If the literature on school reform can agree on one contributor to successful school reform measures it would be the critical role instructional leadership plays in successfully implementing change initiatives and changing school cultures. The following functions of instructional leadership are most frequently mentioned in the literature: establishing a vision of schooling; authoring a powerful narrative elaborating on the who, what, when, where, and how of implementing the school vision; gathering of resources to support the implementation of the school vision; designing organizational configurations that will be support the school vision; directly supervising strategies for implementing the vision; protecting faculty from unwanted governmental or central office diversions from pursuing the school vision; and continually adjusting strategies to accommodate program feedback and changes in governmental or district mandates.
Surveys of school administrators on the importance of instructional leadership yield contradictory results: YES, administrators believe instructional leaderships is the most important function they should be performing; but, NO, they spend little of their time on the functions and tasks of instructional leadership. The most frequently cited reason for not performing the functions of instructional leadership is TIME: administrators say, are so consumed with responding to managerial functions and tasks—putting fires out— that they have little time to perform the functions of instructional leadership.
TIME, on the face it, appears to be legitimate answer to why main office calendars have few instructional leadership functions listed in their daily “to do” lists. In reality, however, there systemic reasons, in the preparation, incentivization, and mindsets of school administrators serve as powerful hurdles to becoming a strong instructional leader. What follows are the hurdles that are rarely mentioned in the literature, but, undermine the key role instructional leadership plays in realizing the educational goals and practices written into all school mission statements.
While most school administrators have been certified in teaching an academic subject, rarely if ever, is part of their training include HOW to teach the subject. YES, they learn the theories, the ideas, the concepts, and the practices of a given discipline. But NO, they do not learn how the substance of their academic subject translates into motivating, and then, developing deep understandings of the discipline in children and adolescents. Teacher preparation programs do include a methods class that is supposed to teach them the how of their discipline. The semester long methods class, however, reduces the complexities of developing cognitive understandings of a discipline to tricks of trades lectures by a retired administrator.
Administrative Certification Programs
The certification process to become a school administrator includes a list of courses that are thick on managerial courses—-school law, finance, personnel, systems management—and thin on courses in curriculum and instruction. Although course description handbooks outlining the requirements for an administrative certification write in their forward the critical role of instructional leadership plays in managing a school, the course offerings in administrative certification programs tell a different story. That story being, the efficient running of a school and future career advancement is solely dependent on mastering the managerial functions of their offices.
Two Career Trajectories
There are two career trajectories in school administration. Career trajectory number one is managerial: teacher–>supervisor–>assistant principal-principal –>district office staff position–>superintendent. How quickly a beginning administrator advances in that trajectory is dependent on the number and complexity of managerial tasks listed on their resume: preparation of budgets; completion of building project; writing of a technology plan; implementation of a technology plan; developing community outreach programs; securing grant monies; supervising transportation and food services.
Career trajectory number two is instructional: teacher–>supervisor–>assistant principal. Unlike the managerial trajectory, the instructional trajectory stops at assistant principal. Although lip service is given to the critical importance of the roles assigned to the instructional trajectory—curriculum development, teacher evaluation, program implementation—residents of main and central offices consider these roles too soft for preparing future administrators for the hard roles of efficiently and effectively running a school or school district.
Instructional Leadership is Messy
Of all the hurdles to becoming a strong instructional leader, the tasks and functions of instructional leadership are very complex and very messy. Conferencing a teacher on classroom performance, writing an engaging science curriculum, adopting instructional standards, implementing a research based bilingual program, all involve a multitude of human, social, emotional, and intellectual variables whose outcomes are unpredictable, and often fall below expectations.
The same cannot be said about managerial outcomes, which, if executed properly, produce results that fall within established timelines, are brought in within budget, and leave behind various artifacts that a community can be proud of.
From the first day a new administrator enters their new office, they are trained, then assigned, and finally expected to perform the functions and tasks of a manager. Over time, the tasks and functions of school managers develop into what I term a managerial mindset. A mindset is a pattern of ideas, beliefs, practices, and vocabularies that come together each day in main offices to facilitate certain kinds of actions and not others. School administrators guided by managerial mindset believe the purpose of schooling is to classify, standardize, and document teaching and learning. Managerial mindsets rely on rules, regulations, procedures, and systems to create school environments that are efficient, predictable and accountable. This is little room in this mindset for the goals and practices of instructional leadership.