By Kelvin Smythe
There is an urgent need for a curriculum-driven leadership theory to be developed and advanced to challenge the current managerialist one.
The managerialist leadership theory is about hierarchy – an upward extension to government control resulting in a downward expression of the learning theories of quantitative academics (who could perhaps be defined as academics who know the measurement of everything and the value of nothing). Curriculum-driven leadership is based on teacher knowledge, on commonsense through informed experience, on the value of variety in education, on education as part of life in a social democracy, on identifying the essences of curriculum areas, on a commitment to a broad-based curriculum, and on teaching and leadership being significantly an art.
Managerialist theory gained momentum from the panic in America over Sputnik, spread to New Zealand in the late ‘80s, and now has a vice-like grip, so much so that most people think TINA (There Is No Alternative) giving substance to Orwell’s dictum, ‘Who controls the past … controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’. Managerialism involves an education theory defined by experts, assessment based on observable outcomes and measurement, tight external oversight and direction, and accountability through those observable outcomes and measurement and associated paper trail. As a result of managerialism, principals are increasingly involved in a curriculum dominated by measurable objectives.
Underlying managerialism and the associated leadership theory is a curriculum-narrowing metaphor – the pyramid. The idea being that before children can reach the apex of being imaginative in their learning they need to have spent years on building a base. In other words, children are put through years of routine, controlled learning before any other kind of learning is attempted. The effect is to turn children off learning with some children seriously deprived of imaginative learning. Attending to both the basics and imaginative learning should be part of all children’s learning no matter their age or ability. The idea that, for some children, the latter should wait on the former demonstrates a lack of imagination by teachers when the reality is that the former working with the latter works to the advantage of both. Those who espouse the managerialist and the associated leadership theory deny they promote curriculum-narrowing leadership, but the present strong trends in this direction are proof that they do.
The reality about principals and their knowledge of the curriculum was devastatingly and, in a way, inadvertently revealed in 2008 by the ministry publication, Kiwi Leadership for Principals, which revealed that most principals have lost touch with the curriculum even though (I would claim ‘because’) they work 50% harder than their overseas counterparts. This was entirely to be anticipated given the Tomorrow’s Schools’ stance that if principals got administrative systems right, the appropriate curriculum implementation would devolve from that. And an appropriate curriculum implementation did evolve from that – a curriculum appropriate to the way the bureaucracies worked, a way to make easier the way the bureaucracies worked, a way to extend managerialism to schools. Unfortunately, it was a way that narrowed and reduced the curriculum for children. What took the place of a broad-based curriculum was the layering of classrooms and schools with measurable objectives: they were declared good by managerialists, just what the doctor ordered, what education should be about – that is, a narrow view of literacy and numeracy and the rest of the curriculum take the hindmost.
The main argument in this article is that if leadership theory does not have its foundations in a deep and interrogative relationship with the curriculum, it is not curriculum-driven leadership, it is something else again – almost certainly managerialist leadership theory.
A crucial element of curriculum-driven leadership is establishing the essence of particular parts of the curriculum – the task for principals and teachers having discerned these is to believe in them and pursue their logic through to the implications for the administrative structures of schools. Administration would, to a great extent, be the sum of those implications.
For a broad-based curriculum, principals are central to the provision of contexts in which teachers will feel sufficiently free of constraints, and understood and supported enough, to teach in an imaginative and creative manner. Principals, however, in being drawn away from the curriculum, are increasingly vulnerable to challenging teachers administratively rather than where it matters, through the real curriculum. In curriculum-driven leadership, the challenge should come through an inspired view of the curriculum, not an unbalanced view of administration.
Curriculum-driven leadership rests on the idea of reducing administrative control and increasing curriculum influence. While influence is a form of control, the more relaxed connotations of the expression ‘influence’ is indicative of the more appropriate stance for principals to adopt in their leadership. In curriculum-driven leadership, principals should see themselves as teachers who have moved from inspiring children to inspiring teachers. All significant administrative decisions have significant curriculum implications; therefore those who make such decisions should possess a significant level of interest and knowledge in curriculum matters.
The imposition of a tight framework of measurable objectives over the school and what happens in classrooms is not about a deep and interrogative relationship with the curriculum – it is a formulaic overlay. Any jackass by functioning at the level of management by measurable objectives can sound knowledgeable about education, pandering as it does to the current obsession with certainty and precision. Management by measurable objectives eases the way for external and hierarchical control over schools, laying the basis for an industrial model of education. In schools, management by measurable objectives makes education understandable to those who don’t understand the curriculum and a nightmare for those who do.
Most current leadership providers thrive on the bureaucratic confusions imposed from the centre. Principals, especially new principals, look at that confusion and put out a cry for help. Practical courses on administrative requirements are needed; other than that leadership courses should be about the curriculum, about clarifying the essences of curriculum areas and coming up with main aims that tie curriculum areas together. These essences can’t properly be handed down as a list; they need to be worked out, school by school. Leadership courses should discuss the philosophy behind this process and ways to get it going. Leadership providers, however, take as a given the managerialist basis for administering schools which is a major way managerialism comes to drive the curriculum. The curriculum is set up for observable and measurable outcomes and, not coincidentally, for expert, bureaucratic, and political control. This managerialist takeover is most unfortunate because leadership theory at its best is just codified commonsense – at worst unmitigated managerialism. But why codify commonsense, why not just leave commonsense to provide its bounty? As suggested, leadership courses for new principals should concentrate on courses that clarify the essences of curriculum areas with a view to providing leadership to enhance the expression of these in schools.
Managerial efficiency is educationally inefficient. If education was about uniform input, process, and product; if it was like producing a block of butter – then managerial efficiency would, indeed, be educationally efficient but the purposes of education in a social democracy are hugely contestable, as are the associated processes and content.
