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The Changing Nature of Leadership Preparation

Bonnie C. Fusarelli

North Carolina State University


Bonnie C. Fusarelli, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at North Carolina State University. Her research interests include: educational leadership, social justice/educational equity, educational policy and the politics of school reform, and school/agency collaboration.



This article explores how new ways of studying and preparing educational leaders have taken root in preparation programs and are reflected in the scholarship and research in the field. It examines the evolution of school leadership in theory and in practice, and describes how school leadership has changed over time. In light of recent educational reforms, including NCLB, and changes in administrator preparation, I conclude that school leadership preparation has changed in significant ways and become re-oriented toward a holistic role as leader, broadly defined—encompassing knowledge of research, effective administrative practice, collaborator, and activist for social justice.



The greatest challenge for educational leaders in the 21st century is to achieve higher levels of learning for all students. School leadership preparation programs seek to produce leaders who have the requisite knowledge, dispositions, and skills to successfully lead contemporary schools (Institute for Educational Leadership, 2000; Kelley & Peterson, 2000). Consequently, many university-based preparation programs have redesigned their delivery formats, aligned their curricula to new professional standards, and updated their performance assessments for graduate students to more accurately reflect the new nature of leadership (Browne-Ferrigno, 2007; Jackson & Kelley, 2002; Murphy & Forsyth, 1999). Tricia Browne-Ferrigno (2007) reminds us that, “New performance expectations for principals in the United States, delineated in administrator standards established by the Council for Chief State School Officers and individual states, have modified the long-standing perception of a principal as a school manager to a perspective of learner-centered leaders who focus on high levels of learning for all students” (p. 1).


The role of the school leader has become more complex because of the evolving nature of the tasks connected to the position. There are calls to reculture the principalship to include roles of moral steward, educator, and community builder and there are near universal calls to expand the principal’s role to include advocacy for social justice to help ensure equitable and just learning outcomes for all students (Hackmann & Wanat, 2007). 


The shift in how educational leaders are prepared is reflected in how the field has framed itself. Over the last decade, many administrator preparation departments have changed their names from Educational Administration to Educational Leadership. In much of the contemporary literature, the school’s administrator (principal) is now often referred to as the school leader. This trend is also seen at the state level. In North Carolina, for example, the State Board of Education now refers to school principals as “school executives,” and all seven new standards for these school executives are centered around different dimensions of leadership: strategic leadership, instructional leadership, cultural leadership, human resources leadership, managerial leadership, external develop leadership, and micro-political leadership.


One reason for this shift is that education has been in reform mode for several decades. Since the publication of A Nation at Risk (1983), public schools in the U.S. have been under attack. The prevailing rhetoric is that our schools are failing, and we must do something to change them. Apprentice models of school leadership preparation are no longer appropriate because they simply replicate the status quo. For real reform to occur, a change in the way leaders are prepared must take place. New school leaders must be prepared to be change agents, and therefore the nature of leadership preparation must change as well.


Education as an Applied Field

The challenges of studying and teaching leadership in an applied discipline (such as education) are somewhat unique. For example, in political science the professor usually teaches about leadership. However, since they are preparing practitioners, professors in educational leadership programs are expected to teach their students how to do leadership, and do it well. There is a higher level of responsibility than in other disciplines to help students become effective leaders.


This articles explores how the teaching of leadership and how teaching about the practice of leadership has changed in recent years. Some critics might argue that the change is more cosmetic than substantive, but as this article will highlight, new ways of studying and preparing leaders have taken root in preparation programs and are reflected in the scholarship and research in the field.


In this article, I examine the evolution of school leadership in theory and in practice. I explore how school leadership has changed over time, and how these changes affect the emergent role of principal as educational leader. In light of recent educational reforms, including NCLB, and changes in administrator preparation, I conclude that leadership preparation has changed in significant ways and become re-oriented toward a holistic role as leader, broadly defined—encompassing knowledge of research, effective administrative practice, collaborator, and activist for social justice.


Traditional Approaches

I begin by examining historical conceptualizations of school leadership—how the roles and responsibilities of school leaders have changed over time and the resulting changes in preparation. The shifting discourse surrounding school leaders in general mirror those of the school superintendent. Brunner, Grogan, and Björk (2002) identified several distinct discursive stages. From approximately 1900–1954, superintendents acted as expert managers and embraced the values and practices of business and industry. The predominant view of school administration emphasized the principles of scientific management (Cooper & Boyd, 1987; Taylor, 1911). This corporate ideology continued to permeate school leadership, even as leaders adopted additional roles such as communicator, accountability expert, political strategist, and collaborator (Brunner, Grogan, & Björk, 2002).


