Iowa – Invest in leadership

[This is post 4 for my guest blogging stint at The Des Moines Register.]

Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” This week I am blogging about 5 key levers that I think are necessary to move Iowa schools forward and help our graduates survive and thrive in this new digital, global age in which we now live. Earlier I discussed the need for 21st century curricula, a robust system of online learning, and providing a computer for every student. Today’s post concerns the need to invest in leadership.

Leadership is absolutely critical to the success of any organization. Whether it be a school, corporation, government, faith institution, non-profit agency, or local community group, every organization lives and dies by its leadership. Organizations with effective, visionary leaders thrive. Organizations with lackluster, ineffective leaders muddle along or decline.

Adapting our K-12 school organizations to the workforce and citizenship demands of a digital, global age is extremely difficult, complex work. We must have leaders in place who can facilitate this transition. Here’s the problem:


That’s right. The people in charge of leading Iowa’s school organizations into the digital, global era don’t know very much about either the digital or the global aspects of the world in which we’re now living. They didn’t grow up in this kind of world, they weren’t prepared for it by their university licensure programs, and, for the most part, they are not receiving adequate training or professional development for it from their school districts, area educational agencies, professional associations, or the Iowa Department of Education. As a result, they’re not active technology users, they’re not immersed in electronic learning environments, and they’re not cognizant of the radical shifts that are occuring in the American workforce.

So we have a critical problem. Iowa principals and superintendents – the folks who are in formal leadership positions in K-12 schools – are the ones who have the responsibility for creating a vision and community buy-in. They’re the ones who have the power to reallocate budgets and other resources. They’re the ones who have the ability to reassign and retrain personnel. They’re the ones who have the authority to realign the various aspects of the organization to meet the demands of a rapidly changing environment. But because most of them don’t understand what it means to prepare kids for this new technology-suffused, globally-interconnected world, the end result is preservation of the status quo or, at best, minor tweaking of our current system of schooling.


It’s important to emphasize that it’s not the leaders’ fault that this is the current situation. There’s no blame to assign here. We just need to recognize that our leaders need a better system of ongoing training and a different kind of preparation in their licensing programs. Unfortunately, we’re lacking in this area as well. In the world of K-12 educational technology, virtually all of the money and attention from the Iowa and federal governments, foundations, corporations, and other entities has gone to teachers and students. Admirable and necessary as this is, we must set aside some of that attention and training money to enable the leadership that will be necessary to initiate and sustain the changes that we need in our school system. 

We pour large sums of money into teacher training, student programs, equipment, and other infrastructure. These are all good. However, we continue to see few tangible, sustainable benefits of technological and curricular reform initiatives in most school organizations. Why? Because even our most innovative, technology-using educators continue to run smack into the brick wall of their administrators' lack of knowledge and/or training. Superintendents and principals are making decisions based on ignorance or fear of the unknown. They don’t know what it means to effectively facilitate rich, deep, technology-enabled learning experiences for students. In this kind of unsupportive administrative environment, it is illogical to expect that major changes will occur in our teachers’ classrooms.

The preference of most Iowa legislators, school board members, and funding entities is to get monies directly to students. If that’s not feasible, then allocating monies to teachers is the next most desirable option. Over time, these preferences have led to our current situation in which we are systematically underinvesting in our leadership. Until we recognize that long-term, systemic change never occurs without good leadership – and invest accordingly – we never are going to see the changes that we say we want to occur.

5 Responses to “Iowa – Invest in leadership”

  1. Leadership in education is so important. I taught in an inner-city school for at-risk students. My principal told me, “Don’t bother with these knuckleheads. They’re not going anywhere anyway.” Our kids were great but our principal couldn’t see it. This is just one example of actions and poor decisions of our administrators. Teachers need support and only have a limited amount of power. When administrators thwart a good teacher’s instruction, the students suffer. Thanks for the thought-provoking and informative article.

  2. We must be thinking about the same things today. However, I wonder if our conclusions are slightly different. When I look at 21st century schools, or 21st century anything, I see user created content, user generated performance evaluations/recommendations/ratings, user customized experiences. For schools this is personalized learning in a way that puts students and families in control of their own education options. The leadership role in this is the transition and the eventual relinquishment of traditional powers/controls. I attempt today to paint a picture of this future. I would love to hear your take on this:

  3. Amen.

    Several years back, I was the guy slinging shots at the incompetent school leaders. Then, I spent a summer working for the Center for Teaching Quality studying school leadership programs.

    I was shocked by how little support and professional development principals are given. It changed my narrow-minded rants against principals into advocacy for school leadership training and development programs to be placed at the top of the school spending pyramid.

    It just isn’t sexy enough, though, is it?

    I’ve never seen taxpayers pour into the streets to protest cuts to principal PD programs!


  4. @ Scott
    As a building principal and frequent blogger I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. There are a few of us out there who get it and we are the key “change agents” to make it happen. The power to hire and fire is the power to shape school culture and set the direction the ship will sail. I am in the process of trying to convince my faculty of the direction we need to head. They are coming along. Another point that makes change difficult in schools besides the chance the principal doesn’t get it is the isolation of teaching as a whole. In far too many schools your given a grade book, a lesson plan book, a key and told to go at it alone for 36 weeks. This isn’t the way we treat professionals.

  5. Hi, i am kimbailey.
    I was shocked by how little support and professional development principals are given a site.



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