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21st Century Iowa's Education Must Be Visionary All Around

May 12, 2010
Thomas Switzer- Sunday,
Cedar Rapids Gazette
June 11, 2000

Thomas J. Switzer, Dean, UNI College of Education

A recent study from Fordham University revealed that an estimated 80 percent of U.S. K-12 superintendents are of retirement age. That equates to about 1,000 openings per year for the next five years. A study conducted in Iowa in 1998 suggests that 180 of Iowa’s 356 school superintendents will retire by 2004. And, a 1999 study reported that 384 (33 percent) of the 1,174 school principals in Iowa will retire by 2005. Iowa will need to replace these superintendents and principals with people well prepared to lead our schools into the new century.

Frequently the education debate focuses on the quality of our teaching force, retaining teachers, and on increasing teacher salaries. While these are important issues the issue of school leadership cannot be ignored. Without competent, visionary superintendents and principals, challenges facing the teachers of the 21st Century cannot and will not be addressed.

School leaders today must possess broad leadership skills. They also must have a deep understanding of the learning experiences that today’s students need to succeed. And they must be able to envision how learning will occur in the future. I have been convinced for some time that we will continue to be disappointed with our results until we engage in fundamental rethinking of how we deliver schooling. That rethinking requires visionary leadership.

The system change many of us are looking for will result only when we convince the public, and others who influence schooling, that we must create systems that are designed specifically to promote student learning. We are constrained by a "delivery of instruction" model that limits our thinking. For example, instead of thinking about how we can educate students by fundamentally changing the nature of staffing patterns in schools, we continue to focus on single issue items such as teacher testing, induction programs, and increasing teachers’ salaries.

AS IMPORTANT as these issues may be, any one of them by itself will not provide the increase in learning that we want.

Universities and colleges have a role in the solution. School leaders need a broad background in education. A definite body of knowledge is available – schools as social institutions, curriculum development, child development, school finance, and about working with communities.

We also must provide these learning experiences for prospective new school leaders in a format that meets their needs. Four years ago, the University of Northern Iowa’s Educational Leadership graduate program redesigned its principal and superintendent preparation programs. This redesign incorporated the latest research on leadership preparation and reflected the standards of national educational policy boards that have studied this issue.

Since that time, UNI has implemented a statewide, Iowa Communication Network (ICN)-based program built on these principles. The first group of students enrolled in this three-year program graduated last week. In fall 2000, about 200 aspiring administrators will be involved in the program. With sufficient funding, enrollment in this program could be substantially increased.

TAKING THIS CONCEPT a step further, UNI recently agreed to begin the Principal Educational Leadership Program, a collaboration between the university and the Urban Education Network of Iowa. It encompasses the eight largest school districts in Iowa. This program will train current teachers for administrative positions in Iowa’s growing network of urban school systems.

High-quality teachers and administrators are necessary for vigorous, successful school systems to grow. Today’s great teachers have the potential to become tomorrow’s great school administrators. We must give our teaching graduates reasons to stay in Iowa. Our schools need our support.

Great students need visionary teachers. Great teachers need visionary administrators. Great administrators need the support of a visionary community. Iowa has been and should continue to be that kind of community.

Thomas J. Switzer is a professor and dean of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, one of the leading teacher preparation institutions in the United States.