Change Leadership: A New Focus for Administrator Preparation Programs

One-to-One Institute’s newsletter this month focuses on the role higher education can play in the transformation of learning and teaching in the K-12 system. When discussing higher education programs the bulk of the conversation, rightfully so, tends to focus on teachers. We learned, however, through our Project RED research that principals play a paramount role in whether or not a 1:1 implementation is academically successful and financially sustainable.

We have been investigating the beliefs and actions of principals for the past couple of years, and the effects these beliefs have on teachers, students, and learning. When I started formulating my ideas for this article I decided to match the course content being taught in a couple of popular graduate programs for school administrators with the list of Key Implementation Factors, and other essential elements and best practices we have gleaned from our work. I found that there are pieces missing in the area of pedagogy and instruction, but there are two areas that seem to have been completely left out, namely change leadership, and project management.

Change Leadership

The education landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. The number of students in charter schools instead of traditional public schools more than doubled, from 3.1 to 6.6 percent. Enrollment has also continuously increased in online courses during the same period. According to the Online Learning Consortium, “The number of students taking online courses grew to 5.8 million nationally (2015-16), continuing a growth trend that has been consistent for 13 years.” In order to combat enrollment lose, and to provide an educational experience more personalized to an individual student’s interests, most public schools have initiated magnet programs within the district. According to the NCES database there were approximately 1.2 million students enrolled in magnet programs. By 2015 that number grew to more than 2.5 million.

There have been many other changes even within the traditional public school system. Schools have experimented with ideas such as Personalized Learning, Inquiry-based Learning, Design Thinking, Flipped Learning, and Blended Learning, to name but a few. More content area digital programs become available every day, as well as content and platforms designed for students that fall into other specialized categories such as special education, ELL, and credit recovery. Change is all around us in education, and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Since change seems to be the new normal, principals need to develop the requisite skills to lead change. It is simply not acceptable, or effective any longer to be a building manager. College programs seem to be doing a reasonable job of emphasizing the importance of the principal as instructional leader, but they must also help aspiring administrators understand the principles of change leadership. Developing an understanding of human motivation, for example, can lead to developing strategies for the co-creation of a new vision for learning and the learning environment. Through their college experience students may also need to challenge their beliefs about control and authority. Students need to explore the concept of organic growth, and systems of continuous improvement, and investigate the research on the effects of command and control mechanisms.

Project Management

Understanding how to lead change, and develop systems of continuous improvement are both extremely important for administrators to learn, but without the skills to manage the implementation of an innovation, it is highly likely that the implementation will flounder, and ultimately fail. I’ve noticed that very little importance is placed on professional project management in schools. When a district decides to build a new school, however, there are a number of outside professional that are hired. A project manager (title may vary) is always one of those professionals, and acts as the liaison to the district, as well as managing the details of the construction. On the other hand, when a district spends large sums of money on technology they seem to misunderstand the complexity of proper implementation, and therefore, fail to see the need for the investment in a trained project manager. They may appoint someone in the central office to oversee the project, but in these instances much of the fidelity of implementation fall to the principal. I’m not suggesting that schools of education should provide every administrator candidate full project management training, but making them aware of the basic principles, and the importance of the position could lead them to advocating for a project manager, or seek the help they need if the job ultimately falls on their shoulders.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone in education that the principal is often tasked with managing the implementation a several new programs at the same time. They wear many different hats, and often play the role of the fireman, cop, counselor, and the human resources director, all in the same day. With the number of duties assigned to principals, and their hectic daily schedules, it is highly unlikely they will find the time to focus on developing project management and change leadership skills on their own. Therefore, college graduate programs must embrace this content within their programs. To a great extent success in any field in the future will hinge on a person’s ability to facilitate and manage change. We know clearly from our Project RED research that if principals don’t have these skills, the learning environment will not change, and even the best new programs will ultimately fail.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

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