Educational Leadership Preparation in Kentucky: A Race to the Bottom?

This week I am attending the International Symposium on
Educational Reform hosted by the University of Jyväskylä
in Finland. Yesterday I had a great conversation with a Finnish colleague who is preparing to assume the principalship at a school in the Jyväskylä
region of the country. Our conversation centered on the quality of educational leadership
preparation programs. He first shared with me that the government has limited
the number of higher education institutions authorized for principal training;
currently only three institutions may offer principal training in Finland. But
even among just those three programs, aspiring principals in Finland have an
understanding of which programs are most highly regarded and they typically apply to
those programs first.

When asked about the state of
affairs with educational leadership preparation in Kentucky, I shared quite a
few things. I included the recent state-required reform of educational
leadership programs across the state, including the requirement that principal
preparation occur at the post-masters level-only in Kentucky. I shared that at
the University of Kentucky we had redesigned our program with the input of
practitioner colleagues to be a rigorous, high-quality program, with work-embedded
assignments and courses co-taught with scholar-practitioners currently in the field. I
shared that our program was designed to be delivered in an executive-style format,
with Saturday on-campus meetings 5-6 times per semester and online and
independent work in-between on-campus meetings. I told him that our program was
designed to prepare aspiring leaders to be the change agents in education that
Kentucky desperately needs to turn the corner in student learning.

But I also had to share
with him a few unpleasant realities about educational leadership preparation in
Kentucky; realities which contrast considerably with how Finland has approached educational leadership
preparation. I told him that the Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board (EPSB )
has chosen not to limit the number of higher education institutions in the
state that may offer principal preparation programs. As a result, I told him, Kentucky
has an oversupply of principal preparation programs; in fact, considerably more
programs exist than there is either need or demand for programs. Kentucky’s EPSB has approved principal preparation programs at 11
higher education institutions in the state. For comparison sake, Finland has a population of
5.3 million people and three programs leading to principal licensure; and
Kentucky has a population just under 4.4 million people and 11 programs leading
to principal licensure.

But it is not the abundance of
principal preparation programs in the state alone that is so troubling. Two
confounding issues make the oversupply of programs a problem for Kentucky.
First, all of the state-approved programs are not rigorous, high-quality
programs. And who can best attest to the quality or lack of quality in
programs? Students and graduates of the programs can attest to it, and they do.
Most of the students and graduates of educational leadership programs in
Kentucky that I have come across have no problem with telling you whether their
program provides or provided solid preparation for the principalship. And it’s
been more than a few current school leaders that have told me flat out that
their preparation program was useless. That is a problem.

But here is what makes it worse.
Many of those same students and graduates will tell you that they chose their
preparation program not because they believed it to be a high-quality
program, but because it was the cheapest/quickest/easiest way to earn principal
licensure. That is an area that I do not believe has been explored by the
educational leadership research literature. While more than a few studies have
shown educational leaders criticizing their leadership preparation programs, I
am not familiar with studies that asked those leaders if they chose their
program based on its perceived high-quality. For if the findings of my non-systematic
data collection were confirmed (and I believe they would be), and principals in
Kentucky are in large numbers choosing the leadership preparation programs that
they perceive to be the cheapest/quickest/easiest way to get the certification,
then Kentucky’s schools are in a whole lot of trouble.

First, I do not believe it bodes
well that aspiring school leaders would think so little of their preparation for
administrative positions that they would choose programs in that manner. Second
but also very important, when aspiring leaders choose leadership preparation
programs based on ease, programs that need to enroll students to remain viable
begin to compete for those students by watering down program admissions
requirements, curriculum, and expectations; creating what my colleague Justin Bathon has referred to as a Race to the
Bottom
for leadership preparation programs. That, I fear, is what is
beginning to happen in Kentucky. And I fear that aspiring leaders choosing preparation
programs based on ease will have disastrous consequences for the state. Programs
in Kentucky that choose to compete for students will respond to the student market
by offering dumbed-down programs; and programs that refuse to compromise their standards
will go out of business as a function of the market. The result will be
Kentucky left with a generation of school
administrators that are certified, but ill-equipped to be the visionary and transformative
leaders that Kentucky schools so desperately need.

That, I told my Finnish colleague,
is where I believe educational leadership preparation in Kentucky may be headed;
but it doesn’t have to be that way. Kentucky’s EPSB can better regulate the market. EPSB’s bar for
program approval may be set too low. A higher threshold for program approval
with just a few high-quality programs in the state may be an avenue for the
EPSB to consider. Better regulation of the market would prevent current aspiring leaders from
choosing low quality options and forcing the entire market in that direction. But
in addition to EPSB responding to this potential crisis of school leadership, we
have to change the culture of the education professions to place a much higher
value on education, preparation, and professional learning. Preparation and
training are not just unnecessary hoops for educators to jump through; these
are opportunities for deeper learning and reflection so that educators can
improve what they do. It deeply troubles me that professional development for
so many Kentucky educators has been reduced to simply accumulating the minimum
number of hours required each year. It deeply troubles me that preparation and
certification programs are regarded by so many Kentucky educators as standing
in line to get their tickets punched so they can get the job that they think they
already know how to do. We must change the current seemingly dominant cultural
beliefs about professional learning in the education professions and/or change
the people that are going into the education professions. Finnish teachers and educational
leaders place great value on their continued learning and professional
development. That seriousness about their professional learning is one of the keys
to the Finns’ successfully improving educational outcomes for students across Finland.
Such an important cultural change could pay huge dividends for Kentucky as
well.

2 thoughts on “Educational Leadership Preparation in Kentucky: A Race to the Bottom?”

  1. I personally don’t believe you should become a principal without at least five years of teaching under your belt. I’ve seen too many principals who have no idea how to be an instructional leader because they have little to no experience as an educator. To take it a step further, should universities be required to have education professors who actually have classroom experience?

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