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

RESPONSE TO: Alarmed by A.I. Chatbots, Universities Start Revamping How They Teach

Well finally…it took AI to force teachers at all levels to rethink and redesign how and what they teach. For decades, no centuries, teachers at all levels have used the traditional essay or term paper designed around gathering information using traditional research tools to address traditional academic questions and problems. Few if any of these traditional academic products aligned well with real world products or real world problems. I for decades both in high school and then at the university level, where teachers and professors complained about rabid plagiarism, implored staff to redesign their courses around real world problems and products that demanded original ideas and presentation formats. So, my hats off to AI that are forcing the teaching profession to rethink and redesign antiquated pedagogical formats.



The fundamentals of institutional schooling—curriculum, instruction, goals— have been, for over three decades, outdated. Students study a curriculum developed in 1894; they sit in classrooms for over six hours days ignoring basic developmental/biological needs of children and adolescence; they listen to a teacher transmitting large amounts of information that can easily be found on google; they take a Friday teacher made test that for the most part are neither valid or reliable; and they are told they are being prepared for a job market that, according to labor statistics, will demand a change in skills at least eleven times.

Surveys of student attitudes towards their schooling have for over a decade confirm what most parents find out over dinner tables—school is boring and irrelevant. The only extrinsic card left in the motivational deck is a transactional one—you need good grades to get into college. Schools long ago have given up on providing educational environments that are transformational–goals that are written into all school mission statements. These goals were taken seriously by a group of progressive educators at the turn of the century, but, their voices were silenced by a powerful group of “administrative progressives,” who prized efficiency and accountability over autonomy and responsibility.

You could fill libraries with books—some of which I have written (see URL below)—on how to design instructional environments that better serve the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of children and adolescence. Sadly, we have an educational establishment and political class that never question the fundamentals of institutional schooling, and instead, merely double down on thinking up various carrots and sticks to lure or force students into environments poorly designed to develop the diverse abilities and interests of children and adolescence.


     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.

      Academic Background

      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.

      Managerial Mindsets

      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.

In person learning: REALLY

      The research on classroom interactions in our nation’s public schools does not evidence a great deal of classroom discussion, nor time and space to play; but, does find large amounts of teacher talk, busywork, and school/classroom disciplinary guidelines that heavily control what in this piece is termed, “human connection.” What many parents observed during the Covid lockdown was the “relentless monotony” of a teaching model and curricular materials that John Goodlad documented in his study of high schools over thirty years ago. I am not suggesting that virtual learning should replace “in-person” learning, but, done well, which it wasn’t by most school districts, it is the wave of the future, along with numerous other learning platforms. The educational goal–expressed in most school mission statements—of “lifelong learning”— will not be achieved with a classroom mindset in which all learning is confined to rooms lodged in buildings and taught by an all knowledgeable teacher standing in front of the classroom. No, the reality of the future occupational world lies in technologies that offer on-demand instruction in multiple modalities.