Citation: Orozco, L. (2001). Saving the new endangered species: The role of higher education in the preparation and success of school leaders. Educational Leadership and Administration, 13, 3-8.

Saving the New Endangered Species:
The Role of Higher Education in the Preparation and Success of School Leaders

by Linda C. Orozco, Ph.D.

The 21st century brought with it challenges in education that spiral from the kindergarten classroom up to institutions of higher education. These challenges include state and national academic standards, increased accountability, overcrowded schools, and an increasingly diverse population, just to name a few (EdSource, 2001). However, there is also a critical shortage of the very professionals needed to address these challenges- school leaders. Professional journals in the field, as well as popular print and news media have reported on this latest crisis in education. Within the past year, USA Today, Time magazine, and television's Norman Lear Report and 'A & E' channel have made the shortage of school leaders common knowledge across the nation.

Public education now stands at a crossroad. It can address the challenges education faces (including the crisis in school leadership) with deliberate, well-researched, success-oriented solutions or become casualties of politics, quick-fixes, and special-interest group advocacy and influence.

The New Endangered Species

There is a 'crippling' shortage of qualified school administrators. Fewer and fewer administrators are stepping forward to lead public schools (Argetsinger, 2000 & Educational Research Service, 1998). In 1998, over 50% of school districts reported difficulty in hiring school administrators in a national survey (ERS, 1998). In addition, over 98% of California superintendents reported shortages of qualified administrators in a survey conducted last year. The problem is so severe that it has become the focus of the California State Assembly and Senate (K-12 Master Plan Committee), the Governor's office (AB75), the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC), the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), school boards and local communities. This year, the CCTC convened a California Task Force to conduct a statewide survey, and public forums in six cities around California, to gather information on school leadership preparation, performance, and reform.

Surprisingly, there isn't a shortage of licensed/credentialled administrative candidates. The shortage is a result of candidates with the license/credential choosing not to assume school leadership positions. In a recent California study, for example, only 38% of qualified school administrators actually assumed leadership positions in California schools. The overwhelming majority (62%) chose to remain in the classroom or change professions entirely (EdSource, 2001). This is a staggering loss of leadership potential. No other profession can claim such a high loss of interest AFTER professional preparation. School administrators truly are become an 'endangered species'. So what is causing the drop-off from getting licensed individuals into school leadership positions that need them so desperately?

School leadership: Is it even doable?

The school administrator's job has changed. The job of the school principal has changed significantly over the past 20 years. The job has been negatively impacted by school changes including increased school size (more students per facility), shortage of qualified & experienced teachers, increased instructional standards, accountability for both administrators and teachers, rapid changes in curriculum and assessment, decreased support staff (counselors, school nurses, instructional aides, and librarians), and other significant school reforms and trends.

And, school leaders lament, the job has become more difficult to do well. School principals and potential candidates report low job satisfaction because they find the job increasingly difficult, if not impossible to do successfully. Some say the job is simply not 'doable'. School superintendents report the greatest impediments to recruiting qualified school administrators include intense job stress and excessive work hours (EdSource, 2001). Other factors that influence job disillusionment include the changing demands of the job; difficulty and inadequate time to satisfy parents, teachers, students and community; social problems in the school that make it difficult to focus on instructional practices; increased accountability with no matching authority to make the required improvements; and inadequate salaries that don't match the time invested (Educational Research Service, 1998). Most candidates are well aware that top paid teachers can earn more per day than administrators, and avoid intense job responsibilities for similar compensation. It's no wonder the number of candidates for some administrative vacancies have dropped to catastrophic levels.

False Directions, Wasted Efforts

Several solutions have surfaced to address the principal shortage. Some are in response to armchair politics, quick-fixes, and special-interest group advocacy and influence.

They include ill-advised recommendations like lowering standards for principal preparation, increasing training requirements for administrators, or allowing school districts to 'grow-their-own' (training teachers to be principals without comprehensive preparation programs, like the ones already in place through institutions of higher education). There are even suggestions to treat principal preparation like a 'business', and license more agencies to flood the marketplace with candidates. Another idea is to create 'job-share' positions, using multiple administrators, quasi-administrators, teachers, and even secretarial staff to divide and share the myraid of responsibilities for school leadership. With implementation of any or all of these ill-developed concepts, the field could become flooded with leadership candidates poorly prepared for the job, or worst yet ill-prepared for an ill-defined job. And these concepts fail to address the 'dropoff factor', the number of individuals holding credentials not wanting the school leadership job at all. Resources, both financial and material, shouldn't be expended on efforts that will continue to only attract 4 out of 10 licensed administrators (EdSource, 2001). Ultimately, these concepts fail to address the very heart of the problem- the administrator's job. An overwhelming number (90%) of current aspiring candidates report they would take the job, if it were made 'doable'.

The problem is the job itself. Courageous action must taken to reinvent school leadership. Until candidates can be certain that their efforts and talents will be respected, compensated, and effectively utilized, there won't have adequate numbers of high quality candidates available for public schools. Instead jobs will go unfilled or filled by individuals ill prepared to lead schools into the new millennium. And those ill prepared administrators will continue to be placed where they have historically been placed in the past, in poor, minority neighborhoods that need and deserve the strongest, best-prepared leaders.

Identifying the Challenge

So, finding talented school leaders will get harder unless all stakeholders- educators, policymakers, community leaders, superintendents, board members, and leadership preparation programs- can rise to the challenge with deliberate, well-researched, and success-oriented solutions. Addressing the crisis in school leadership requires clearly defining the challenges. There are two basic challenges within the current crisis.

