HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The Vision of a Jewish Educational Leader

by Daniel Pekarsky Issue: The Educated Jew

Recent discussions about the importance of educational leadership and the way to strengthen it in order to improve American education have left me both pleased and very troubled.  I am pleased because I strongly identify with the idea that success in education depends on high quality leadership, but troubled because the directions emphasized in the materials I have come across exhibit an understanding of leadership that is superficial in some fundamental ways. I would like to offer, not an alternative set of ideas, but a complementary perspective on the challenges of leadership and the cultivation of leaders for education. Though my concern encompasses the challenges of general education, my more immediate worry is that the outlook I will investigate might come to dominate the Jewish community as it seeks to cultivate leaders for our educating institutions.  I hope that our field will engage seriously with the complementary set of ideas that I am proposing.

Some current emphases in leadership-education: symptoms of the problem

Although the authors and others recognize that the effectiveness of educational leaders depends heavily on their capacity to motivate and inspire the communities for which they are responsible, they fail to recognize that the ability to do so is integrally bound up with the domain of norms and values.

I begin by exemplifying the problem. In a recent article (“Learning to Lead: What Gets Taught in Principal-Preparation Program”), Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly carefully survey the state of leadership preparation in “a new era of accountability, where leaders are expected to demonstrate bottom-line results and use data to drive directions.” Their survey of the syllabi featured in 56 programs around the country, including the most prestigious, represent 2,424 course weeks of instruction, and their analysis leads them to conclude that

“just 2 percent of 2,424 course weeks addressed accountability in the context of school management or school improvement, and less than 5 percent include instruction on managing school improvement via data, technology, or empirical research. Of 360 course weeks devoted to personnel management, just 12 weeks mentioned teacher dismissal and nine mentioned teacher compensation.”

Moving on to another matter, the authors conclude:

“Critics often assert that education schools are ideological. In fact, just 12 per cent of all course weeks focused upon norms and values. In the norms-and-values lessons, however, there was strong evidence of normative bias in the topic descriptions and assigned readings.”

Elaborating on this last point, the authors note that 65% of the course content they survey has a “progressive tilt” which emphasizes and appears to advocate for ideas like “social justice” and “multiculturalism,” focusing on matters like “race-based discrimination,” “child-centered instruction” and “silenced voices.” Though they find the imbalance between progressive and conservative ideological orientations worrisome indications that leadership preparation programs tend to promote a particular ideological point of view, the authors conclude, in what seems like a reassuring tone, by re-emphasizing that “principal-preparation programs only devote slightly more than 10 percent of instructional time to norms and values.”

Based on their various findings, the authors conclude that “the evidence raises questions about whether preparation of educational leaders is well-matched to the contemporary world of schooling.” While the authors stay clear of making strong recommendations for practice based on their limited research, they do approach this matter in the following passage:

“Ultimately, the question of instructional content is pivotal; yet we find that principals currently receive limited training in the use of data, research, technology, the hiring or termination of personnel, or evaluating personnel in a systematic way. The reading lists suggest that aspiring principals receive limited exposure to important management scholarship or sophisticated inquiry on educational productivity and governance. The vital question is whether the lack of attention to certain schools of thought regarding management may leave aspiring principals prepared for the traditional world of educational leadership but not for the challenges they will face in the 21st century. Principal-preparation programs that pay little attention to data, productivity, accountability, or working with parents may leave their graduates unprepared for their responsibilities.”

Analysis of the problem

Of the many things worthy of note in this discussion, I want to draw attention to a single dimension of the issue at hand—to what the authors of the article describe as “norms and values.” Here’s what is striking:

  1. “Norms and values” is understood as a relatively narrow domain and with an equally narrow (if not unimportant) set of concerns. The authors seem principally to be concerned with the relative balance—or the tilt—in any given program among competing ideological orientations associated with catchphrases like “progressivism,” “conservatism,” “multiculturalism,” “choice,” and “equality.”
  2. It was emphasized that in contemporary leadership-development programs overall, only 12% of the curriculum is concerned with this realm (an observation that sounds designed to be reassuring to those troubled by the liberal tilt in existing programs that the authors identified).
  3. The authors’ recommendations for improvement basically bypass the realm of norms and values altogether.

