Contemporary educational leaders operate in complex local contexts. Not only do they have to deal with the daily challenges within the school, but also problems that originate outside the school, such as staff shortages, problematic school boards and budget constraints. There are some new patterns and features of these complex contexts that educators should recognize. Education leaders face a political terrain characterized by competition for resources and the direction of public education at all levels.
The vitality of the national economy was linked to the education system, shifting the policy focus on public education from issues of equity to issues of student achievement. States have increasingly centralized education policies to increase government influence over curriculum, instruction and assessment. With the advent of global economic and educational comparisons, most states have emphasized standards, accountability, and improving standardized assessments. Paradoxically, some education reforms have decentralized public education by increasing place-based tax administration.
In this new environment, school leaders must both respond to government demands and assume greater powers to manage budgets in their buildings. Meanwhile, other decentralization policies have given parents more educational authority by encouraging non-traditional publicly funded methods of educational delivery such as charter schools and vouchers. Political pressures like this have significantly changed the day-to-day activities of local education leaders, particularly through their intense involvement in the implementation of standards and assessments. Leaders at all levels need to be aware of current trends in national and state education policies and decide when and how to respond to reforms.
The many connections between education and business pose new challenges for those responsible for education. As both an economic user and provider, education extracts financial resources from the local community while providing human resources in the form of students who are prepared for productive careers. Just as the quality of a school district depends on the wealth of the district, that wealth depends on the quality of the public schools. There is a direct correlation between investment in education and individual income. In particular, it has been found that primary school-level education offers the greatest returns in terms of the ratio of individual income to the cost of education. This finding supports greater investment in early childhood education. To understand these relationships, education leaders need to determine which education services provide a positive return on investment for both taxpayers and graduates. Where the local economy does not support knowledge-based work, investment in education can actually produce a negative return. Leaders must strive to support education for knowledge-based careers while encouraging communities to be attractive to industries that offer such careers. Education leaders need to be aware of the nature of their local economies and of changes in local, national and global markets. To effectively connect schools to the local economy, leaders should develop strong relationships with community resource providers, form partnerships with corporations and universities, and actively participate in policy making that impacts education, and address the complex interrelationship between education and the public remember prosperity.
Two major shifts in the nation’s financial terrain over the past 19 years have helped shift principal accountability from school boards to state governments. First, the increase in state and federal funding for public education is forcing leaders to meet state requirements for both spending and accountability. Second, state aid has become increasingly linked to aligning the “adequacy” of spending across districts, prompting leaders to direct funds toward better outcomes and the education of students with greater needs, including low-income and disabled children. These shifts are made more difficult by the widely differing financial situations in the legal systems. These financial disparities have resulted in significant disparities in spending between urban and rural counties. In this dynamic financial context, educational leaders must strive to increase the resources available to their schools, consider government accountability systems, and seek community support, even as they strive to increase the effective use of resources by reducing class sizes and underperforming children for preschool programs and invest in teacher professional development.
Recently, two important accountability issues have received significant attention. The first has to do with market responsibility. As markets hold service providers accountable, executives may be pressured to spend more time marketing their schools as the market for educational offerings like charter schools and vouchers grows. The second problem has to do with political accountability. Government accountability measures force leaders to comply with government standards or to be subject to public scrutiny and possible penalties. The nature of the pressure varies between states depending on the content, cognitive challenges, and rewards and penalties included in accountability measures. School leaders may respond to accountability that originates in government policy by emphasizing test scores or preferring to focus on improving overall teaching and learning effectiveness. The external actions resulting from trends in political accountability can focus a school staff’s efforts, but leaders must mobilize resources to improve instruction for all students while meeting government requirements. And they must meet these requirements even as policies, incentives and definitions of appropriate learning change significantly.
Public education is expanding in both student numbers and diversity. The growing diversity is accompanied by an increasingly contentious political environment. Immigration also shapes the demographic picture. For example, many immigrant children need English classes, and the delivery of those classes can put a strain on school systems. Economic changes are also affecting schools as the number of children living in poverty has increased and poverty is becoming more concentrated in the country’s cities.
The transition to a knowledge-based economy and demographic changes that accompany the transition are challenging schools as they seek to serve the local economy. Faced with these demographic challenges, school leaders need to create or expand specialized programs and build capacity to serve students with diverse backgrounds and needs. Leaders also need to increase additional programs for children in poverty and gain public support for such policies from an aging population. Education leaders have to deal with two main problems in this area: first, they have to overcome labor shortages; Second, they must have qualified and diverse professional staff. The shortage of qualified teachers and principals is likely to increase over the next decade. Increasing demand in disciplines such as special education, bilingual and science education exacerbates the shortage. The causes of projected bottlenecks include population growth, retirements, career changes and local turnover. Turnover generally leads to a reduction in teaching quality through the loss of experienced staff, particularly in cities where qualified teachers seek better pay and working conditions elsewhere. To address shortages, some jurisdictions have ramped up recruitment and retention efforts, offering teachers emergency certification and incentives while recruiting administrators from among teachers and removing barriers to admission. Managers should take into account that new employees must be highly qualified. It is important to avoid creating a dichotomous workforce where some are highly qualified while others never acquire the appropriate qualifications. Leaders must also increase the racial and ethnic diversity of qualified teachers and administrators. A predominantly white faculty and principal corps serves a student population that is about 31% minority (much larger in some areas). More personal diversity could lead to a better understanding of different ways of thinking and acting among employees and students. This overview of the current context of educational leadership reveals three dominant features. First, the nationwide shift to work, which requires more education from students, has generated demands for greater educational productivity. Second, this shift has resulted in states playing a much larger role in funding and regulating public education. Third, the regulatory role of states has expanded to include accountability measures to ensure compliance and competence of instructions. Education leaders need to consider these characteristics if they hope to successfully navigate the current educational campus.