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Hechinger Institute Examines Leadership and School Improvement

In the days after Mardi Gras, TC's Hechinger Institute settled into a quiet and serene New Orleans to present the opening of its yearly series of seminars.

The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media is named for Fred M. Hechinger, an education editor at The New York Times and a TC trustee. The Institute exists to enhance communication and understanding between journalists and educators.

This seminar, designed for reporters covering the pre-K to 12 education beat, was centered on the connection between leadership and school improvement. It brought together principals, superintendents, professors, and other education professionals to examine their role in providing leadership in schools. More than 25 education reporters gathered, representing 17 states to get valuable, first-hand information from the experts and glean insights into the types of questions they should be asking about school leadership in their communities.

The conference began with a sketch of the broad landscape in which educational institutions operate. Joseph Murphy, president of the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy, explained that, our "understanding of leadership can't be taken out of the context of our industry." The impact upon education of outside influences is what moves it. Those influences include society, the economy, and politics. In fact, he explained, many of the issues that are before schools today, including homeschooling, standards, and testing, all were generated from outside the educational context.

While solid leadership is a key component to successful schools, one issue working against schools in this context is the shrinking number of applicants to be superintendents and principals. Fewer and fewer people are being drawn to these jobs because these jobs have less and less to do with why people became teachers in the first place. As Carole Kennedy, principal in residence at the U.S. Department of Education, explained, "those close enough to the [principal] job to be interested in it are close enough to become discouraged by it."

Thomas Glass, Professor of Education Leadership at the University of Memphis, echoed this point and went on to address the often underestimated importance of the relationship between the superintendents and school boards, citing the increasing necessity for the two to work together more effectively. As Glass noted, there are no statistics on the make-up of school boards across the country, yet these bodies have a great deal of decision-making power. In addition, the school board has the ability to set the tone for the superintendency, and can make the jobs in their districts more attractive.

Coupled with the problem of a shortage of leaders, school administrators-from teachers to principals to superintendents-are disempowered to achieve excellence in their schools. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer for the Cleveland Municipal School District, spoke about the daily challenges that school administrators face-from accountability without authority, to lack of standards, to increasing time demands and the loss of human capital-all factors that drain the leadership abilities of school administrators.

David Hornbeck, a former superintendent and chairman of the board for the Children's Defense Fund and the Public Education Network, delineated the four things that get in the way of successful schools. They include the belief that all children cannot attain the same level of education, a lack of resources, an unwillingness to be held accountable, and finally the lack of a few powerful voices for public education.

Turning to the issue of what is needed to train people to create successful schools was Charles Achilles, co-director of the Doctoral Programs, Department of Leadership and Counseling in the School of Education at Eastern Michigan University. He posited that research shows how to improve student outcomes, the challenge is for practitioners to get those things into education practice. In other words, how can the programs that train leaders get more in touch with those things that will make schools better?

Utilizing this information needs to become a more pertinent part of the leadership vehicle. Frank Smith, Associate Professor of Education, Organization and Leadership at TC, stated that, "The problem with leadership and data is the system within which the leadership takes place. In most cases test data and actual procedure and instruction is almost totally unconnected. So that, as the scores go up and down nobody knows what happened in instruction to make them go one way or the other."

Making the system more accountable will not only make these positions more attractive to more, talented people, but it will enable those people to administer their schools more effectively.

While many different points of view were represented at the seminar, a general consensus could have been that making the system more accountable will not only make these positions more attractive, but it will enable people to administer their schools more effectively. Many speakers agreed that the system needs to be more accountable and advocated a process that would, in the words of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, "build something a little bit better for the next generation" of school leaders.

For education reporters, the seminar provided an excellent sketch of the entirety of the school leadership landscape. By providing them the opportunity to meet with leaders in the fields that they are covering, they can glean insights that will prove useful in effectively understanding and investigating similar issues in their own communities.

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