Taken together, these points suggest—both by what is and what isn’t said—a troubling outlook which views the nature of norms and values in an unduly truncated way in relation to educational leadership and as at best of secondary importance in the selection of leaders, assessment, and training of educational leaders. Although the authors and others recognize that the effectiveness of educational leaders depends heavily on their capacity to motivate and inspire the communities for which they are responsible, they fail to recognize that the ability to do so is integrally bound up with the domain of norms and values. And what is true in this instance for general education is equally—if not even more important—for the practice of educational leadership in Jewish settings. Here I want to identify different dimensions of this domain that are not clearly distinguished from one another in the authors’ discussion.

First, and most fundamentally, “norms and values” concerns the kind of person the educational leader is: is this a person of character who can be counted on to approach his/her professional life and encounters with youngsters, faculty, parents, and other constituencies and audiences with integrity, honesty, respect, and generosity? While not sufficient as a condition of success, core values would appear to be important preconditions, contributing to effectiveness in numerous ways. Not the least of these contributions is that over time the presence of these qualities is unlikely to go unrecognized and unappreciated and is perhaps among the best predictors of whether these qualities will suffuse the overall culture of the school. The absence of these qualities in leadership, on the other hand, enhances the likelihood that the school’s culture will be dysfunctional, featuring mistrust, cynicism, and alienation among the school’s staff.

Far from being peripheral to the work of leaders, the presence of heartfelt norms and values turns out to be essential to leadership, and it is deeply disturbing that discussions of leadership and leadership education can proceed without attention to the importance of these matters.

This is not to suggest that educational leadership programs are capable of cultivating these qualities in individuals who don’t have them. But it is to suggest that in articulating a conception of optimal leadership that will guide leadership development, those (like the authors) who are discussing these matters emphasize the importance of these qualities. This could mean noting that the presence of such qualities is, of course, to be selected for at the point of evaluating candidates for leadership development programs, and/or it could mean noting the need to offer opportunities in leadership development curricula for emphasizing the importance of possessing, exhibiting, and not compromising these core qualities of character in their work. Since the demands of practice in the stressful, economically troubled, politically complicated world inhabited by contemporary educational leaders may in fact have a tendency to have a corrosive impact on these qualities, such an emphasis may be profoundly important. It supports leaders’ desires to be certain kinds of people without fail, as well as to take these concerns seriously when they are faced with staffing decisions. Equally important, an appreciation for this concern might be relevant to the selection of faculty for leadership-development programs—since they, too, are more likely to communicate the importance of core values by being the kinds of people who embody them than through exhortation or reference to scholarly literature.

Second, as applied to leadership and leadership development, “norms and values” points—at least it ought to point!—to concerns that have to do with leaders’ personal stance: what they stand for, what inspires them, what educational agenda they are dedicated to achieving in their leadership activities. Put differently, it is imperative that the leader is guided by a clear and inspiring vision of what the educational process should be striving to achieve. If the vision isn’t clear, it won’t be able to full its core role of guiding educational planning and program evaluation; and if it isn’t inspiring to key stake holders, it will be incapable of eliciting continuing and robust motivation to achieve the school’s educational challenges at the highest level of quality under the actual conditions of daily life. The critical point to emphasize here is that whether or not a vision that identifies the school’s core aspirations will elicit inspiration and foster motivation among key stake holders will have much to do with whether its leader is perceived as strongly and visibly believing in this vision—100% committed to it. And, over time, this perception is unlikely to emerge or survive if it doesn’t reflect the leader’s genuine convictions.

