Committed and capable leadership for public education always has been critical. Effective leadership sets the tone and conditions for schools to serve children well and facilitates their efforts to do so. Today, it may be more important than at any other time in history. Demographic, social and technological changes are producing unparalleled challenges for states, school districts, schools and higher education institutions and the individuals charged with managing them. At the same time, the education system seems mired in seemingly intractable problems and in a way of doing business that may no longer be relevant.
This collision of forces requires dynamic, well-trained, talented leaders willing to forge ahead in spite of the odds, and capable of inspiring the countless others working to educate this generation of children. It requires leaders who understand the social, economic and political forces that influence education; who are committed to fresh ideas and solutions and willing to take risks to implement them; and who have a 21st-century view of education management.
Todayís state and district education leaders, however, are products of training programs and licensing requirements unchanged for decades. The preparation, curriculum and management approaches of the past simply are inadequate for the future.
For this reason, excellence is achieved by only a few people who are trained as education administrators, and they are too few in number to meet the needs at all levels of the system. And the problem is only getting worse. Half of all district superintendents are 50 years old or older. There are few female and minority candidates. Itís also becoming harder to find the right person (the average time to fill a superintendentís job has doubled in the last 10 years). And, the high rate of turnover (the average tenure of big-city superintendents is less than three years) is devastating to continuity of efforts to improve student achievement.
These factors add up to a crisis in education leadership. Much of the easiest work related to improving education already has been done, and the decisions that need to be made in the near term are the ones most likely to generate controversy and conflict. It has become clear that without excellent leaders, we will not have excellent education institutions.
What is needed is a redefinition of effective education leadership and a redesign of how we prepare and develop education leaders, particularly for the states, whose decisions affect all schools, and the urban districts, where student needs are the greatest and a huge proportion of American students reside. The scope of the problem dictates that this initiative should be of no less intensity than reform efforts being undertaken to improve the education system in other ways.
With education at the top of the national agenda, the time is ripe for this change. And agreement is widespread that a major effort is needed to define and implement the steps necessary to improve the quality, training and numbers of persons aspiring to lead our nationís education systems into the new century.