The silent crisis of leadership in education
Michael C. Johanek and Ken Spero
November 13, 2019

There is a silent crisis undermining school improvement efforts. As in any major organizational change effort, leadership is a key ingredient to success. However, in educational leadership, the abilities to communicate, coordinate, and make decisions are not enough to address the “painful” trade-offs regularly faced by leaders in education. Their challenge is not just about making good decisions, which is daunting enough. They must also manage highly-public and often emotionally-charged issues among a diverse student and adult population. The state of our leadership pipeline, though, and our efforts to support their work, call for a dramatic shift in approach.

The data about educational leadership paint a stark picture of the challenge facing education today, especially in our most underserved communities. To convey the true level of urgency, imagine reading the following in a Monday morning news article:

“In Congressional testimony today, researchers uncovered that 90% of current doctors feel they are responsible for everything that happens to patients, and 75% feel their job has become too complex. At least half of current doctors feel under great stress several days a week. Roughly 20% of doctors leave each year, half of the doctors will leave their position within four years, and the rates are considerably higher in low-income communities. Each turnover costs the organization $75,000. Roughly 70% of the traditional pipeline for doctors has no interest in assuming the position; the largest group now in that pipeline has only one year of experience. All of this is occurring as medicine implements its most ambitious increase in quality standards and accountability in decades.”   

By Friday of that same week, after the blogosphere had ignited furiously in indignation, one would expect a stunning bipartisan agreement, even in these partisan times, to form a national blue-ribbon commission to address the crisis in the medical profession.

Given that those numbers are real, now, for school leaders in the US, the level of public concern seems muted at best, and dangerously silent at worst. At a time of intensified scrutiny, rising academic aspirations, and broadened social-emotional support expectations, we face an unstable and over-stressed leadership in K-12, especially in institutions in our lower-income communities. 

This serves no one well. Research published by the Wallace Foundation and others has shown that next to teaching, leadership is the school-related factor that most contributes to what students learn at school; indeed, good principals serve as multipliers of effective teaching. Higher-quality principals correlate to lower teacher turnover and increased teacher satisfaction, with greater impact in disadvantaged schools.

Why Judgment?

Whether preparing medical doctors, lawyers, or educators, pre-service programs have long faced the challenge of readying individuals for the complex realities of practice. A too-common refrain of graduates of these programs is that they never learned what they needed for real-world application. A recent instructional guide for clinical reasoning in medicine noted:

We are trained to move in a linear fashion from data collection (history taking, clinical examination, investigations) to diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Armed with this knowledge and practice we start as doctors in the real world and quickly feel insecure in the face of uncertainty. 

Similar critiques have been made of MBA programs for years. McGill University’s Henry Mintzberg argues that:

Most work that can be programmed in an organization need not concern its managers directly; specialists can be delegated to do it. That leaves the managers mostly with the messy stuff -- the intractable problems, the complicated connections. And that is what makes the practice of management so fundamentally “soft” and why labels such as experience, intuition, judgment, and wisdom are commonly used for it.

Years of research reflect this widely-held critique of professional education, as little in professional preparation provides experiences of uncertainty, of needing to decipher and make judgment calls within unlabeled, unpredictable high-fidelity professional experiences. Veteran peers often note that novice professionals simply need to build up their experiences in order to develop their judgment; only time in the field will suffice. The transfer of clinical judgment from in-service preparation to professional practice has seemed far too tenuous. Well-versed in finance, the newly-minted MBA stalls in an actual negotiation.

Despite this gap, preparation programs have continued to emphasize, with some notable exceptions, the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions as the measurable outcomes of study. Key content areas must be mastered, key skills must be demonstrated. A threshold sit-down exam often holds the key to professional entry. 

No one seriously asserts that such knowledge and skills should not be obtained. Yet the challenge is the mismatch between such preparation and the demands of real-life practice, particularly in knowing when, where, and how such knowledge and skills should be applied. To oversimplify, we may be able to recite the proper steps to take in resolving a highly emotional incident; the key for our professional success will be to know how, when, and where to implement and adjust those steps, and to be able, in the moment, to manage our own emotions, so we can access our preparation. Without that judgment capacity, the knowledge and skills will not a successful professional practice make.

The need to accelerate the development of sound professional judgment in education leadership is urgent, especially as the pipeline changes. Utilizing methods of experiential learning can help build good judgment in emotionally charged situations of complexity and uncertainty. Computer-based simulations are one such method, enabling participants to experience a variety of lifelike professional experiences and decisions in a compressed time period. We advocate for the use of simulations of various types, drawing from across multiple professional traditions, all of which provide risk-free environments that approximate actual practice. Leaders can experiment, experience outcomes, and hone their skills, without the potential for negative real-world consequences. Simulations support an acceleration of the learning that underlies the capacity for sound professional judgment. Preparing professionals to successfully navigate the everyday white water of school leadership is our mission in this endeavor.

Michael Johanek, senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and director of the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership, heads the Penn Educational Leadership Simulations Project.

Ken Spero is an outside instructor at the Penn GSE Mid-Career Doctoral Program and the CEO of Ed Leadership SIMS.

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