Feb 22, 2024

Do We Need More Schools or More School Leaders?

The following feature article was written by Dr. Gary Daynes, ISA Strategic Partner and leader of Back Porch Consulting.

All the behaviors of higher education today suggest that if we were to ask, “Do we need more schools or more school leaders?” the answer would be “school leaders.” In an ideal world, the answer would be “both.” But in today’s world could it be true that we actually need more schools than leaders? Here are four reasons to think the answer is yes:

  1. Places need schools more than school leaders. If the future is truly one where colleges are regularly faced with closure, then the well-being of many towns, neighborhoods, and communities is also threatened. Preserving schools by nearly any means, then, requires creativity in how they are run, not just for the school and its students, but the people around it.
  2. Leaders are expensive, especially at small schools. And it is at small schools where limiting overhead is essential if the school is to balance its budget and ensure student learning. Or, put another way, fewer leaders leave more revenue to direct to students and the things that help them learn.
  3. Leaders lead best at scale. The communication, management, assessment, and policy skills of most leaders are based on regularity, repetition, systems, and statistically reliable data. With access to these things, leaders can put in place policies and practices that improve schools, and they can choose strategies that inspire students, staff, and faculty alike to improve their work. Without them, their impact is limited. Small schools tend to have unpredictable data, weak systems, idiosyncratic practices, and policies that welcome exceptions. In such settings, leadership struggles.
  4. Important parts of schools run themselves. Faculty oversee the curriculum, and within constraints, govern themselves. Most student services come from line staff. The deepest relationships students have are with the teachers, staff, and coaches they see nearly every day. Many functions of the school year are dictated by policy or calendar or regulation and would happen even if leaders were absent. This is not to say, of course, that leaders are useless in day-to-day operations of a school. It is to say, though, that much of what takes place at school takes place without leaders making it happen.

These things suggest that it is wise to sustain or increase the number of schools while limiting or reducing the number of leaders. How to do this?

Make sure that the leaders you have are right for the school’s situation. If enrollment is declining, enrollment leadership is necessary. If fundraising is essential, then dedicate resources to leadership there. If your school is distinctive in some way, make sure there is clear leadership in those distinctive areas. But don’t imagine that your school needs a full slate of leaders in the roles that typically exist elsewhere or that they must be paid at market rates.

Investigate leaderless or self-governing models of management. There are many, from the version favored at W.L Gore and Associates to the town-hall practices of many small colleges and towns.

Ensure that leaders are also teachers. A colleague of mine who is a fine CFO routinely says that colleges should have all of their vice presidents teaching classes. His point is a good one–both to reduce the school’s overhead and to ensure that leaders are intimately involved with the most important work of the school.

Share leaders across several schools. If leadership today relies on scale, then one way to get to scale is to have a single Provost, or CFO, or Registrar for several analogous schools. Those schools could still maintain their distinctive natures, faculty, and campuses. But their operations and strategies might be sharper because they are based on better data and deeper analysis.

Build a culture that does not rely on leaders. I know many campuses where leaders are essential because no decision is made or action taken without a leader (or several leaders) being involved. No improvement comes about if it isn’t suggested by a leader. If your school will have fewer leaders, then people on the front lines must trust each other, hold each other accountable, find repeatable solutions to real problems, and carry the emotional and moral burden of keeping the school running. These practices do not emerge by themselves. They must be built.

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