping in touch with the classroom as a means for increasing your opportunities as a change agent. A similar challenge exists for us in the classroom. We must not accept the status quo (standardized tests, blaming parents, etc.) and instead focus on changing the “culture,” just as you are attempting to do at ISU via the ed. leadership program.

    I am an ISU grad (M.Ed curriculum and instructional technology) and feel like some of the C&I faculty do a nice job pushing a similar agenda of “change.” Educators who “keep doing what they’re doing” will always “get what they’ve always got” just like many of your faculty colleagues in the ed. leadership programs around the country. It takes “help” from so many avenues drive this mighty task forward: admin prep programs, pre-service programs, in-service teacher leaders and of course practicing administrators.

  6. Scott-
    Your “roll up you selves and get into schools” approach is refreshing and a beacon for all those that truly care about moving education forward at a pace that is realistic. I wish more university educational faculty would make their learning process as transparent as yours. I’m not sure if the general lack of transparency can be contributed the traditional hierarchical process or, (as you alluded to) introvert personalities and lack of courage to step out in the open and be venerable to the critics?

    Either way, lack of voice from university faculty in open source learning spaces to me lessens their leadership capacity in the eyes of school leaders that are stepping out and contributing in these particular environment.

  7. Part of the issue may deal with pay. When we tried hiring a local administrator to join our faculty, he was very interested until he realized he would be taking a 15 to 20k pay CUT to be a faculty member.

  8. Ha-ha, Mark!

    As the old Soviet Union collapsed, layers of administration peeled away from hospitals and health clinics in droves, because there wasn’t the money to pay them, and the doctors came first. They were the ones who had the ability to cure patients, after all, and no one pays an administrator to say, “I’m sorry, but the doctors are all gone.” The people who have the knowledge students seek are the ones who get paid.

    One of my dreams for schools is a reduction in the number of administrators our schools have. Every time the newspaper reports on a new cut at the school, I’m dismayed to see that it’s always some variation on, “25 positions will be cut, including 18 teachers.” So there are twenty-five jobs on the line, and seven secretaries are being let go… and the arts, music, and enrichment programs are being utterly scrapped.

    Schools in the middle ages used to be run on a collegial model, in that the teachers hired what staff they needed, made decisions as a deliberative body, and elected officers. Our model in the US is much more hierarchical, and I think we’re in need of some breakdown of that hierarchy. Will digital tools help? I like to think so.

  9. Again, great post and great comments. I too would like to comment upon the freshness of a professor who gets out into the school and who goes above and beyond by gathering practitioners together for book studies and discussions. I also appreciate a professor that sees that they can learn a great deal from those they are teaching. I have learned a great deal about improving my skills as a leader throughout this program and in many of the books I have read off of Dangerously Irrelevant good book list.
    I learn a great deal from those that post here on this and several other blogs as well.

  10. Great topic. I think the answers will be found by following the money – what do the academics and colleges get paid to produce? Nobody’s paying them to change things; they’re getting paid to entrench the incumbents.

    When was the last time somebody flunked out of a leadership program? I’ve not heard of very many people flunking out of any education programs above the sophomore in college level, and even then there was usually some extreme outside influences.

    When educational leadership programs become truly elite, they’ll begin to produce real leaders. When a leadership program takes ownership of k-12 schools, morally and intellectually, and commits to making change happen it will have a chance of earning the respect of those from whom respect is desired.

  11. Great Post!!! “The lack of engagement with the field” is an important observation. I think the problem is how professors define “engagement”. I think a lot believe that engaging the issues of the day along with their set course curriculum counts as a kind of useful engagement, since most of the students are aspiring ed leaders and therefore they are teaching their students what future ed leaders will need to know (and are engaged in the field by proxy).

    Also, there is a shift in programs in educational leadership away from philosophy, curriculum, and theory and more toward application, practice, and “leadership training (consensus-building)”, etc. This may be seen as a whole program shift toward engagement. However, this shift probably leaves many faculty ill-at-ease with what students are supposed to learn as educational leaders, since most faculty were trained in traditional programs that favored philosophy, curriculum, and theory.

    Finally, perhaps engagement is less an issue with professors of educational leadership and more an issue of all of higher education’s unwillingness to shift as all of society is shifting; changing higher education’s goals to make all scholars more relevant through engagement and leadership rather than just academic publication. As public intellectualism grows, we need professors to be leaders of our leaders, rather than as only commentators or researchers.

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