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January 2023

Do school principals need university training?

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on January 20, 2021. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

The editors of Chalkboard Review recently prompted a thoughtful online discussion in a Tweet suggesting that, “Being a principal shouldn’t require a separate & unique master’s degree. Any master’s in education should more than qualify you to obtain a public license.”

As a professor of education administration who trains aspiring principals through advanced, university-based credentialing programs, I have some perspective on this topic. Unlike many of my colleagues in higher education, I actually agree that there is nothing special about earning a master’s degree that makes a principal – or even a teacher – more effective. If that training can be delivered with equal quality in a different environment – say in a district-based professional development program – the market should certainly be open to them.

But even though I welcome that kind of competition, I still believe universities have a uniquely valuable role to play in teacher and principal professional development – if they can arise to the challenge. If not, we can and should be replaced by better, more affordable, and more personalized alternatives.

In 2018, my own state of Kentucky dropped its long-standing requirement that teachers earn a master’s degree by their tenth year of service to maintain their license. Kentucky was one of the few states that still maintained such a requirement, and the change was greeted with derision by many educators who erroneously thought the move represented a “devaluing” of teachers and their training. The change was almost certainly going to have a negative, if small, impact on my university, which offers a number of graduate education programs at the master’s level and which has always benefitted financially from this regulation.

But I publicly supported the change to drop the master’s requirement, mainly because multiple research studies across several states have repeatedly demonstrated there is no measurable relationship between teachers earning an advanced degree and their impact on student learning. As I argued at the time:

High quality master's degree programs can be a good source of professional development, can help teachers add new credentials and certification areas, and can serve as a useful mechanism for networking with other educators. Research suggests (unsurprisingly) that teachers who earn advanced degrees are more likely to stay in the teaching profession, which is a net positive in that it places limits on costly teacher turnover. And, teachers can earn substantially more money in doing so, even after they pay off the cost of their degree. These are all good reasons for teachers to think about earning a master's degree. But they are insufficient to justify requiring every teacher to do so in a one-size-fits-all state mandate.

            Like in most states, Kentucky school districts continue to offer salary incentives for educators to earn advanced degrees, largely for the reasons just discussed. But this still begs the question as to whether such credentials (which may or may not be “degrees” in the traditional sense) should only be provided by universities, and whether such a requirement is needed for school principals.

            Some Twitter comments on this topic suggested an MBA or any other master’s degree should suffice for principal training, and on this count, I respectfully disagree. While the principal program where I teach does cover material on leadership theory, strategic planning, and other topics that would overlap with an MBA, we also address a range of technical topics that are largely unique to the role of school principals, including various aspects of school law, finance, student and adult pedagogy, facilities management, special education administration, etc.

            My own program has recently been through a thorough redesign, as we were one of seven universities across the USA identified for support by the Wallace Foundation to rethink principal training for the 21st century. Our new program features a mix of online and face-to-face learning, a cohort model, district-based mentors for every principal candidate, and a greatly expanded focus on clinical experiences that give aspiring administrators access to the kinds of real leadership challenges they will face on the job. Most courses are co-taught by a university faculty member and a practicing school principal, superintendent, or district administrator who can contextualize every topic we discuss based on his/her daily experiences in the role.

            If we can keep the price reasonable (a huge challenge), I would put our principal training program up against any competitor, whether offered by another university or a school district, cooperative, or other outside agency. Could such a competitor offer a principal training program of similar quality? Yes, I think that is possible and they should be welcome to do so where there is a demand. Such alternatives might well be more affordable and flexible for their participants, given the enormous bureaucratic constraints and massive overhead costs associated with university programs. And I would say the same for initial teacher training programs as well.

            Nevertheless, I think two uniquely valuable things will be lost from the education landscape if universities no longer play a role in teacher and principal training. First, university professors are ideally better positioned to ground educators’ training in meaningful theory and research. Theory often gets dismissed in the field of practice as being irrelevant or too idealistic, but that is only because it has been presented to them poorly, or as disconnected from the real problems educators face every day. Education scholars who are actively engaged in conducting applied research rooted in the context of their local schools have a gift to offer their practitioner colleagues. My own collaborative work on developing instructional coaching models to help school principals deepen their self-reflection and effectiveness aspires to be this kind of scholarship.

