Education Leadership Policy Research Paper Starter

Education Leadership Policy

(Research Starters)

This article examines the role of educational leadership in the broad context of U.S. educational history so as to understand what events, studies, commissions, recommendations and policies have affected the role of school leaders in elementary and secondary public education. The article examines the past and present educational models, and in particular explores the essential differences between authoritarian and democratic educational models. It then applies these models to current U.S. public education policy to inspect the position of the United States' current public educational model.

Keywords Accountability; Authoritarian educational model; Democratic educational model; Educational leaders; No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); School leadership; Standards-based reforms; Vouchers

School Administration


Educational leadership within the U.S. public educational system has constantly adapted to new circumstances that American society has imposed upon it. The political and public expectations imposed upon today's educational leaders, the objectives that current leaders establish as priorities, their educational philosophies and styles of management — and even their daily routines as school leaders — have changed during the course of American history. The impact of these changes cannot be adequately understood without first examining — at least briefly and generally — the history of American public education. An overview of the larger socio-economic and historical events that affected past public educational philosophy and policy is essential if we are to clearly understand the future role of U.S. educational leadership. Additionally, examining past public education problems and issues helps explain educational leadership's current crossroads, thus giving us a better picture of an emerging new role; such analysis can assist politicians, educators, institutions and citizens in helping to formulate the correct legislation, programs and policies for shaping effective educational leadership for this millennium.

Summarizing Education Leadership History

One of the most significant periods in America's system of secondary education occurred from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Before this period, the government was not overly concerned with developing well-envisioned educational policies, so there was not yet a comprehensive national system for ensuring educational standards. However, this lack of standardized policy was not necessarily a failing of the federal government since there were far fewer colleges, and one-room country schoolhouses were not in dire need of comprehensive educational policies for guidance. In an age of settlers and the Homestead Act, learning basic reading, writing, and arithmetic were an adequate set of objectives.

But the need for defining specific educational public policy increased as American society outgrew its settlement period; the nation was transformed by railroads and telegraphs spanning the entire country, and by the rigorous industrialism that arose — which inevitably transformed American society, and consequently placed new burdens on the nation's public schools. Thus, it is not surprising that after the American Civil War had ended, as rural populations and European immigrants flooded into the burgeoning cities, the federal government initiated its first earnest attempt at formulating a comprehensive policy to guide public education. In 1893, the Committee on Secondary School Studies — often referred to as the "Committee of Ten" — gathered to analyze the status quo of U.S. public education; the committee issued the "Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary Studies," which outlined its proposal for standardizing secondary education. This seminal report established the U.S. public high school curricula, and set the age levels at which students should begin their courses of study. It also established the weekly number of hours — as well as the specific number of years — that students should spend on the standardized curricula (Passow, 1975, p. 163).

After the Committee of Ten, other committees and organizations, such as the "Carnegie Unit" or the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, continued to shape and develop the U.S. public educational system. This period — from the late 1800s until the beginning of World War II — represents the most significant phase wherein the unique character of America's educational system was formed. The U.S. educational system made some significant departures from the European system — departures that, in many ways, are what made American high schools distinctly American. For example, foreign languages were drastically lowered in priority, while vocational training received much more emphasis (Passow, 1975, p. 163). These recommendations and reports of the 1930s are what led to a long period of marginalized foreign language study, while vocational "shop classes" became part of every high school's educational program. However, for this period of American history, such prioritizations were perhaps effective and logical: in a nation of booming industrialism, students did well to learn the skills of making furniture and overhauling car engines — whereas studying foreign languages, at that time, held much less practical advantage. Students passing through such a system were well-prepared for a long phase of American history that historians consider a time of "nation-building."

However, when this era had ended — after the Great Depression and World War II — the nation entered a period wherein technology became a top priority. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. Americans were bewildered, and understandably concerned, about falling behind technologically. The U.S. government decided that it was time to re-examine the public educational system. As Weaver points out about the Sputnik launch, "President Eisenhower challenged Americans to strengthen math and science education, and the educational system answered the call" (Weaver, 2007, p. 7). Part of answering that call was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which earmarked government funds for strengthening those particular areas of education that had originally been de-emphasized: sciences, math, and foreign languages (Passow, 1975, p. 168).

Approximately a decade later, America found itself once again in need of examining its public education system; the cultural revolution of the 1960s had much to do with this particular re-examination. The student uprisings and sit-ins against conservative, authoritarian leadership — within government and educational institutions alike — raised obvious and important questions: Why are so many intelligent students resisting formal education? And what was causing a "generation gap" that seemed more like a generation chasm? Such questions, provoked by the enormous social upheaval of that period, caused educational leaders to initiate new analyses of the public educational system. In the early 1970s, several national studies got under way. Three of these studies, sponsored by governmental departments such as the National Commission on the Reform of Secondary Education, were concentrated upon developing an accurate picture of the state of America's secondary educational system. The findings of these studies had very few positive or optimistic statements; in fact, one of the studies, published by the United States Office of Education (USOE) concluded that, "We have succeeded in producing a youth society housed in an overburdened institution excessively isolated from the reality of the community and the world" (Passow, 1975, p. 171). The other reports, issued by educational conferences and symposia, were concentrated on developing recommendations that might cure America's ailing educational system.

Identifying the Problems

A feature that had been prevalent in the public educational system since the outset — although ignored until the launching of the 1970s studies — was the authoritarian style of leadership entrenched within the nation's educational system. The study of the 1970s finally grappled with this problem. One of the 1970s reports advised that administrative leadership should "focus on strategies for using an information rich environment rather than maintaining the role and philosophy of serving a role that is information-dispensing" (Passow, 1975, p. 181). Harber says about the authoritarian educational model, "With this form of school organization, came a view of knowledge as factual and certain, and of there being one true answer to questions. It was the purpose of schools to transmit these 'true facts' to their students" (Harber 1997, p. 181). Harber also says that authoritarianism "is a model that stems from the introduction of mass schooling at the end of the nineteenth century, when a key purpose of the spread of formal education was to socialize young people into the routinized and subordinate norms and behaviors required of workers in large-scale bureaucratic organizations such as factories and offices" (Harber, 1997, p.181).

Although the studies and reports issued in the 1970s make no specific mention of an "authoritarian model," the reports do express the same fundamental viewpoint as Harber about where educational leaders should take the educational system — and some of the reports acknowledge, at least implicitly, that an authoritarian model is prevalent. The United States Office of Education (USOE) report says that "student participation in school management has been kept at a safe distance… more out of the constraints inherent in the management of large institutions than in real philosophic hostility to democratic concepts" (Passow, 1975, pp. 174–175), which indicates the panel's awareness of an authoritarian leadership model in public education — though the passage blames the problem on organizational size rather than an intentional (or perhaps unconscious) authoritarian philosophy. It should also be noted that the panels of the day were quite aware of the bureaucratic unwieldiness of the public education system, and made recommendations for relieving that as well (Passow, 1975, p. 176).

Many of the recommendations from the panels of the 1970s are also quite progressive and inherently point to a need for transitioning educational leadership from its authoritarian model into what Harber (1997) calls the "democratic educational model." For example,...

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