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Q&A: David Brazer on a new model for preparing principals

Brazer, who directs the GSE Leadership Degree Programs, recommends revamping the way we prepare tomorrow’s education leaders by maximizing the relevance of course content and providing authentic learning opportunities.

David Brazer
David Brazer

By Amy Yuen

Effective leadership, research shows, is one of the most important school-based influences on student learning—second only to quality teaching. Yet education leadership preparation programs are persistently criticized for insufficiently preparing aspiring leaders for the changing demands that they face in the field. They are also maligned for being out of touch with district needs.

In a recent article for Educational Administration Quarterly, David Brazer, associate professor (teaching) at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and co-author Scott C. Bauer, associate professor at the George Mason University College of Education and Human Development, propose a new model of school leadership preparation aimed at maximizing the relevance of course content and providing authentic learning opportunities in leadership.

The key to reimagining principal preparation, the scholars contend, is that we ought to prepare aspiring leaders to lead instruction, above all else.

Brazer is an expert in instructional leadership effectiveness and is the director of the GSE’s Leadership Degree Programs.

Amy Yuen caught up with Brazer to talk about the state of education leadership preparation programs, the new model proposed by him and Bauer and why reshaping principal preparation is so important to improving schools.

What is the current state of school leadership preparation programs?

Brazer: They are in many different stages. Some programs have taken long strides toward preparing instructional leaders, while many aren’t thinking about it. There are two major sets of national standards that education leadership programs are required to address, and they don’t emphasize instructional leadership very much. They nod to it, but there isn’t much in the standards that would motivate programs to make a shift toward instructional leadership.

Why do these programs need to make instructional leadership their central focus? What has changed over the years?

Brazer: It’s important because of what has changed in schools and what’s expected now of assistant principals, principals and superintendents. In the 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis for principals was much more on management. Gradually, instead of being hierarchical leaders who managed their schools well, principals were expected to work collaboratively with teachers to make decisions that would presumably improve student performance. Once the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, the emphasis on student performance was greatly magnified.

When you require schools to improve student performance, the person who is responsible for that effort is the school principal. That’s the big factor that has changed the role of principals over time, at least if they want to survive. Now as a principal, I’m not only responsible for running the school well, but I’m also responsible for student achievement—that’s a big difference. If I’m going to be successful, I’ve got to know: “What do I do about student achievement?” I’m going to have struggling students who could be identified in different ways. What am I going to do to improve the performance of struggling students when I can’t be in all of the classrooms? So the issue becomes: “How do I lead instruction so the instruction gets better?”

What’s a key weakness among leadership preparation programs?

Brazer: Most programs are segmented with a set of courses that have few or no explicit links to one another. For example, the internship component is often completely divorced from what goes on in the regular classroom. Rather than having students bring their experiences from internships back into the classroom for consideration, and learn specific skills and knowledge in the classroom that they can then test out in internships, you rarely see that kind of integration. Unless you’re making connections, it’s very hard to prepare somebody to lead instruction. 

You propose a new model. Before we get to that, is there anything we should keep from the old?  

Brazer: Managerial skills and knowledge and organizational theory are always going to be important. Organizational theory helps us understand how collections of people in institutions like schools interact with each other, the nature of their motivations, and how there could be a collective outcome. Those two components are in most, if not all, programs today. Understanding instruction at a deeper level is not in most programs today.

The new model draws ideas from four scholars who have served on the GSE faculty—Lee Shulman, Elliot Eisner, Larry Cuban and Edwin Bridges. What are its key elements?

Brazer: The first is Lee Shulman’s notion of pedagogical content knowledge, which means understanding the intersection between what students are taught and how to teach it. While we can’t put prospective principals through a teacher education program in a wide range of subjects as part of their administrative education, we could do a better job in helping them become conversant in a wider range of subjects. I may not be able to teach physics, for example, but I could learn basic principles of how one ought to teach physics to be able to have a conversation with physics teachers. I don’t think preparation programs deal at all with content in that way. The curriculum courses tend to be done at a high altitude where they’re learning about the relationships between the curriculum and standards and how to meet standards and do assessment, but nothing about what’s in the content and how to teach it.

The second —educational connoisseurship and educational criticism—comes from Elliot Eisner. It’s about being able to understand good teaching when you see it, and knowing how to communicate about that teaching. We know from research that the principals who have the most impact on student achievement are actually learning alongside their teachers. It means I would be able to sit down with a group of math teachers to figure out why students are failing Algebra 1 at a high rate, for example. I would be able to go into classrooms to see where we are reinforcing the root causes of the problems and where we are starting to solve them. Then, I would be able to engage with those teachers about what we saw and how we can get better.

Remaining are elements from Cuban and Bridges?

Brazer: Yes. The third piece is Larry Cuban‘s contribution in understanding the broader context of teachers and classrooms. To lead instruction, I’ve got to understand that teaching is stable. Even though waves of reform have passed through schools, teaching practices don’t change much. If I don’t understand that and why, I am likely to become the kind of leader who brings in good ideas or programs and then feels discouraged after a few years because nothing is better. Where it leads is the notion that instructional leaders are, in large part, leading learning for teachers so that they’re motivated intrinsically to improve their teaching and learning.

The last element answers the question, “How in the world do you teach people to lead?” We can study examples of leaders, but that’s different from actually learning how to lead situations in schools. One way to do that is to engage in problem-based learning, which comes from Ed Bridges. It’s where you’re faced with a problem, learn more about it, come up with an idea on how to address it and then test it with people who would need to implement it. You can set that up through carefully constructed problems and then engage in role playing with specific roles for all involved. It’s essentially making the education leadership classroom as authentic as you can to give people leadership opportunities to learn from.

In addition to your post as associate professor, you also direct the GSE’s Leadership Degree Programs. Did you have the Stanford program in mind when you thought of this new leadership model? Would that fit at Stanford?

Brazer: No, the paper was completed before I applied for the position at Stanford. What I had in mind for the paper was a traditional education leadership program that provides credentialing or licensure for future school administrators. That is not the program I’m leading now. The Leadership Degree Programs—the MA in Policy, Organizations and Leadership Studies and the joint MA/MBA—do not have a credentialing component, and the audience has broader interests ranging from higher education to preschool. Many of the people are not interested in working in K-12 schools or even in the traditional system, so our interests here at Stanford are very different. Nevertheless, I do intend to apply some of the basic principles of learning to lead in the Stanford leadership degrees.

How did you get interested in studying education leadership? I know you worked as a principal for several years.

Brazer: Yes, I worked in high school administration for 12 years. I think I learned to be a reasonably effective leader, and I wanted to help other people become good leaders. But I also was driven by the realization that you can have great teachers in a school that’s poorly led, and they can’t teach well. If a school is competently or very well led, then the good teachers will thrive and the poor teachers will probably get somewhat better. That’s the reason I really push hard to raise the quality of how we do leadership preparation. Without good leaders, we won’t have good schools.

Amy Yuen writes frequently for the Graduate School of Education.

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