The Contemporary Context of School Leadership

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required schools and school districts to carefully examine the teaching and learning process and its relationship to poor performing students. Fast forward ten years to today. The public outcry is deafening as elected officials (local, state, federal) are called upon to make the improvement of public schools a significant segment of their political agendas. While the public’s outcry is deafening, it is absolutely well-deserved. Walk the halls of any school in America, and the average citizen would be shocked (maybe not) to find that we can predict, with near certainty, which students will go on and live lives of social and economic opulence. Likewise, we can foretell who will not. These predictions, in large part, are tied to ethnicity, gender, and social class of the students in question. Our young men of color, living in poverty, are most “at-risk” for: being retained; suspended/expelled; failing standardized tests; and dropping out of school.

Clearly, as a public school educator myself, my position is not meant to be accusatory towards public education. The challenging, significantly paradoxical, expectations of school leaders are innumerable. Persons who occupy positions of leadership, within schools and school districts, are expected to successfully manage a host of social ills, while simultaneously being evaluated by a small number of objective measures. Likewise, school policy makers and practitioners spend an abundance of time grappling with dysfunctions of a greater society (drug abuse, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, poverty, unemployment, etc.). The above mentioned societal dysfunctions are extremely evident in America’s schools; therefore, they threaten the level of instruction that educators can provide. They also threaten the amount of learning that students can reasonably retain.

Herein lies the most incredible piece of irony in the expectations bestowed upon public school educators, especially school principals. Principals are trained in areas of curriculum, instruction, class scheduling, and budgeting. Yet, if there is a threat of gang violence in schools, they are expected to extinguish it; if teenage pregnancy is on the rise, they are expected to reduce it; if children are using and selling illegal drugs, they are expected to smother that problem as well. As public school principals successfully engage in such activities, despite lack of formal and/or informal training in such matters, that dissuade gang membership, discourage adolescent sexual behavior, and aggressively fight the war on drugs (just to name a few), unfortunately they reduce the amount of time spent on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nevertheless, the public’s definition of a “job well-done” for public school principals hinges upon student achievement and student achievement only. The primary indicator of enhanced student achievement is positive changes on standardized tests.

Principals are pressured, politically and otherwise, at a level that is unmatched by any other time in history to attend to the moral purpose of school and the challenges brought on by poverty, in particular. Currently, our schools are plagued by personal beliefs that suggest society is crumbling, and educators cannot meet academic demands while being faced with societal demands. These beliefs, in my opinion, must be challenged and altered. Beliefs, I assert, dictate actions. If educators do not believe they can make a difference in the lives of children and the community at large, their actions will follow suit. Such belief systems ignore the moral purpose of school activity and especially school leadership. What is the solution? The solution is the need to attract, train, and retain exemplary leaders at all levels of the educational system, especially at the school level.

The principal is crucial. The principal must be a masterful tactician. The principal must directly supervise, and continuously evaluate, classroom instruction to ensure students are given optimal learning opportunities. The principal must create teacher efficacy in ensuring they are intellectually equipped and emotionally stimulated to drive student learning. The principal must inspire and motivate an entire community, within and outside the school walls, to focus on student learning. The principal must establish and maintain school culture so that the absolute best interest of the children is at the heart of every decision that is made and every resource that is allocated, especially for students living in poverty.    

Dr. Desmond K. Blackburn has served one of the largest school districts in the nation as a Math Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of School Improvement, District Trainer, and Area Superintendent; all in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership. His book, Socio-Cultural Leadership, provides principals and aspiring principals with specific strategies to lead school improvement efforts, especially for children living in poverty. Visit for more information.

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One Response to The Contemporary Context of School Leadership

  1. David Watkins says:

    I have found that mentorship has to become a major part of a school culture with high at-risk populations.

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