Putting a Face on the Fact that District-Level Leadership Matters
Let’s face the facts: The fiscal condition of school systems in our current economic environment is not only troublesome, but in some cases has surpassed all expectations for the worst-case scenario. For most states, there is no solution to inadequate school funding. The tough reality is that this financial bombshell is destroying the valuable work accomplished through generations of district-level leadership in the form of permanent program cuts, school closures, layoffs, dissolutions and consolidations. Naturally, it should be time to pull out the visionary crisis plan, put together a command center, and defend the pillar of a democratic nation, the education of its children. Indeed, in a time of ambiguity, uncertainness and prioritization, we need leadership now more than ever. Let’s face another fact: It will be district-level leadership that changes our current trajectory by helping educational communities make the right decisions and—if we are all truly here for kids like we all say we are—facilitates a world-class education rich with innovation and built on the unprecedented quality and quantity of educational research.
The trend, however, is of school administrative compression, the practice of increasing the scope of responsibilities while decreasing the sufficient time for administrative leaders to fulfill the responsibilities. What these reductions in leadership expose—as school communities attempt to balance budgets through reductions in district-level leadership—is absolutely worse than the monetary benefit that the cuts originally were intended to remedy. By method of analogy, this carries the same logic as disbanding fire department administration in the midst of the worst drought in decades. Folks, district-level leadership matters.
At present, the dialogue about administrative compression is considered a local one, an act of concern and value by means of community decision making and local control. Through this point of view, the voice of those with the greatest level of experience and expertise, the advice of national experts on educational leadership, and the collective wisdom of practitioners is lost to school communities as they choose to compress or preserve district-level leadership. As this compression takes place, is it appropriate for experts, practitioners and researchers to casually remain on the fringe of the discourse? Is it respectable for us to ask ourselves the questions, “Who am I to tell another educational community [who is cutting district-level leadership] that they are making poor choices?” or “Who am I to tell a neighboring educational community to what extent they should value leadership?”
Questions, however, almost always lead to more questions, and before we can answer these questions, we may have to look to our defining purpose and charge: Who am I as a district-level leader? Who are we as an association of district-level leaders? What type of leadership do we believe in as we strive for student success? Who am I to make believe that I know so little about district-level leadership that I am mandated to be nonjudgmental about administrative compression?
We are experts in the field of educational leadership. From the collective standpoint of the experts on educational leadership, the associations to which we belong and contribute, and the district-level leaders working on behalf of kids, from our standpoint—there is no question as to how much district-level leadership matters. There is no question as to the substance and promise of our vocation. The fact of the matter is that we are the experts in the field of educational leadership. So, why is it that we are hesitant to posit a stronger stance? Why is it that we are somewhat unwilling to say, “Administrative compression is a destructive trend that will negatively affect almost every aspect within a school community. It is not good for kids, it is not good for board governance, and it is not good for labor relations.”
To advance the discourse further, it is fundamentally apparent that we function within a profession underpinned by a strong establishment of research built over decades of close examination. This body of work represents the philosophical foundation of study from which we draw best practices, licensure standards, problem-solving methodologies and reform insights. And, since we have amassed this body of work, we are also authorities and experts on it, yet are also accountable to it and its implementation and articulation. It is what embodies our area of expertise and defines our significance of knowledge and performance. Again, in the purview of this body of research, district-level leadership matters. Thus, how have we persuaded ourselves to believe that administrative compression is not a direct assault on this anthology of research on educational leadership? For without leadership, the promise of improvement resides in the realm of, “We should,” and never becomes “We did.” How is it that we have not converged around the same fundamental values to firmly convey that administrative compression is not only a poor decision on behalf of kids, but it also undermines our entire body of expertise, hence eroding our core purpose and promise?
Let’s put a face on the facts that district-level leadership matters. From contract interpretation to staff morale, from instructional leadership to vision development and articulation, from solution and innovation assemblage to community relations, and from political advocacy to governance, district-level leadership matters. Indeed, for many schools, programs, and districts, the edge of this rut may actually be the horizon given our current trajectory; however, the only way we will minimize educational collateral damage and pedagogical decay is through the transformative power of district-level leadership. Without doubt, we need district-level leaders now more than any other time in the last thirty years to fulfill the promise of our academic body of research, to work with compassion and vested interest in the success of our nation and local educational communities, and to reinvent public education for the Twenty-First Century.