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Recruiting Outside Education to Improve Education

With great fanfare, the George W. Bush Institute announced on Sept. 29 that it plans to mount an ambitious campaign to recruit principals from outside educational circles. The initiative, called the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, will look for candidates with business, sports and military backgrounds in the belief that a new breed of school leadership is sorely needed.

School districts are indeed faced with waves of principal retirements, as baby boomers reach the end of their careers. But whether the Bush Institute can produce the 50,000 K-12 principals by its target date of 2020 is doubtful. According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the demands placed on individuals at the helm of schools in today's accountability movement deter many qualified candidates.

Even if the numerical goal can somehow be met, the larger question is whether principals who have no experience in education can be effective. Supporters of this unorthodox approach argue that bringing in non-educators is precisely what is needed. They believe that fresh blood is essential to improve schools.

But the experience of the celebrated New York City Leadership Academy calls this view into question. Mayor Michael Bloomberg created and helped raise more than $80 million for this innovation, which provided principals with minimal or no educational experience with more autonomy in exchange for accountability through test scores and other data. Yet the schools led by its graduates have not performed as well as those led by principals who came through traditional channels.

That's not at all surprising. What works well in other fields does not necessarily work well in education. Public schools have a different culture than business, sports and the military. These three areas are largely based on competition. Schools, however, are essentially based on cooperation. While there may be some overlap, they are fundamentally different.

Even in business, though, it's important to realize that the person at the head of the table in the board room may not play as important a role as believed. The Atlantic published a counterintuitive essay in June 2009 on this very subject titled "Do CEOs Matter?" The piece explained that the belief in the importance of the person at the top is "...Carlyle's Great Man theory of history, painted on a corporate canvas ... ." It started in the 1930s with the work of Chester Barnard, president of New Jersey Bell. Over the years, it has become conventional wisdom.

So rather than place so much hope on a transformative principal from any field, it's more realistic to bear in mind the Atlantic's conclusion: "Good leaders can make a small positive difference; bad leaders can make a huge negative difference." I think that assessment applies to what the Bush Institute is trying to achieve. That's why I remain highly skeptical.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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