GSE News

The Leadership Principal

What kind of people become K-12 leaders? Motivators. Movers. Shakers. Collaborators. Communicators. Constant learners. These answers came easily to the Philadelphia School District teachers and principals gathered at the Penn Center for Educational Leadership.

After all, leadership is a topic to which they are deeply committed. Constant learners themselves, these elementary and secondary school educators have agreed to dedicate approximately 100 hours over the course of a year to leadership training in a bold new initiative called the Annenberg Distributed Leadership Program.

Distributed leadership is a new way of thinking about responsibility and creativity in schools. The Graduate School of Education is assuming a pioneering role in learning how this approach and others can redefine leadership in K-12 schools. According to many thought leaders in the field, this qualifies as a national necessity.

"That K-12 leadership has shown to be crucial to the success of student achievement cannot be overemphasized," says Penn GSE Dean Andy Porter. "And, arguably, one of the major challenges in urban schools is leadership-particularly grooming and retaining the best people. GSE is positioned to conduct research and training in this critical area with a very clear purpose-to produce top-notch leaders in education."

GSE has designed an array of programs in educational leadership and is home to some of the most innovative thinking in the field. Clearly, the time is ripe. A 2007 GSE committee on leadership in education, led by James H. "Torch" Lytle, practice professor of education, puts the matter into perspective:

"As federal, state, and local pressures mount for school leaders to produce results, the field is in ferment," the committee reports in its position paper. The committee cites a recent telling comment from Henry Levin, an expert in economics and education at Columbia University, who asserts that "the demands on educational leaders have shifted and accelerated so fast that their associated fields of research, training, and practice cannot keep the pace."

GSE is preparing students not only to keep the pace, but to exceed it. As the leadership in education committee notes, all GSE students are expected to exercise leadership in their future professional roles: primed by their scholarship and training at GSE, "one can go on from GSE to be a leader in one's field, a principal or a college president."

GSE's palette of educational leadership programs includes the Mid-Career Doctorate in Educational Leadership; master's-level programs for aspiring principals and aspiring superintendents; the first-of-its-kind Executive Program in Work-Based Learning Leadership in conjunction with the Wharton School; and the Executive Doctorate in Higher Education.

 

Making Changes Mid-Stream

Designed for working teachers, principals, and higher education personnel, the programs offer non-traditional weekend and evening scheduling; customized course offerings; organization by student cohort; and, for doctoral programs, dedicated dissertation research support. The programs report strong and diverse applicant pools, exceptional program completion rates, and extraordinary student satisfaction.

Delvin M. Dinkins GrEd'05 was in the first cohort of the Mid-Career Doctoral Program, designed for experienced educators interested in leading the transformation of public and private educational organizations. Dinkins was a principal in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and, like many of the students in the program, already had some professional development in leadership.

Among the first of its kind, the Mid-Career Doctoral Program appealed to Dinkins "because I always understood that I could contribute to the lives of people beyond the walls of my classroom and outside the oval of the track where I coached," he says. "Leaders are challenged more than ever to deliver on their schools' promises of an education for the 21st century. But delivering on this promise is next to impossible without the tools, infrastructure, or public confidence. Leaders, more than ever before, have to figure out ways to reach all kids and teachers in spite of-or because of-the circumstances in which they learn and teach."

A long-time "fan" of Penn, Dinkins says he chose the Mid-Career Doctoral Program for its "smart, innovative structure." Led by GSE Senior Fellow Mike Johanek, the program is organized by modules in instructional leadership, organizational leadership, evidence-based leadership, and public leadership. The program, established in 2002, recruited its seventh cohort this year.

Johanek provides a quick snapshot of this year's class-a fairly typical one for the program. The cohort has an estimated 500 years of total experience, with most coming from the public school world. While students come from all levels of the educational system-elementary, middle school, high school, district offices-the single largest group (44 percent) heads schools.

The cohort structure is a distinguishing feature of the program, offering unique peer support during the 36-month learning and dissertation period and among alumni of the program.

"I understood from the start that the program would offer a degree of rigor and create the kind of intellectual community that I would appreciate," says Dinkins. "I also knew that the University's insistence on academic excellence and GSE's commitment to practitioner inquiry would challenge and energize me."