The road to managerialism is paved with false pretensions, for instance, the claim that being a good teacher doesn’t make you a good principal – which is true as far as it goes. However, that isn’t what is really being communicated – what is really being communicated is: You are now a principal so, shaman-like, put childish things behind you, you have a whole new set of knowledge to learn, a set of knowledge which is special knowledge, special knowledge that will lift you above and away from those in classrooms.
While being a good teacher, on its own, doesn’t make you a good principal, this article argues that having been a good teacher is an important foundation for being so – to this needs to be added a range of sterling personal qualities, particularly the tensile strength. What it doesn’t require is the imposition of a complex hierarchical leadership theory involving management by measurable objectives and education uniformity.
In practice, the distinction between curriculum-driven leadership and managerialist can be identified in a school’s willingness to vary from official policy; the range of sources from which the school seeks external professional advice and the reasons for seeking that advice ( in other words, avoiding seeking advice from sources unable to vary from the official line, and seeking such advice for children’s needs not administrative cover); the attention to the broad curriculum; the emphasis in policy statements on the of setting aims leaving teachers to set objectives, which are then often transformed to criteria; the attention to symbolically-laden curriculum references (see below); the centrality of curriculum essences; the recognition of the power of the interaction between the affective and the cognitive; the attention to establishing learning contexts; the degree of timetable freedom; the avoidance of formulaic overlays on classroom practice; the emphasis on teacher observation as the basis for evaluation; the way teachers are involved in important school decisions; the classroom teaching contributions of all in the school including the principal; the way the classroom is seen as the basic unit of the school (in other words, the freedom being available for teachers to teach with a degree of separateness from syndicates and the rest of the school); the way computer use is driven by curriculum imperatives not the other way round or by school marketing considerations; and the care taken to use metaphors appropriate to curriculum-driven leadership.
Guided by the curriculum essences, the ideas put before teachers are likely to be straightforward in expression and symbolically-laden in implication, for instance, why not (it might be suggested to teachers), in written expression, concentrating for a time on just one criterion – sincerity? Or why not in an art activity concentrate on exploration? Or why not in social studies putting up sets of three pictures selected at random and ask the children to select which one they consider the odd one out, then, with the same pictures what do they have in common? Or why not in maths setting up a study which is about maths as ideas rather than facts – for instance, what is a line? Such symbolically-laden curriculum ideas allow teachers to put ideas into practice first, allowing the implications and theories to follow in their slipstream.
Where principals are placed in any education divide comes down to an attitude of mind. In the case of the managerialism, the attitude of mind is not all of a one, for instance, principals who believe official policy is invariably the truth will, in the prevailing education climate, administer their schools along the lines of managerialist leadership theory; so will any principals who consider it their responsibility to follow official policy whether they believe in it or not; so will principals who like certainty and mathematical precision in education; and so will principals who go out of their way to refuse to recognise that a philosophical divide even exists.
For principals on the curriculum-driven side of the divide, the prevailing attitude of mind will be that official policy invariably needs interpreting and changing to serve the interests of children and a broad-based curriculum. An interrogative attitude of mind being an essential characteristic of a principal who aspires to curriculum-driven leadership.
As an example, this group of principals would no doubt interrogate the current managerialist curriculum approach of inquiry learning – a skills-based, formulaic approach that uses knowledge as a vehicle for developing skills, undervalues particular knowledge, also the power of the interaction between knowledge and the affective – the basis of the feeling for approach.
Imagine, for instance, a leadership course, that spent time considering the following statements (or the symbolically-laden ideas discussed above):
Inquiry is what the learner does to the topic – feeling for, what the topic does to the learner
Inquiry learning should be expressed as an aim not a formula
Inquiry learning is fast food to feeling for’s fine dining
Children respond to the world on the basis of what they know, not what a computer has access to
Computer use in the curriculum should be presented to us by those who, above all, know the curriculum
To put skills before knowledge is not to put the cart before the horse – because knowledge is both the horse and the cart
Skills are often better seen as abilities requiring knowledge to employ, and attitude to want to.
The argument in this article has not been that one orthodoxy should be replaced by another, but that there is an alternative to managerialist leadership theory. Because the purposes of education are highly contestable, the education system should be based on valuing variety with a place for both leadership theories and everything in between. (If, however, the education system was based on valuing variety, it wouldn’t be the hierarchical, authoritarian system we currently have, which would mean managerial leadership theory would be more a choice individual schools make rather than a pressured imposition from the top.) One of the difficulties in promoting curriculum-driven leadership is that those who control the existing managerialist education system also control professional development. It is naïve to think that those who control the system are going to support a view of school leadership that would put that control at risk. This means that the cause of curriculum-driven leadership needs to be taken up by teacher organisations and individual schools.
Curriculum-driven leadership works best when directly stated in policy documents and thoroughly understood by teachers. Definite gains are made when this is done. It should be presented to teachers, boards of trustees, and external authorities as an expression of a school’s special character. In a way, curriculum-driven leadership is everything managerial leadership isn’t: home grown, holistic, broad-based, curriculum derived and concentrated, teacher informed, practical, aim and essence based, being-there evaluation, democratic, interrogative, and an art. Given the hostile environment, to put such leadership into practice requires both guile (to give unto Rome) and moral courage. That a small but significant number of principals put into practice curriculum-driven leadership gives hope that a foothold for such enlightened education can be maintained. If we can have schools that stand up against national standards we can have schools that stand up for an enlightened view of the curriculum. Meanwhile, we need to muster the unity and strength to realise our dreams in education or our only remaining ones will be of life outside it.