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In Search of Leaders

Rhetoric will intensify over the next couple of months as the two major-party presidential candidates jostle for the right to lead America into the new millennium.

Many question the reason - and often the sanity - behind putting oneself on the firing line for such a high-profile position that basically requires your total attention and energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Is it an ego thing, or do the candidates truly believe they can make a difference? Whatever the reason, it takes a special character of person to aspire to the highest office in the world.

Lately, increased attention has been focused on another high-profile leadership position - that of chief administrator of local public school districts. While the presidential race has dominated the news in recent months, a potential crisis is developing in public education as more and more leadership positions in schools go unfilled.

There are a number of reasons why there is a shortage of individuals vying for the top spot in America's schools. Among them are modest pay, long hours, limitations on authority, lack of resources, and often-unreasonable expectations by boards of education and the public.

According to recent data, roughly half of the nation's superintendents are more than 50 years old and expected to leave their positions within the next five years. In addition, the top position at local school districts typically is not a long-term one. Tenure of the average urban superintendent, for example, is a little more than two years, and their suburban and rural counterparts' on-the-job average is not much better.

Recently, a number of the nation's largest school districts have experienced their own version of musical chairs as superintendents shuffle from one city's top education post to another's, some after only a year or two on the job. (See AS&U's July and August "Market Watch.")

Whether this is due to a shortage of qualified candidates to fill positions left open, growing disillusionment of the job, a search for greener pastures or a combination of many factors, the lack of continuous leadership cannot be good for these local districts and their respective communities' long-term education goals.

The impending shortage of school administrators has attracted increased attention, and has resulted in everything from recruiting professionals outside education for top posts to independent organizations contributing resources to address the issue. Recently, the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds announced a $150 million program focused on fostering and retaining school leaders. Set up as a series of grants, the Leaders Count program will strive to create a larger pool of administrator candidates, establish initiatives to improve learning, and foster conditions that support the leadership of successful schools.

Just as the selection of America's next leader will have a major impact on this nation's future, so too will our success in doing what's necessary to ensure the best and brightest continue to be attracted to school leadership positions. But this goal will not be accomplished without some changes.

There are many exceptional leaders in our nation's schools, and numerous potential candidates that have a tremendous amount to offer. But until the superintendency is given true authority to make the changes deemed necessary, fewer candidates will be willing to take these increasingly difficult positions.

We need to give our education leaders the tools to do the job they were brought in to do and the freedom to carry out the changes that are needed. Perhaps most of all, we need to be confident in our choices as these professionals show us their power to inspire future generations of leaders.

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