            But universities have a second potential gift to offer aspiring teachers and school principals. Because they have a certain organizational distance and independence from the schools and district they serve, professors are better positioned to offer a critical perspective on the field of practice, helping their students think in innovative ways and challenge the status quo. Trainers who are themselves employees of the same districts or cooperatives as their clients may lack the capacity or the desire to question current education fads or long-standing, taken-for-granted assumptions that make up the very fiber of school and district culture. And the sad history of perpetually stagnant student achievement makes clear that fresh and innovative policies and practices are sorely needed in K-12 education.

            Of course, I am describing an ideal university, where professors are deeply connected to the field of practice, pursue meaningful scholarship, and are themselves innovative thinkers. Sadly, we know that is not the case in many universities, where faculty may no longer conduct substantive research (if they ever did) or care about partnerships with schools and districts and sometimes actually reinforce the education establishment’s rigidly-unchanging and frequently self-serving status quo.

            But this is the role university educator preparation programs might still play (and sometimes do), and the uniquely valuable contribution they can provide, if they are ready for the challenge. The odds are long, as higher education is possibly more recalcitrant and change resistant than even K-12 schools. And if they fail to make themselves more relevant, affordable, flexible, and ground-breaking, university programs deserve to be replaced by higher-quality competitors. But for the sake of future generations of educators who can benefit from what they might still offer, I hope it is not too late.

Kentucky's National School Choice Week Celebration 2023

SCW 2023I was honored to speak at Kentucky's 2023 National School Choice Week event in Frankfort this last Tuesday, January 24. This year we held a press conference highlighting the current status of school choice efforts in Kentucky. I was joined on the stage by EdChoice Kentucky President Andrew Vandiver and Mindy Crawford, director of the Providence School, a private, faith-based school serving students with special needs. You can read coverage of the event from Kentucky Today here.

Kentucky families were dealt a blow last month when the Kentucky Supreme Court, in a decision that contradicted the legal reasoning of numerous state courts and even the US Supreme Court, unanimously struck down the new Education Opportunities Account law. As Mr. Vandiver pointed out in his remarks at our press conference, every neighboring state around Kentucky now has at least one or more school choice policy programs that help give low- and middle-income families or families with special needs children additional education options.

However, the fight for education options will go on in Kentucky and advocates are motivated like never before. Below is the full text of my remarks:

I’m so pleased to be here today to celebrate National School Choice Week. Of course I am not speaking to you today on behalf of my employer, but I am here as a career educator of 25 years.

Education is my life’s passion, and I’ve been blessed to work in and visit so many schools over the two and half decades I’ve served students and their families as a teacher, principal, district administrator, and professor. Many of those schools have been outstanding, but one of the things I’ve learned, both as an educator and especially as the dad of my own school-aged children, is that no school, no matter how good, can be a perfect fit for every child. That’s why I believe every family, no matter their income or zip code, should have access to the same kinds of excellent school choice options, both public and private, that my own family enjoys. It's time for Kentucky to finally get with the program and join the many other states that are funding students, not systems.

And I’m not alone in feeling this way. Polling data has shown again and again that Kentucky families want more education options. Not only do they want more options, they are also exercising their choices whenever they can.

In a research report I conducted for EdChoice Kentucky last August, I reviewed public school enrollment data over a five-year period, from 2018 to 2022. What we found is that the number of Kentucky families choosing to homeschool or send their children to nonpublic schools has skyrocketed. Across Kentucky, the number of children being educated in nonpublic school settings has risen by more than 20,000, a percentage increase of 26 percent, to an all-time high of almost 100,000 students. Last school year alone, Kentucky nonpublic school participation increased by more than 8 percent.

When you consider that some undetermined number of families are also choosing to send their kids to a public school outside of their own district boundaries, these numbers make clear that there is a strong demand for school choice. But unfortunately far too many families are unable to exercise such options.

Many of my good friends in the education establishment are afraid to give families choices because they worry it will hurt public schools. But that has not been the case in states that have embraced educational choice.

As an example, Florida has one of the most robust school choice policy environments in the country, with more than one and a half million students - almost half of the state's entire student population - choosing to attend a school other than their assigned public school option. Far from harming public schools, Florida enjoys higher levels of public school student achievement than Kentucky. In fact, Florida’s public school students outpace Kentucky’s public school students academically across every demographic.

Just last weekend I was blessed to visit Cristo Rey Salesian High School in Tampa Florida, which serves 200 students – and more every day – all from low-income families who otherwise could never access the kind of robust, faith-based, college preparatory program offered by Cristo Rey – except for Florida’s school choice policies.

