The Bush Institute’s Symposium on Education Leadership examined this question: how important is school leadership, on the principal and district supervisor level, to improving student achievement and success? And how can we improve the quality of school leadership – whether in attracting talent to the profession, selecting the most promising leaders from the ranks of teachers, training future and current school leaders, and evaluating their success?
“We know that,” Laura W. Bush told the 220 participants in the Symposium, “without exception, the impact of the leadership of principals and superintendents is evident in their students and in their schools.” And unless we ensure that leadership is strong, any gains from other school reforms – such as improving teacher quality, measuring student achievement, improving curriculum and funding, and imposing standards and accountability – will be evanescent.
President George W. Bush and Bush Institute Executive Director James K. Glassman opened the conference by emphasizing that the Bush Institute intends not only to discover the best ideas, but to work with partners to implement them. President Bush described the process, which involves conducting “research on how to promote school leadership”; applying intellectual “rigor to the challenge of encouraging people to lead effectively”; and then, “we are going to implement the ideas.” Keynote speaker former North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt, who now heads a University of North Carolina-based education research institute, described what his colleagues have found about the key role that principals play. Teachers in the front lines consistently cite the quality of principals as the most important factor in their commitment to education, more so than salary or class size. “We will go and teach under good principals, and we’ll stay there.’”
In the Symposium’s discussion, Bush Institute Fellows Dr. James W. Guthrie and Sandy Kress, together with David Chard, Dean of SMU Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, discussed the current state of knowledge about school leadership. According to Dr. Guthrie, “we understand that education leadership is a catalyst necessary to realize virtually every aspect of school reform: student achievement, teacher quality, and curriculum excellence.” But, he continued, “we’re not always selecting the right leaders. Private sector leaders see a problem as an opportunity they want to engage with. Too many education leaders see a problem as someone else’s responsibility.”
Sandy Kress outlined the Bush Institute’s plan to focus on data tools for education managers, which would bring them some of the information tools that managers in the private sector and elsewhere in the public sector take for granted. “While we have the most sophisticated use of data in industry and in the military, we don’t yet have it in our schools. Our principals are really flying blind, and that’s a condition we can no longer tolerate.”
Many members of the invited audience offered testimony and ideas. Dr. Wanda Bamberg, Supervisor of the school district (in Aldine, TX) that won the most recent Broad Prize for Best Urban School District in America, relies on the principals in her district to build excellence into the system and sustain it. Dan Katzir of the Broad Foundation described his organization’s experience with “academies” for principals and district supervisors. Lori Fey of the Michael & Susan Dell Family Foundation told about her foundation’s investment in data tools. Business and political leaders contributed expert advice, wisdom, and moral support, but more important they collectively represent the wealth of potential partners in the achievement of the Bush Institute’s goals.