In the late 1940s, educational administration emerged as an established academic discipline (Culbertson, 1981). During this period, national organizations such as the National Conference of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) and the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) were formed. By the late 1950s, the “theory movement” in educational administration was “firmly established and there was a determined effort to bring the social science disciplines (particularly psychology, sociology, and social psychology) to bear upon administrator preparation in education” (Crowson & McPherson, 1987, p. 47). “Empiricism, predictability, and ‘scientific’ certainty” were emphasized” (Cooper & Boyd, 1987, p. 4). “With additional insights drawn from the fields of political science and economics, educational leaders were schooled in the principles of motivation, individual and group interaction, resource allocation, and the nature and functioning of public bureaucracies” (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005, p. 190).


By the 1960s, the focus of educational administration preparation shifted from “how to do it” to an orientation based on inquiry (Getzel, 1977). This shift is readily identifiable in texts on educational administration, as Getzel (1977) noted, “None of the texts before 1950 referred to theory; virtually none of those after 1960 did not refer to it” (p. 10). One explanation for this shift was that theory was viewed as necessary for school leaders to address the social issues faced by school administrators.


During the Civil Rights Movement, schools were viewed as potential vehicles for societal change. The study and practice of administration, which had historically focused on relations within the school system, necessarily turned its focus outward to relations of the school system to other systems with which it was inextricably bound–political, legal, and economic systems, among others (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005; Getzel, 1977). The generation, utilization, and study of theory led to the field of educational administration emerging as a legitimate academic discipline. However, emphasis on leadership development took a back seat or was secondary to theoretical inquiry into the nature of leadership.


By the 1970s, coursework in educational administration was thoroughly infused with behavioral science concepts and content, reflecting the belief that the practice of administration was “more than the execution of technical tasks” (Miklos, 1983, p. 159). Preparation programs focused on how education fit within the larger social system and, conversely, how other institutions and organizations affected the educational system (Miklos, 1983). School leaders were encouraged to view public education as an instrument of social policy. This paradigm became firmly entrenched in administrator preparation programs across the country, but unfortunately, the social sciences were unable to provide answers to the myriad problems confronting public schools.


By the late 1980s, significant disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes became apparent and the inability of school leaders to solve these problems led to a series of attacks against education schools and the preparation of school leaders (Hess, 2004; Kramer, 1991; Levine, 2005; Tucker, 2003). University-based school leader preparation programs were criticized as being too theoretical and divorced from the actual practice of leadership.


Contemporary Approaches

The grounding of leadership preparation in theory that was once embraced as a possible solution to school failure is now widely criticized. This has led to calls for non-traditional routes to leadership. Over the past four decades, leadership licensure and certification requirements have gone through cycles of increasing regulation followed by deregulation or a loosening of requirements. Reports such as A Nation at Risk (1983) contributed to this cycle so that by the mid 1980s, most states (41 states or 82 percent) had regulations that required school leaders to complete a prescribed program of graduate study and subsequently obtain a state-issued license (or certification) to practice (Kowalski, 2005). Yet, the persistent failure of many school systems to improve education has led to calls for radical reforms, including eliminating or reducing licensure and certification requirements for school leaders. Within the last decade, several states have either eliminated or changed (watered down) the certification requirements for superintendents and principals, by allowing district-based licensure or by no longer requiring a degree in school leadership to become a principal or superintendent.


The movement toward alternative certification for school administrators reflects a response to a perceived leadership crisis in America’s schools and has resulted in calls for new thinking and new leadership (Hess, 2004). Ironically, at the same time that some states are reducing leadership requirements, many states are tightening the regulations on university-based preparation programs through the adoption of state standards for school leaders and requirements for programs to be “approved” by outside accrediting agencies such as the National Council for the Accreditation of Colleges of Teacher Education (NCATE).


More problematic is the push in some states to make leadership preparation more accessible and cheaper for students through the utilization of on-line distance education. Despite the fact that course evaluations for on-line instruction typically are lower than those for courses taught face-to-face, and the clear need to have human interaction when dealing with changing people’s dispositions (something leadership programs claim to do), more and more educational leadership programs have “on-line” components and some have gone entirely on-line.


Three significant, distinct, yet interrelated policy and ideational currents have come together to shape contemporary school leader preparation. The three currents include: (1) powerful societal changes and failed efforts at school improvement; (2) recent systemic reform initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB); and (3) changes in administrator preparation, focusing on issues of equity and social justice (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005). Although distinct, each ideational current draws from and is affected by the other two currents. I shall examine each current and highlight how it contributes to the reconcepualiztion of school leadership and school leader preparation.