Kentucky’s students deserve the same opportunities as students in Florida and the many other states that provide some form of education choice. Kentucky is an outlier in systematically denying low and middle income children education options enjoyed by every affluent family.

But not for long. The demand is clear and Kentucky will not give up the fight to make sure every student and every family is empowered to find the learning environment that best meets their needs. Like so many other states, Kentucky will break down those establishment barriers and find a way to fund students, not systems. The day is coming and I relish being a part of the fight and the inevitable victory for education freedom.

From Socialist Teacher to Conservative Professor

This essay was originally published on the website The Chalkboard Review on December 8, 2020. Sometime in 2022 the website was purchased by new owners who, without notifying me, removed all of my published essays. Given that the website operator has failed to respond to my inquiries about this removal, I can only conclude that my essays were deleted because of the philosophical or policy content. Therefore I am reposting these essays here.

Geographically, I have not traveled far as an educator. While I have lived away for a period of years, the university where I now serve as professor of education administration is the in the same town where I began my career as a social studies teacher at a nearby middle school 24 years ago. I live just 25 miles from where I grew up, the son of an elementary school teacher who never anticipated his own career as an educator.

Philosophically, though, my journeys have been broad, from socialist to libertarian to conservative. My core values have, by and large, never changed, but my understanding of how to effectively enact those values, especially in public policy and particularly in education, have shifted considerably. In a time when teachers unions and other forces within the education establishment try to pretend educators are monolithic in their (progressive to leftist radical) political views, it is more important than ever to tell our personal stories of dissent against the myth that teachers all share common views of school choice, pension reform, accountability, or even the purpose of education itself.

My parents were hard-working Baptists. There were socially conservative but between my factory worker father’s New Deal, labor-focused life experience and my schoolteacher mother’s Civil Rights era progressivism, by high school I had inherited a pretty ferocious left-leaning view of the world that made me decidedly liberal for our little Southern town. It was all deeply imbued with the Christian Social Gospel, a concern for justice and fairness for “the least of these, my brothers.”

When I started reading political theory in late high school, I discovered a strain of socialism that portended to be “democratic” and I was soon a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Contemporary socialist star Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez was in diapers at that point in time. Outside a small circle of left-wing political nerds, no one knew who Burlington mayor turned congressman Bernie Sanders was, but I did. I was reading Dissent, Mother Jones, and In These Times, organizing student groups to protest the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, writing screeds that I tried to pare down as op-eds for the college newspaper, and wondering how I could make a living as a professional agitator with a degree in philosophy and religious studies.

After a year of graduate school studying religious ethics, I was looking for a way to be more “in the trenches” serving “the people” while also devoting time to writing and activism, and that’s when I first considered becoming a teacher. A few semesters later I had turned a minor in history into a certificate and was teaching middle school.

The year was 1996. A well-read libertarian friend was poking holes in my socialist worldview and I started picking up copies of Reason and Liberty magazine. The charismatic and well-spoken Harry Browne was the Libertarian Party candidate for president that year and he deeply impressed me. But the most important factor in me giving up socialism was becoming a public school teacher.

I was in a great school, but even as a first-year teacher, I immediately saw the enormous waste and inefficiencies of the system. I saw how many children were being poorly served, despite the best efforts of many teachers, because a government monopoly inevitably tends toward one-size-fits-all solutions that ultimately leave untold numbers of kids behind. I saw how unprepared I was a teacher for what my students really needed, how weak and inconsistent the curriculum was across classrooms, and, sadly, I saw incompetence on the part of some portion of my colleagues that was routinely ignored by school leaders and defended by their unions or professional associations.

I loved my job, but I could see that the public school system was deeply flawed, and its flaws mirrored virtually all of the bureaucratic, top-down, impersonal structures of socialism that were supposed to bring about equality of outcomes and peace on earth but never did, and in fact had historically wrought misery.

Over the next decade or so I drifted from right-libertarianism to left-libertarianism and back depending on which party held political power and what the major issues of the day were. I loved the clean, logical consistency of libertarianism even though I knew well there wasn’t a single place in history where such a system could be found in practice. But the realities weren’t that important because I was childless and busy building a career and had little time for practical politics anyway. My plans to be a professional rabble rouser quickly gave way to a new trajectory. I moved rapidly from teaching into school administration, eventually landing in a district-level role, earning a PhD along the way.

