For some time now and especially in my most recent Jossey-Bass book, Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader, I’ve been arguing that America’s schools are facing a new kind of crisis in leadership, not the one that has dominated the writing and dialogue in education. The leadership crisis, as it has been portrayed over the past thirty years, has been about capacity and competence, about how our principals and superintendents needed to be more skilled, masters of turnaround and transformation. The new crisis is that so few people now want to lead schools. Today’s challenge is how to recruit and retain topnotch principals and superintendents. An entire generation of leaders is retiring, many of them early, and the number of candidates applying to replace them is plummeting. Here in Massachusetts, where I live, and where there are 277 school districts, we’ve had more than 50 superintendent openings for five years in a row. In other states, nearly half of those who become new principals leave their jobs within five years.
To me, this trend highlights an enormous irony about school leadership: although it would seem that we have never known more about it than we do today, school leaders at all levels have never felt more stressed and vulnerable. The knowledge base truly has grown; the school leadership catalogue now contains literally dozens of fascinating, informative books. But the demands—and the criticism—have more than kept pace. We now turn to our schools not only to bring the most disadvantaged students to “proficiency,” no matter what challenges they face and handicaps they bring with them, we want schools to strengthen their character, and deter drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, stress, suicide, pregnancy, AIDS, bullying, and racism.
Most of the administrators I meet continue to say that they love education and like leading, but they also say that their quality of life has been deteriorating. Most are working harder than ever and longer than ever. They face ever greater complexity, and end up sacrificing ever more of their personal and family time to their work. The reward for all this, many say, is perverse: they are subject to ever more criticism and second-guessing and unrealistic expectations. All this means that school leaders face not just a professional challenge—can they master all that the job entails?—but a personal one—what does the mastery take out of them? Too many leaders are answering these questions with their feet. I think this trend is very worrisome. I hope in my own consulting and writing to keep making the case that the issue in front of us is not to try to make school leaders do more but to make school leadership more doable, a topic I look forward to exploring here in the future.
Robert Evans is a clinical and organizational psychologist and director of the Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Mass. A former high school and preschool teacher, he has consulted to hundreds of schools and districts throughout America and around the world and has worked extensively with teachers, administrators, school boards, and state education officials. He is the 2010 Recipient of the Arnold Kerner Award for his service and dedication to the health and well-being of families. He is the author of Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader. Visit his website at www.robevans.org.