First, the job of school leader must be re-invented. School leaders must be assured that ALL schools will be an appropriate size for leading and learning, will include effective resources in and out of the classroom (human and material), and assure that the leader's job accountability will be matched by appropriate job authority. Until new candidates can be certain that their efforts and talents will be respected, compensated, and effectively utilized, there won't be adequate numbers of high quality candidates available for public schools. Redesigning the job will not only be good for attracting the talented and successful leaders needed, but allow them to lead schools for the successful enhancement of student learning.

Second, there must be a thoughtful, well-designed plan for recruiting, preparing, placing, and retaining successful administrators in school leadership positions. Recent history has demonstrated that the majority of educators acquiring the license for school leadership do not apply for, seek and/or remain in leadership positions. Although there are sufficient numbers licensed for the job (recruitment and preparation), these individuals have not sought the position (placement and retention). In order to reverse this trend, this pattern must be broken. In addition, there is a critical shortage of minority candidates for leadership positions (Educational Research Service, 1998). The four critical steps necessary in assuring a cadre of successful school leaders are recruitment, preparation, placement, and retention. These four steps should be viewed as a continuous, systematic, and necessary path for the development of a pool of talented, diverse, 'on-the-job' school leaders.

The Role of Higher Education in the Preparation & Success of School Leaders

Leadership preparation programs at institutions of higher education (IHE) have been the cornerstone in preparing school leaders. That role has come under scrutiny, and sometimes criticism over the decades. As with medicine, law, and other professions, the debate between 'town and gown' (practitioners vs. higher education) has historically existed. These debates always peak in one of the professions during periods of crisis. School leadership is in such a crisis today. So it is not surprising that the tussle between 'town and gown' is at the forefront of current discussions, lobbying, ideas, and recommendations.

However, leadership preparation programs at IHE's will continued to be key in educating and developing school leaders, and addressing the current challenges in the school leadership crisis. The role of preparing school leaders is too important to fall victim to political backlashes, quick-fixes, and special-interest group influence.

Preventing the 'extinction' of successful school leaders is everyone's responsibility, however IHE's shoulder more responsibility because of their historic role, over half a century of experience, comprehensive resources, research-based effectiveness, and critical position in leadership preparation. Without IHE's important leadership role and key service in preparing school leaders, the process would be in jeopardy of becoming commercialized, trivialized, politicized, marginalized, or fractionalized.

There are three "C's" which will assure the continuation of successful leadership preparation programs. They are Challenges, Collaboration and Change.

Challenges. Effective leadership preparation programs must directly address and focus on the challenges faced in the field. They must view their role very broadly. Simple student training for the principalship will not be sufficient to turn the tide in this current administrative crisis. Both of the comprehensive challenges discussed earlier (job reinvention and recruitment/preparation/placement/retention) must be addressed within the realm of successful leadership preparation programs. This involves specifically developing strategies, implementing programs, addressing local needs, serving area districts and schools; and articulating and influencing policy makers and decisionmakers regarding effective solutions to those defined challenges.

Collaboration. Successful leadership preparation programs recognize the value and importance of collaboration. Louis Gerstner stated, "No more prizes for predicting rain. Prizes only for building arks." (Orozco, 1994, p. 9) The challenges faced in educational leadership cannot be solved in isolation. IHE's are partnering with multiple education agencies (districts, schools, county offices) to collaborate on effective leadership preparation addressing the challenges of job reinvention and recruitment/preparation/placement/retention. In addition, collaboration with other organizations (businesses, non-profits agencies, community groups, professional associations and unions) are also proving invaluable in addressing the challenges. Effective leadership preparation programs are even collaborating with individuals in their attempt to develop solutions and influence policy and legislation. Individuals include government officials, politicians, community leaders, and other experts.

Change. The field of leadership preparation has changed considerably since it's inception in the 1940-50's. As the 21st century begins, the need to change and respond effectively will continue to be important for leadership preparation programs. For over 50 years, leadership preparation programs have changed in response to shifting government guidelines, environmental influences, demographic changes, school/district expectations and needs. The timing of change has, however, accelerated. Effective leadership preparation programs must become highly responsive to their community needs, and intricately involved in the work of school leaders in K-12 schools. As a member and part of the community, each institution of higher education can more quickly assess and respond with comprehensive resources, to the challenges faced by educational leaders and the schools they serve. Savvy leadership preparation programs are continuing that responsive, 'tuned-in' perspective to better serve their communities.

Preparing school leaders is a critically important and overwhelmingly rewarding profession. Senator Vasconcellos captured CAPEA's emphasis when he stated,

I would encourage everyone who chooses to engage himself or herself in this profession to recall what led you to it, recall your own idealism, and make that central. To become a leader, a professor in education is to be truly inspirational as a role model for learning, to be somebody who is willing to take risks for what's right for kids, to do the right thing.


Argetsinger, A. (2000). Vacancies in the principal's office. Washington Post, June 21, 2000; A09.

Educational Research Service. (1998). Is there a shortage of qualfied candidates for openings in the principalship? National Association of Elementary School Principals. Retrieved June 15, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

EdSource. (2001). Top administrators to lead California's schools. EdSource, Report: March 2001, 1-16.

Orozco, L. (1994). Building arks: Collaboration for school administrators. Journal of CAPEA, 6, 9-18.