My views began to shift again when I started a family and became a professor at the college where I had earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree. I want to avoid over-generalizing because there is still much I admire in libertarianism, but it is a philosophy that tends to assume humans are totally free and unencumbered individuals just sort of floating in space until they voluntarily choose to associate with others for mutual benefit, or until someone else’s will is imposed on them, which always involves violence and something akin to slavery.

I did not find that view of the human person or of society particularly helpful as a parent. My children and I are bound together by love, yes, but also of necessity and nature. We don’t choose our families, and families are the most basic and necessary structures of human society.

Atomized individuals can’t effectively raise kids. Strong, intact families matter, something I had already observed in my own students. Whether their own families attend or not, healthy kids need lots of people in their community to regularly attend churches that actually press them to become better human beings and not just feel good about themselves (what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the de fact religion of most American Christians). Successful families also need strong neighborhoods, vibrant communities of voluntary associations like sports leagues, church youth groups, and civic organizations that engage people in service to and with their neighbors.

All of these “intermediate institutions,” as the great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbett called them, have experienced enormous decay over the generations in ways directly related to the hyper-individualist, Progressive-driven, endless expansion of government on the one hand and the classically liberal/libertarian, all-mighty free market on the other, aided and abetting by a militantly secular (and later I would discover, Marxist) shift in Western culture itself.

I saw all of this first hand as a parent and as an educator. It didn’t happen overnight, but one day I woke up and knew I was a conservative in the sense that Russell Kirk understood the word. Tradition and values matter in preserving a civilization worth handing on to our children.

Kirk saw conservativism as an attitude and disposition more than a political program. But the conservative worldview has real policy implications, and I saw those more clearly than ever in education. From the professional protection and distance of a tenured university professorship, I began pursuing education policy work, especially around the issue of school choice. These efforts led to my involvement as a policy advisor and supporting scholar for state-level education reform groups, and eventually to an appointment on the state board of education.

The education establishment in my state, desperate to maintain its monopoly, has ferociously fought back against any effort to expand education choice for families yearning to give their children a different option. Thus far school choice supporters have lost more battles than we’ve won, but every day momentum builds, especially as parents have become more aware of how their children are doing in school during COVID and how every kid has unique needs not just any school can meet.

But conservatives have more to contribute to education policy than just school choice. The excellent collection of essays issued earlier this year, How to Education an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools, makes clear that conservatives should care not just how education is delivered, but about its actual content.

In my own experience, far too many schools, whether public, private, or charter - and far too many educators, including conservatives - have implicitly or explicitly adopted the attitude that education is all about vocational preparation: how we sort kids toward careers and train them in work habits that will make them productive contributors to the economy.

Certainly, this is an important goal for our schools, but it neglects the much older purpose of education, and one that is deeply connected to the cultivation of culture and the protection of our civilizational heritage. The first goal of schooling is to help families and communities cultivate virtuous citizens. The classical sense of liberty is to be free enough of selfishness that one can actually choose the good, the true, and the beautiful. And this should once again be the self-conscious goal of schools.

Along these lines, I have increasing turned my attention toward the dearth of meaningful instruction in social studies, science, and the arts, especially in early grades, and how standards and curricula in those subjects can be improved for all schools. I have argued that schools should not be shy about training students to be critical patriots, capable of loving their country even as they recognize and understand her many flaws. The battle for school choice definitely goes on, but there’s a battle to be fought for higher quality learning in all schools, no matter who they serve.

With such a journey from socialist to libertarian to conservative, is there a chance my views will change yet again in the future? I certainly hope I continue learning new things, appreciating new perspectives, and growing in wisdom.

What seems clear to me is that for the most part, my values have not changed in all these years, but only the means by which I think we best get there. I maintain the same commitment to equality of opportunity as I did as a loud, young, socialist teacher, but now with a much greater appreciation for the role that robust institutions of family, church, local communities, civic organizations, and other structures of civil society play in accomplishing those goals – and a deep concern to guard them for the future generations.

Meanwhile my intellectual past gives me a common language with – and a great deal of understanding and compassion for – those who occupy the political and philosophical spaces I used to tread. Though we may differ about tactics, I still believe the vast majority of educators share the same goals for what our schools should accomplish, and so there is much work to be done through constructive disagreement, and I still welcome that conversation.