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Educational leaders should strive to increase the resources available to their schools

Contemporary educational leaders function in complex local contexts. They must deal not only with daily challenges within the schools, but also with problems that originate beyond the schools, such as staff shortages, troublesome school boards, and budget constraints. There are some patterns and features emerging from these complex contexts that educational leaders need to recognize. Education leaders face political terrain marked by disputes at all levels over the resources and direction of public education.

The vitality of the national economy has been linked to the educational system, shifting the political focus in public education from issues of equity to issues of student achievement. States have increasingly centralized educational policymaking to increase government influence over curriculum, instruction, and assessment. With the increase in global economic and educational comparisons, most states have emphasized standards, accountability, and improved standardized testing. Paradoxically, some education reforms have decentralized public education by increasing site-based fiscal management.

School leaders in this new environment must respond to state demands and also assume greater budget management authority within their buildings. Meanwhile, other decentralization measures have given more educational authority to parents by promoting non-traditional publicly funded methods of education delivery, such as charter schools and vouchers. Political pressures such as these have significantly changed the day-to-day activities of local educational leaders, particularly by heavily involving them in the implementation of standards and assessments. Leaders at all levels must be aware of current trends in national and state education policy and must decide when and how to respond to reforms.

The many connections between education and the economy have posed new challenges for educational leaders. As an economic user and provider, education draws financial resources from the local community while providing human resources in the form of students prepared for productive careers. Just as the quality of a school district depends on the wealth of the district, that wealth depends on the quality of the public schools. There is a direct relationship between educational investment and individual income. Specifically, education at the elementary level has been found to provide the highest rate of return in terms of the ratio of individual earnings to the cost of education. This finding argues for greater investment in early education. By understanding these connections, educational leaders must determine which educational services will ensure a positive return on investment for both taxpayers and graduates. When local economies do not support knowledge-based work, investment in education can actually generate a negative return. Leaders should strive to support education for knowledge-based jobs while encouraging communities to be attractive to industries that offer such work. Educational leaders must be aware of the nature of their local economies and of changes in local, national, and global markets. To effectively link schools to local economies, leaders must develop strong relationships with community resource providers, establish partnerships with businesses and universities, and actively participate in policymaking that affects education, remembering the complex interdependence between education and public wealth.

Two major changes in the nation’s financial arena in the past 19 years have worked to shift responsibility for school leaders from school boards to state governments. First, the growth of state and federal funding for public education constrains leaders from meeting government conditions for both spending and accountability. Second, state aid has been increasingly associated with equalizing “adequacy” spending across districts, influencing leaders to use funds to produce better results and to educate students with higher needs, including disabled and low-income children. Complicating these changes are widely varying financial situations between jurisdictions. These financial differences have made significant disparities in spending between districts in urban areas and districts in rural areas common. In this dynamic financial context, educational leaders must strive to increase the resources available to their schools, accommodate state systems of accountability, and seek community support, even as they strive to increase the effective use of resources by reduce class sizes, prepare underperforming children for preschool. programs and invest in the professional growth of teachers.

Recently, two important accountability issues have received considerable attention. The first has to do with market responsibility. With marketplaces holding service providers accountable, if the marketplace for educational options such as charter schools and vouchers grows, leaders may find themselves under pressure to spend more time promoting their schools. The second issue has to do with political responsibility. State accountability measures force leaders to meet state standards or face public scrutiny and possible sanctions. The type of pressure varies among states depending on the content, cognitive challenges, and rewards and punishments included in the accountability measures. School leaders can respond to accountability pressures stemming from state policies by emphasizing test scores or, preferably, by focusing on improving overall teaching and learning effectiveness. External actions resulting from political accountability trends can focus the efforts of school personnel, but leaders must mobilize resources to improve instruction for all students while meeting state requirements. And they must meet those demands even as the measures, incentives, and definitions of appropriate learning undergo substantial changes.

Public education is expanding in terms of student numbers and diversity. An increasingly contentious political environment has accompanied the growth of diversity. Immigration is also shaping the demographic landscape. For example, many immigrant children need English language training, and providing that training can put pressure on school systems. Economic changes are also affecting schools, as the number of children living in poverty has increased and poverty has become more concentrated in the country’s cities.

The shift to a knowledge-based economy and the demographic changes that accompany the shift challenge schools trying to serve area economies. Given such demographic challenges, school leaders must create or expand specialized programs and build capacity to serve students with diverse backgrounds and needs. Leaders must also increase supplemental programs for children in poverty and win public support for such measures from an aging population. Educational leaders must face two main issues in this area: first, they must overcome labor shortages; second, they must maintain a qualified and diverse professional staff. The shortage of qualified teachers and principals will likely increase in the next decade. Growing needs in specialized areas such as special, bilingual, and science education exacerbate the shortage. Causes of projected shortages include population growth, retirements, career changes, and local turnover. Turnover often translates into a reduction in the quality of instruction as a result of the loss of experienced staff, especially in cities, where qualified teachers seek better pay and working conditions elsewhere. To address the shortage, some jurisdictions have stepped up recruitment and retention efforts, offering teachers incentives and emergency certification while recruiting administrators within the teacher ranks and removing barriers to licensing. In these efforts, leaders must keep in mind that new staff must be highly qualified. It is critical to avoid creating a bifurcated workforce where some are highly qualified while others never acquire the proper credentials. Leaders must also increase the racial and ethnic diversity of qualified teachers and administrators. An overwhelmingly white faculty and principals serve a student population that is approximately 31% minority (much higher in some areas). Greater staff diversity could lead to a greater understanding of the different ways of thinking and acting among staff and students. This study of the current context of educational leadership reveals three dominant features. First, the national shift toward work that requires students to have more education has generated demands for greater educational productivity. Second, this change has caused states to play a much larger role in financing and regulating public education. Third, the regulatory role of states has been expanded to include accountability measures to ensure instructional compliance and competition. Educational leaders must pay attention to these characteristics if they hope to successfully navigate today’s educational terrain.

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