The program incorporates Penn's key assets-superlative faculty, interdisciplinary study, and urban location-with the professional and life experiences the students bring to the table. "Our students are the glue between theory and practice," says Johanek. "The program honors the deep desire for intellectual work that isn't separate from practice. Our students explore how to carry that out into their own schools and districts."

Most graduates of the program are already in influential administrative positions by graduation, with increased prospects for career advancement. (Some 70 percent of the students have advanced since starting the program.) Dinkins has since become director of electronic learning and career education for his school district. He credits the Mid-Career Doctoral Program for the distinctive skills he brings to his new leadership position.

"I now know more than ever how important it is for people to interrogate norms, beliefs, and practices that perhaps contributed to challenges we find to be intractable," he says. The Mid-Career program emphasized for me good critically reflective practice. More than ever before, I have the strong presence to ask hard questions, make painful-and painfully obvious-observations, and push thinking."

 

Charting a New Course

"This is not work for the faint-hearted. To do it well requires a calm disposition and trust-building skills of a mediator combined with steely determination and perseverance of an innovator."-Ellen Guiney, from Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change.

When presenter and literacy expert Patricia Baxter WEv'98 WEv'04 flashed this quote on the screen, a room full of teachers and principals nodded their heads in agreement. The group, from the School District of Philadelphia, had come together at the Annenberg Distributed Leadership Program because they knew something had to change in the challenged district, and they had signed up to help make it happen.

Like many school districts, Philadelphia is focused on education leadership as a significant part of its plans to improve school performance. And as in many districts, these efforts have been hindered by a high rate of turnover among school leaders.

With a $4.9 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, the Penn Center for Educational Leadership is working to help school districts by offering an alternative model-one that explores the potential of shared, or "distributed," leadership. The Distributed Leadership Program at GSE is a four-year project demonstrating that school leadership is a collaborative endeavor, explains John DeFlaminis, executive director of the Penn Center for Educational Leadership and director of the Distributed Leadership Program.

The goal is to build distributed leadership teams in 16 Philadelphia public schools to demonstrate how instructional leadership is the shared work of everyone in a school. "Instead of relying on a single administrator to be a director, organizer, and decision-maker, this structure recognizes that teachers can bring their expertise and leadership skills to bear on the issues faced by schools," says DeFlaminis, a former superintendent of Radnor Township School District.

With the commitment of dedicated educators, like the dozens of teachers and principals in training at the Penn Center for Educational Leadership on that February morning, the Annenberg Distributed Leadership Program aims to translate that theory into practice. Currently training its second cohort, the program is preparing more than 80 teachers to be instructional leaders who will work collectively with their principals.

"The old model of formal, one-person leadership leaves the substantial talents of teachers largely untapped," explains DeFlaminis. He cites education literature which asserts that "the days of the principal as the lone instructional leader are over. We no longer believe that one administrator can serve as the instructional leader for an entire school without the substantial participation of other educators."

For teachers and principals in the Annenberg program, distributed leadership is largely a brand-new approach, but one that they quickly embrace.

Says Karen Dean, principal of Anna B. Day Elementary in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia: "I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a long process, but I have some foundation here, and it's a good jumping-off point, so when we go back to school in September, we can get started."

Trained "teacher-leaders" will serve as subject specialists and establish broader learning communities within their schools to identify and employ best practices in instruction.

Shawanna James Coles, a teacher at Tanner G. Duckrey Elementary in North Philadelphia, sees the wisdom of the distributed learning approach. "You don't want to dictate what's going on, what the new policies are, what the new changes are going to be, but present it in a way where the teachers will buy in, the staff will buy in, the community will buy in, and the children will buy in on any given level."

Distributed leadership sends best practices rippling through schools in concentric circles. Inverting the traditional concept of top-down management, distributed leadership gives more ownership of ideas and decisions collectively to teachers, at once empowering teachers and freeing principals from unrelenting management tasks. Now principals and teachers can work together more effectively on instructional improvements.

"By re-envisioning the role of school leadership in the overburdened and complex urban school districts like Philadelphia," says DeFlaminis, "the Annenberg Distributed Leadership Program aspires to prepare a new generation of leaders with the skills and strategies necessary to sustain high-performing, standards-based schools. . . . With this project, we have a unique opportunity to expand school leadership in a way that will affect learning among children for generations."

By Jennifer Baldino Bonett