Becoming a Leader of Content Knowledge

            For the last decade policy makers and boards of education have been mandating and searching for leaders who are knowledgeable about curriculum and instruction. The name given to these school administrators is “instructional leaders.” The problem that has plagued the literature on instructional leadership is how policy makers and boards of education interpret this role. The public has largely viewed the role of instructional leader as a school administrator who effectively manages test driven curricular and instructional programs rather than assuming a leadership role in challenging the “assign/assess” (Tharp, 1993, p. 270) mode of instruction that pervades our schooling system in the United States. The essential difference between the two roles rests with their orientation towards the means and ends of an organization. Managers are rewarded for planning, directing and monitoring what is already in place and for guiding a process of continuous improvement.

            Leaders, on the other hand, assume responsibility for what the literature calls “purposing”— the ability to create the capacity, the vocabulary, and the organizational configuration for the aims of the organization to be realized in the daily functions of employees.

            While the private sector has wholeheartedly embraced the distinction between managers and leaders and are willing to offer lucrative rewards for leadership, school districts, in the words of Sergiovanni (2005), continue to be “overmanaged and underled.”

            Although governmental bodies are calling for instructional leaders to direct our schools, a cursory view of what administrators do on a daily basis reveals why the management function becomes a priority for school administrators. Parents, school boards, and students expect that their schools will operate effectively and efficiently —the buses will run on time, the bathrooms will be clean, all students will have correct schedules at the beginning of the school year, grades will be issued on time and yes, the football field will be properly lined for the Friday night game. Along with the public expectation for well-run schools, school administrators would freely admit that one could feel good about seeing and being a part of the very tangible outcomes of a well-run school.

            The same expectation for performance and satisfaction for a job well done cannot be said about the role of instructional leaders. School administrators who venture into the realm of curriculum and instruction are confronted with a formidable set of institutional, cultural, and political obstacles that will never be fully resolved, are messy to mediate, and will exert a heavy toll on those who challenge the prevailing norms of schooling in America.

            Not only must the educational leader confront public and institutional norms that are hostile to change, but also, he or she will confront these unfriendly forces with little or no training in the knowledge and skills necessary to become an instructional leader. A recent study of programs in educational leadership found that the design and implementation of the curriculum for most educational leadership programs continues to support the role of manager and provides little, if any, content regarding the kinds of knowledge and skills necessary to lead a school instructionally. The report implies that the process of becoming an instructional leader will require a highly personal journey with little assistance from institutional approaches to teaching educational administration (Levine, 2005).

            Having said that, the literature on organizational leadership is replete with examples of women and men who have orchestrated fundamental changes in the direction and the day-to-day operations of the organizations they lead. Although the portraits of these individuals exhibit a wide range of personality types, working styles, and experiences, the common attribute these leaders possess is a laser-like focus on what their organization ought to be doing and an ability to transform the ought of the organization into the everyday functions of their employees (Drucker, 2006).

            The other quality that sets these leaders apart from others in the field is their personal commitment to becoming students of their industry, whatever it might be. This quality is a dramatic departure from past organizational literature that portrayed the ideal CEO as one who had been trained in professional management theories and industrial psychology and could move easily between different kinds of businesses.

            Professional management approaches to leadership were founded on the belief that there is a set of generic knowledge and skills in “planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting” that could be applied to any organization (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 12). What industry learned a decade ago and unfortunately what recent national disasters have demonstrated is the critical importance of expert knowledge in establishing the direction of an organization and in the day-to-day decisions that must be made to implement that direction.

            In the field of education, the quality of expert knowledge has recently been termed in the literature as, “Leadership Content Knowledge” (Stein & Nelson, 2005). This “new construct” originated with Lee Schulman’s (1986) concept of “pedagogical content knowledge.” Both concepts recognize Dewey’s (1902/1990) observation that there is a significant difference between knowing a subject and teaching a subject. What is insightful about “Leadership Content Knowledge,” is the expectation that a school leader not only be able to manage the instructional change, but more importantly, take responsibility for “…some degree of understanding of the various subject matters under their purview,” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 424) so they can have a “…grasp on where expertise resides in relation to particular tasks and then to arrange environments that make interactive learning possible” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 426).

            The leader of content knowledge is expected to carry on simultaneously the management function of instructional improvement —the old instructional leadership role— and the teaching function of instructional improvement —which requires that the educational leader insert themselves into the trenches of an instructional improvement effort and confront the day-to-day problems of “how to teach the subject matter, and how students learn the subject matter” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 426).

            What is missing from this new construct of “administrators-as-teachers” (Stein & Nelson, 2005, p. 426) are concrete examples of how an administrator transforms himself or herself from their traditional role as an instructional leader to a leader of content knowledge. There are no institutional approaches to becoming a leader of content knowledge and, even if there were, the highly contextual nature of any instructional improvement would defy efforts to create a curriculum for becoming a “leader of content knowledge.” While the research and institutional curricular are silent on the process for developing leaders of content knowledge, there are abundant writings on effective leaders in particular fields or industries who acknowledged the value of knowing their fields well and knowing how that knowledge of the “content” became the core competency for realizing the goals of the organization.

            The subject of next four Blogs will draw upon the experiences of these “leaders of content knowledge” to develop a hypothetical model that a school leader might emulate to become a leader of content knowledge. The model that I propose is framed as a series of journeys—each journey informs the other journey and like all journeys can lead to unexpected destinations.


Dewey, J. (1990). The child and the curriculum. In P. Jackson (Introd.). The school and society ; and, The child and the curriculum (181 – 200). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published in 1902).

Drucker, P. (2006). What makes an effective executive. In T.A. Steward (Ed.), Classic Drucker: Essential wisdom of Peter Drucker from the pages of Harvard Business Review (pp. 115 – 125). Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.

Gardner, H. (in collaboration with Laskin, E). (1995). Leading minds: An anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books.

Giuliani, R. (with Kurson, K.) (2002). Leadership. New York: Hyperion.

Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school: prospects for the future. A Study of schooling in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

High school survey of student engagement 2005: What we can learn from students. Retrieved November 1, 2005 from

Newmann, F., Smith, B., Allensworth, E., Bryk, A. (2001). Instructional program coherence: What it is and why it should guide school improvement policy. Educational evaluation and policy anlaysis 23(4), 297 – 321.

Schulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15, 4-14

Schwab, J. J. (1978). Science, curriculum, and liberal education: selected essays. (I. Westbury and N. Wilkof [Eds]), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (2005). Strengthening the heartbeat: Leading and learning together in schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Spillane, J. P., Halverson, R., & Diamond, J. B. (2001). Investigating school leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Educational Researcher 30(3), 23- 28.

Stein, M.K., & Nelson, B. K. (2003). Leadership content knowledge. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25(4), pp. 423 – 448.

Tharp, R. (1993). Institutional and social context of educational practice and reform. In E. Forman, N. Minick, & C. A. Stone (Eds.), Contexts for learning: Sociocultural dynamics in children’s development. (pp. 269 – 282), New York: Oxford University Press.

The Education Schools Project. (2005, March). Educating school leaders. Washingtion, DC. Arthur Levine

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