Educational Leadership for a New Era

I’ve long thought we have a big problem in how we select, train, and induct educational leaders (see, for instance, my 2003 piece A License to Lead?). We start with folks who started as classroom teachers and have never worked outside K-12, run them through ed admin programs where they interact only with other career educators and ed faculty, have them read lots of Leithwood and Fullan and Sergiovanni and Deal and little from outside K-12, and tell them school leadership is unique and unlike leadership in any other sector. We’re then frustrated by the results and berate these same principals and supes for being heavy-handed, lousy team-builders; for being slow to challenge established dogma; for not “thinking outside the box;” and for not leveraging new tools and management practices.

To me, this suggests the need for recruiting a deeper, richer, more diverse pool of leadership talent, from inside and outside of schools, and then deliberately training them in a fashion that permits them to learn from peers outside of K-12, exposes them to leadership and management thinking from outside K-12, and integrates thinking on entrepreneurship and unbundling (see Education Unbound for more context) into the very fabric of their preparation. There are a handful of current efforts seeking to do just this.

For my money, one of the more interesting of those efforts is Rice University’s Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP). Launched in 2008 and housed in Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, REEP is designed to prepare select Houston-area educators (from districts and charters) to become transformative school leaders. (Full disclosure: I was recruited in 2008 by my friends Mike Feinberg and Leo Linbeck to help design REEP and continue to serve as the lead education faculty member.)

How does REEP actually work? Practically and legally, how does one prepare certified edu-leaders in a school of business? How did REEP get started, and what are the lessons for those enamored by the model? How does REEP training differ from that offered in traditional ed admin programs? My crack colleague Daniel Lautzenheiser and I examined these questions in “Educational Leadership for a New Era:The Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program,” just published last week by REEP. Here are a few key takeaways; if you’re interested, check out the full piece.

REEP’s basic premise is that key leadership and management skills are universal, regardless of one’s field of endeavor, and that aspiring K-12 leaders can actually become more adept at these skills by learning with and from peers and faculty who have diverse expertise and experiences. In holding that “school leadership” is not as unique as generations of ed leadership experts have suggested, REEP offers a sharp and significant break with traditional practice. At a practical level, Rice is the first institution in the nation allowed to issue would-be administrators a state principal certification through a business school. The REEP model makes it possible for full-time teachers and administrators to pursue either a two-year MBA (via Rice’s MBA for Professionals track) or a one-year fellowship via the Jones School’s Executive Education training program.

Daniel and I conclude the piece by flagging key lessons evident in Rice’s early experience. I’ll highlight six of those here:

Fresh opportunity to build an innovative program. Unlike most ed school-business school partnerships, which inevitably draw upon the faculty and programs already in place, Rice was able to build a unique education leadership training program from scratch. This opportunity to start fresh meant that REEP could use the expertise of the Jones School without worrying about stepping on the toes of an ed school or having to use education faculty.
A chance to cultivate the local talent pool. Unlike education leadership programs with a more national focus, REEP was designed to cultivate the talent pool in one community. REEP’s design is intended to offer an alluring new path to potential leaders, to keep those talented leaders in the local ecosystem, to forge new ties across districts and across the district and charter sectors, and to infuse local leadership with thinking and networks that stretch beyond the narrow world of K-12.

Squeezing a different approach into a self-assured field. A key tension for programs like REEP is the attempt to pioneer a new direction in leadership training while having to comply with state-level guidelines that presuppose a particular approach to training school leaders. These “correct” approaches to K-12 leadership imply certainty on questions that most non-K-12 authorities in management and leadership regard as uncertain.
Can leaders use what they’re learning? Business schools often operate under the assumption that leaders have a substantial ability to reallocate time, staff, and dollars and to remake routines. However, in K-12, leaders often operate in highly constrained environments.

Lessons Learned
Influentials committed to the effort. Inside and outside of Rice, REEP enjoyed advocates who helped it clear logistical hurdles, secure funds, develop local relationships, and recruit students and a national faculty. Equally critical was support from the Jones School. On the outside, REEP’s advisory board included key contacts in leadership roles in local school districts, in high-profile charter management organizations, and at Teach For America. This helped with visibility, coordination, and recruitment.
Doubts about whether REEP could be launched at an institution with an education school. Those involved in launching REEP repeatedly expressed skepticism that they could have built it at Rice if an education school had been in place. Those who had dealt with other local schools of education spoke of the frustrations of having to negotiate ways to ensure that new programs didn’t step on the toes of established programs or faculty members. Rethinking the assumptions of how to train school leaders was thought to be possible only when working on a fresh slate.

-Rick Hess

This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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