Failed Reform Efforts

Over the past three decades, wave after wave of educational reform initiatives have failed to produce significant and sustained results. Performance data show wide and persistent gaps in student achievement (Fusarelli, 2000). On nearly every index of student achievement, student performance continues to lag terribly, despite school reform efforts (Henig, Hula, Orr, & Pedescleaux, 1999; Viteritti, 2002).


Poor student performance has been blamed on inadequate teacher training, teachers’ unions, high teacher and administrator turnover, apathetic students, bureaucratization and red tape, and a lack of competition (Hess, 1999). However, Fusarelli and Fusarelli (2005) argue that past reforms failed because they only produced superficial changes in schools but did not affect the nature (the deep structure) of schooling or of society itself. They note that “reforms such as schedule changes (block scheduling, year-round schools), evaluation (authentic assessment, portfolios, standardized testing), professional development (teacher teams, collaborative planning), and school-based management neither affected instruction in the classroom nor addressed the fundamental problems that schools, and the children within them, face. To a great extent, such superficial changes in schooling amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—the action is earnest but does not address the underlying problem” (p. 193). Substantive changes in the structure and design of schooling are needed and educational leaders committed to equity and excellence must lead this effort.


The No Child Left Behind Act

More than ever before, school leaders are required to use data to drive decision making and be proactive in identifying obstacles to achieving equity in schools (Scheurich & Skrla, 2003). Scientific research “can yield reliable and replicable findings that build confidence in the effectiveness (or failure) of the many alternatives advocated or practiced in education. These findings should increase the willingness of policymakers and educators to make required changes or stick with proven—albeit often difficult—reforms” (Fleischman, Kohlmoos, & Rotherham, 2003, paragraph 13). To excel in this new era, school leaders need to create an environment that values evidence-based educational practices and work to better prepare school employees to participate in research and evaluation and apply research-based school improvement techniques.


School Leader Preparation and Social Justice

A host of academic and professional associations are placing renewed emphasis on narrowing the achievement gap and enhancing equity for all students. Visions of school leadership are changing because, “the social fabric of society is changing…we are becoming a more diverse society—racially, linguistically and culturally…Poverty is increasing. Indexes of physical, mental, and moral well-being are declining. The stock of social capital is decreasing as well…We believe that these challenges will require new types of leadership in schools” (CCSSO, 2008).


Fusarelli and Fusarelli (2005) argue that changing demographics, especially when coupled with the push for high-stakes standardized tests and the resulting racial and socioeconomic status (SES) achievement gap, necessitate a rethinking of the way universities prepare school leaders. Educational leaders need to be skilled in relating to people who have different needs and different values. In the past two decades, the field of educational leadership has shifted its focus toward “what leadership is for” as opposed to what leadership is or does (Fuhrman, 2003, p. 1). Noting the dramatic differences between the 1988 Handbook of Research on Educational Administration, and the second Handbook, published in 1999, Björk (2003) asserted that “the shift in emphasis from school management to transformational leadership” is “an unambiguous attempt to re-center the field of educational administration” (p. 23).


The move to frame leadership as an endeavor of social justice is similarly reflected in the focus of professional meetings. For example, the last four annual conferences of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) have been focused on social justice.


Newer Approaches

Within the past decade, particularly with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), principals have been called to lead systemic reform efforts and educate all children to proficiency, regardless of ethnicity, income, or family background. This shift in federal educational priorities, from equal opportunity to (near) equal outcomes, is dramatic and unprecedented (Fusarelli & Fusarelli, 2005).


In their chapter on Leadership for Social Justice, Larson and Murtadha (2002) observe that certain practices of leadership may lead to “greater freedom, opportunity, and justice for all citizens, citizens who, through public education, are better able to participate in and sustain a free, civil, multicultural, and democratic society” (p. 4). Unfortunately, until recently, there was a relative void in leadership regarding the issue of social justice and equality in education. Larson and Murtadha (2002) note that some researchers in educational administration are embracing the language of social justice research by invoking terms such as: equity, equality, opportunity, and justice. Critical, feminist, and post-structural theorists who challenge the belief that schools are good and just (or at least neutral) for all students are becoming more prevalent in the literature (Larson & Murtadha, 2002; Scheurich & Young, 1997).


Social justice implies not only a duty to act on behalf of individuals, but also imposes on leaders the responsibility to be involved in the active transformation of environments which currently foster often-invisible power structures of class, race, and gender (Fine, 2001). In schools, these power structures impose barriers to the education of children, particularly those already marginalized by poverty or discrimination. These children are desperately in need of the equalizing benefits of education.