More generally, it goes without saying (or so I used to think) that convictions concerning what the enterprise of educating is fundamentally about—what’s “most important” and worthy of achieving—are to be found in the world of “norms and values.” Far from being peripheral to the work of leaders, the presence of heartfelt norms and values turns out to be essential to leadership, and it is deeply disturbing that discussions of leadership and leadership education can proceed without attention to the importance of these matters.[1]

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to add immediately that I am not suggesting that educational leadership development programs must be organized around a particular conception of the aims of education, viewing themselves as either selecting candidates based on their pre-existing identification with these aims or embracing the challenge of “converting to the cause” those who are admitted to the program who don’t yet identify with these aims. Though one could well imagine programs—and perhaps there are some—that exhibit these characteristics, the view I am proposing need not carry such implications. But, at a minimum, the view I am suggesting would heavily emphasize the need for personal stance/vision in the activities and preparation of educational leaders. This could involve some combination of the following:

  • Selecting from among candidates for leadership development programs those who already appreciate the need to develop a substantive personal/stance vis-à-vis the most important educational challenges we should address and who are prepared to invest thought and energy in the effort to develop such a view. Selection-processes might also seek to identify candidates who already have such a personal stance/vision and are primed to investigate it critically with an eye towards clarifying it and more fully appreciating its educational implications and/or problematics.
  • Designing a leadership-development program so that it includes (through the examination of research, imaginative literature, and movies, as well as through site-visits to appropriate educating institutions) significant opportunities to appreciate the educational importance of forms of leadership that embody a compelling guiding vision, as well as opportunities to struggle with the effort to develop and deepen one’s own personal stance.
  • Significant opportunities to better understand the relationship between a guiding educational vision and the practice of education, with attention to such matters as curriculum, pedagogy, the design of the social environment, and program evaluation.

It is also important to note that my suggestion is not that attention to vision drown out educational agendas that focus on acquiring skills associated with good management and institution-building. Rather, the point is to make a meaningful space for both kinds of emphases. Given resource constraints, the demands that leaders face, and their portfolio of responsibilities, it will be an important challenge to decide how to balance out and integrate these very different concerns in the selection process for leadership education, in the actual professional development program, and in continuing (“in-service”) professional development opportunities down the road.

Put in the Jewish terms laid out by Ahad Ha’am in his article “Moses,” the educational leaders we need must be a combination—and perhaps a more effective one that their biblical counterparts—of Moses (the inspired visionary) and Aaron (who can mediate effectively between the world of vision and the challenges of the real world). The enterprise of Jewish life is not just about surviving, but about maintaining and/or creating thriving communities organized around compelling visions of Jewish life. If Jewish education is to contribute to this effort in a serious way, educational leaders who are dedicated to inspiring visions that effectively guide their work are essential. If the trends in the preparation of leaders in general education are at cross purposes with this agenda, then we must be careful not to emulate them but to exemplify a more worthy leadership education agenda. We can count ourselves lucky that a number of Jewish education programs in significant denominational and non-denominational institutions of higher learning have come to appreciate the need for such an agenda and have begun to embody it in practice. But it remains a challenge to further develop and to sustain its meaningful inclusion, especially given the multitude of competing demands and fads that are pressed on leadership-development institutions. ♦

[1] In addition to there being empirical support for this view, it is also at the heart of the wisdom found in no less a figure than Plato in The Republic: it’s not just that the philosopher-king’s activities need to be grounded in a vision of the Good (i.e., his/her understanding of the most important values to be secured by education), but that only people of strong character (e.g., people who can hold on to elementary human values under the circumstances when most of us lose perspective and behave very badly !) will be selected to undertake the journey that leads to becoming the leaders of tomorrow.

Dr. Daniel Pekarsky is Professor of Educational Policy Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a consultant to the Mandel Foundation on Jewish Education. He can be reached at pekarsky@education.wisc.edu.

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The Educated Jew

The authors here are engaged in an argument leshem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, over the question of what should a Jewish day school produce. Some emphasize cultural knowledge: Hebrew fluency, tefillah mastery, literacy of core texts in the Jewish library. Others view middot as central: ethics, commitment, curiosity, caring; while yet others choose social action as the goal.

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