Public education in the United States resists change. That schools today resemble schools in the 1950s is old news. Entrenched interests benefit from educational paralysis, and that's old news, too. The story less often told and much more provocative is how change agents stop change. 

Educational leadership positions are most often filled with managers, not leaders. Managers preserve the status quo and enjoy long, lackluster careers. Leaders challenge the status quo and rarely remain more than a few years. Schools are filled with far more managers than leaders.

Leadership in traditional public schools, which continue to serve most students in the United States, including superintendents, principals, department heads and other managers usually come from the ranks of former teachers. There are a couple of good reasons why this happens.

  1. Formerly being a teacher increases a CEO’s credibility. In The Prize, Daniel Yergin recounts New Jersey’s complaints that those leading change in the schools came more frequently from Silicon Valley and its board rooms than New Jersey and its classrooms. How much do the skills needed to teach students align with the skills needed to operate a school system? The answer for most teachers is emotional and consistent: we like leaders like us. The answer in terms of measurable educational change is less clear.
  2. Credentialing systems are another major reason schools are run by teachers and not management, finance, operations, governance or content area experts. The first step toward an administrator license is a teacher license. Non-education industry people need years of graduate work to become school administrators. Most don’t bother, so teaching is the track to management.

The effect of the shrinking pool of would-be leaders and increasing the pool of would-be managers is that most schools are full of managers. Managers have little incentive to shake things up. They usually invested 5 to 10 years of their lives and tens of thousands of dollars getting job credentials, and those credentials aren’t highly regarded outside education. Managers are not going to shake up a system to the point where they have no job or can’t imagine a different system. Leaders with a strong incentive to rethink schools are rare.

Education faces a classic incentive problem. Economics teaches us to get the incentives right. Current incentives discourage change leadership. The solution to the leadership crisis is twofold: recognizing non-school leaders can effectively lead schools and liberalizing credentialing standards to increase the pool of leaders committed to genuine educational transformation and growth. 

John Heintz