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Preparing Culturally Competent Leaders

Posted: 2004-05-13

Consider this view in provocative/outrageous contrast to the New York City business model for preparing principals. There, Neutron Jack Welch is advisor.

For more about the New York City model, see Why Is Corporate America Bashing Public Schools? by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian. Coming in July.

Increasingly, demands on school leaders in Oregon?s public schools have escalated in response to changing demographics and pressures for high levels of student achievement. At the same time, programs that prepare those leaders have come under increasing scrutiny. The public wants assurance that schools can serve diverse communities and expects culturally competent leadership from principals and superintendents.

An emphasis on the need for culturally competent leaders reflects the influence culture has on learning and behavior. A group?s shared beliefs, values, customs, definitions of right and wrong, family structures and expectations for behavior condition how and what they learn. The cultural, linguistic and economic diversity of today?s schools require leaders who can help create communities that support learning by all its members. These leaders are called to act on their commitment to culturally responsive practice in the service of just, humane, and equitable schools.

Oregon?s new standards for programs that prepare school leaders align closely with the standards for principal licensure and with the most current national standards. A three-stage process linking principal and superintendent licensure requires continuous learning and professional development. The standards emphasize the responsibility of educational leaders to improve learning and achievement of all students. They require programs to prepare candidates with

?the cultural competence to improve learning and achievement of all students by collaborating with families and other community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources in order to demonstrate and promote ethical standards of democracy, equity, diversity, and excellence, and to promote communication among diverse groups.?

The Graduate School of Education at Portland State University prepares the largest number of school administrators of any institution in the state. We have a schoolwide commitment to cultural responsiveness and reciprocity that guides our work and influences our practice. We work to foster multicultural education and to eliminate oppression and discrimination from our institution and ourselves. Our ambitious ? and not yet fully realized ? action agenda focuses on recruiting and supporting diverse faculty and students, implementing curricula and assessments that incorporate multicultural perspectives, and developing an intentionally inclusive community that promotes social justice. The program to prepare school leaders is situated within that agenda.

The preparation of school leaders begins long before they enter formal licensure programs. Their continuing development requires collaborative efforts by school districts and the university. Aspiring leaders develop visions of what it means to lead by watching others in leadership roles. Their internships with experienced principals have a profound influence on their practice. The shortage of explicit models of culturally responsive leadership in schools and in society increases the pressure on preparation programs to explicitly incorporate multicultural perspectives.

The university and public schools share an interest in encouraging people from diverse cultural backgrounds to consider leadership roles. We work together to recruit diverse candidates, and our admission process requires a recommendation from a school leader confirming the candidate?s potential for leadership in diverse settings. We ask candidates to provide evidence of experience working effectively in diverse communities and we assess their openness and willingness to explore the difficult issues of institutional racism and oppression. Our program focuses on attracting aspiring leaders who have a genuine interest in leading change in culturally diverse organizations. The program?s faculty includes successful school leaders and university professors with close ties to schools. They work together to assure alignment of courses and the program (wherever it is offered) with the values and goals we have adopted.

Over the course of a year each group of prospective school principals actively engages in exploring the theory and practice of leadership in a multicultural society. They analyze case studies, inquire into their school?s policies and practices, examine community and school data and lead school change efforts in their internship settings. They share experiences and learn to work cooperatively toward common goals. They come to recognize institutional racism and understand how unquestioned patterns of power and privilege limit learning opportunities for many students in their schools. They build the habits of continuous learning and accept the moral responsibilities of school leadership.

Our ongoing work with new and experienced school leaders is based on shared beliefs about leadership and cultural responsiveness. School leaders and their communities must share responsibility for gaps in achievement that create chasms in opportunity. Leadership requires actions grounded in a deep understanding of the leader?s own culture and of the ways culture shapes perceptions, influences behavior and affects learning. It involves confronting the effects on students and schools of the dynamics of power and privilege in contemporary society. Leadership calls for a clear-eyed view of the benefits of cultural variation and the challenges in working across cultural boundaries.

Let?s shift our focus from the program and its foundations to see how cultural responsiveness develops in a newly licensed Oregon public school principal. Until she became a teacher, Jane had had few experiences with people from other cultures. She didn?t know anyone who spoke another language until she was in college. And now she finds herself in a vibrant and often unruly intersection of cultures. In her school, children and their parents speak more than ten different languages; one in ten students is Latino or African American; 15 percent of children receive special education services; and more than half the children qualify for free and reduced lunches. Fewer than 60 percent of students meet state achievement standards. Jane?s recognizes that it is her job to help create a community that supports high levels of learning by all children and includes all who have an interest in the school.

She knows the importance of budgets, schedules, time management, resource acquisition and analysis of achievement data. However, her preparation for leadership helped her see that improvement in this multicultural school will require more of her than technical expertise. Research shows that culturally responsive teaching increases student achievement, promotes curiosity and encourages creativity. She reasons that culturally responsive leadership will similarly benefit the community.

From the beginning of her tenure as a principal, has sought experiences with other cultures, accepts uncertainty, and cultivates humility and openhearted curiosity. As she practices listening deeply and reflecting on what she hears, she learns to suspend judgment and wait for understanding. She acknowledges that she is a beneficiary of privilege, a party to perpetuating institutional racism, an unconscious oppressor and an imperfect exemplar of cultural responsiveness. Out of discouragement and conflict she discovers new possibilities and untapped resources in herself and others.

Jane is learning that she leads best by relentlessly focusing attention and action on difficult questions and enduring problems. She is opening her eyes to the realities of oppression and works with others to eliminate it from the school. Living with the effects of injustice expands her commitment to root out the institutionalized policies and practices that serve to divide and oppress. She is finding her voice, developing political savvy and adding advocacy to her portfolio. She is sometimes exhilarated by the challenges, often overwhelmed by the demands, but stays the course because she knows the children are watching.

At the end of the day Jane often has more questions than answers. She takes some comfort in Ronald Heifetz?s reminder: ?One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.?

Phyllis J. Edmundson is the dean of the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University.


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