K-12 School Leadership Project

The Pennsylvania K-12 Leadership Project focused on issues pertaining to school district superintendents and school principals. It had:

  1. Identified and illuminated the knowledge and skill base necessary for successful school and district administration.
  2. Related these findings to current preparation programs and professional development opportunities to identify gaps.
  3. Identified current and anticipated supply and demand (relying as appropriate on recent work of the Legislative Joint State Government Commission).
  4. Identified exemplary programs of administrator recruitment and induction, to the degree such programs are validated as being effective.
  5. Developed and proposed policy recommendations to state policymakers, school boards, and administrator preparation institutions.

Decades of effective schools research — going back to the work of Ron Edmonds in the 1960s – continue to find a strong relationship between effective instructional leadership of schools and high levels of student achievement. Leading schools and districts has become more complex than ever before, due in part to increased pressure to perform, increased diversity of students, and an unstable political environment within which schools must operate.

The National Commission on Governing America’s Schools reported in 1999 on the need to rethink the roles of school boards and superintendents so they are responsible for creating a district mission and for holding schools accountable for achieving results. This kind of shift will require additional training for most superintendents and school board members. Recent reports by the two national principals associations make clear that multiple demands and conflicting priorities make it difficult for principals to focus on school improvement to the degree they think they should.

Since the issuance of these important studies, school and district leaders have come under even more scrutiny and accountability, especially as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

As waves of school and district administrators – particularly principals and superintendents – retire, there is an emerging national shortage of highly qualified school leaders, although recent research suggests this problem may be concentrated in schools with the most challenging working conditions, high concentrations of poor and minority students, and low salaries. Anecdotal information suggests that at least some Pennsylvania schools and districts are facing similar problems. There is evidence that the academic programs and professional experience of would-be administrators does not adequately prepare them for the challenges they will face, nor is much of the in-service professional development meeting their very real needs. This problem is compounded by increasing pressure on administrators for student performance improvements and, in many places, declining salaries relative to those of teachers. Pennsylvania school district administrators face even greater demands for relatively lower salaries than their peers nationally.

In order to deal with shortages in administrator candidates and promote non-traditional school leadership models, states and districts have begun recruiting superintendents and principals from the military, corporate, and government worlds.

What are the characteristics of effective leadership for 21st century schools and districts in a standards-driven system? There appears to be a growing consensus that school leaders must be first and foremost instructional leaders (although most have had training that focuses primarily upon management of the day-to-day affairs of the school). Other necessary characteristics include communication skills, collaboration, community building (both within and outside the school), ability to articulate and be guided by a clear vision, and willingness to take risks and lead change. “Quality education leadership [is] a core element of school reform.”


  1. What are and should be the roles of school superintendents and principals?
  2. What skills are needed to fulfill those roles effectively? Do those skills vary by type of community and size of school or district? Are they different for elementary and secondary school principals?
  3. What models of pre-service and in-service learning would best prepare future school leaders?
  4. What can be learned from the experiences of school and district leaders with non-traditional backgrounds?
  5. What is the size and skill level of the “pool” of potential school superintendents and principals in Pennsylvania?
  6. What can be done through state and local policy to redefine the roles of school leaders, increase the appropriateness of their preparation for these roles, improve the quality of the pool from which they will be selected, and promote the placement of highly qualified administrators in hard-to-staff schools and districts?

The Pennsylvania K-12 Leadership Project was jointly sponsored by The Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC), the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), and the Pennsylvania Associations of Elementary and Secondary School Principals (PAESSP). The effort to address the key questions identified above was directed by The Education Policy and Leadership Center. Dr. Robert E. Feir, senior fellow of EPLC and president of EdStrat21 (a Harrisburg-based education strategies consulting firm), had served as project consultant.

EPLC appointed a study group of approximately 20 individuals to review research findings and offer advice to the Center on general direction of the project and on final results and recommendations. A final report was issued at the end of the project period.