There has been a shift in recent years as to how universities prepare educational leaders for social justice. In their study of leaders known for their commitment to social justice, Merchant and Shoho (2006) report that “in order to move from an intellectual appreciation of social justice to the development of a genuine commitment to social justice and equity, university faculty will have to aggressively integrate these concepts and practices into all aspects of their preparation programs. We must move beyond classroom discussions that treat these issues in a theoretical and abstract manner, to providing experiences that will enable students to recognize and combat the inequities that permeate the very systems and institutions in which they work. An important component in this process is the development of good communication skills and the ability to interact effectively with a broad range of people” (p.106). 


One way to do this is through more effective school-university partnerships. Universities and school districts could collaborate to design experimental learning and engagement activities to prepare leaders to be change agents in K-12 schools. One way some universities have done this is by having their students engage in action research. Ideally, by engaging in action research and data-based decision making, as opposed to relying on stereo-typed practice, students become more reflective practitioners and help build professional cultures of continual improvement in schools.


Teaching Leadership for Social Justice

Programs that prepare educational leaders could adopt a constructivist approach to the teaching of leadership. Constructivism, an epistemology that values developmentally appropriate facilitator-supported learning, posits that humans learn or construct meaning from current knowledge structures. Constructivists value the uniqueness of individual students and require students to be activey involved in the learning process (Von Glasersfeld, 1989; Wertsch 1997). Adopting a constructivist approach and utilizing a “liberatory pedagogy” can improve the teaching of leadership (Apffel-Marglin, 1998; Freire, 1970, 1998; Giroux, 1997, 1996, 1988; Illich, 1971, 1974; Shor & Freire, 1987).


 Liberatory pedagogy differs from traditional methodologies in that in liberatory education, the teacher gradually withdraws as the sole director of learning and passes authority on to the students. Students then emerge as co-directors of the curriculum, contributing their own experiences, knowledge, and expertise. This is particularly critical in working with adult students who are experienced educators – they each add a valuable and unique perspective that is essential to quality graduate level learning.


Instructors could strive to create a learning atmosphere that is nurturing, challenging, and motivational, while having high expectations for student achievement. Quality graduate level education requires that students be pushed beyond their comfort zone. Many of the issues in leadership are controversial or do not have a “correct” answer. Therefore, students need to engage in discussion and dialogue. This approach allows students to examine their own perspectives and subject their beliefs and positions to public scrutiny. Further, it helps to meet the needs of students with various styles of learning and types of intelligences. A liberatory approach helps diminish the amount of passive transference of knowledge and empowers students to be actively involved in their own development as leaders and lifelong learners.



One way to transform educational organizations is to reform educational leadership programs so that the courses are designed to prepare school leaders who are ethically and morally responsive (Kant, 1959, as cited in Sergiovanni, 1992) to the challenges of an increasingly diverse school-age population. Educational leadership programs have a duty to actively promote awareness of social justice; and one method by which this can be accomplished is to motivate and inspire school leaders using a critical approach to the study of educational leadership.


Anchoring school administration in concepts of social justice and democratic community would do much to advance the “moral steward” role of school leaders (Beck & Murphy, 1994). School leaders who wish to impact society must utilize a powerful set of beliefs or convictions that are anchored in issues of justice, community, and schools that maximize the potential of all students (Larson & Murtadha, 2002). As Sergiovanni (1992) notes, they must maintain a belief in possibilities, they must have a passion that affects others. They must view their task more as a mission than a job. The moral leader uses ethics and justice to guide the thousands of decisions they make daily (Beck & Murphy, 1994).


Leadership is not simply about the skills but also about the “heart of leadership” (Sergiovanni, 1992) If the values and beliefs of educational leaders are recognized as legitimate, leadership for social justice may have greater success in battling inequities and injustices in schools and communities and may produce better, more effective leaders.


As evident from standardized test scores, American schools are struggling to educate all children. The well-documented racial achievement gap further reflects social injustices. One apparent consequence of the contemporary emphasis on standardized testing in America is that school leaders are beginning to recognize the need to address social justice issues that may be barriers to student success.


The “No Child Left Behind” Act makes the argument for socially just schools all the more compelling. The requirement for all students to be “proficient” and to make “adequate yearly progress” may be the impetus for educational leaders to examine the inherent inequity in today’s schools. They may find that focusing solely on academic instruction is not enough to close the well-documented racial and socio-economic achievement gap. True reform may require fundamental changes in schools.


It is clear that the nature of school leadership is changing. To meet the needs of today’s youth, school leaders must be willing to change their traditional views of schooling and strive to do whatever it takes to help children learn. This change should begin pre-service, in university preparation programs that advance new conceptions of leadership. University preparation programs must re-think conventional approaches to school leadership and develop future school leaders who provide quality public education for all children.




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