Educational Leadership for the 21 Century

Looking at current research in educational leadership, we begin to understand what types of leadership models are currently taking center stage as leaders face the challenges of the 21st century. Although the 21st century is laden with complex forces that are seemingly impossible to unpack, there is agreement in the global community as to the key underlining elements that drastically affect all fields of scholarship and performance. Globalization, technology and the unequal distribution of resources across the globe are pushing the global community to rethink how we need to educate future generations. Educational leaders are presently responding to challenges that are implicitly connected to these factors and are consequently paving the way for increasing dialogue on educational leadership research and practice for the 21st century. Part of this dialogue is the urgent need to document, research and proactively take on the changes that are needed in order to better serve children who need the skills to interact with a very different world – a world that is already on the horizon. What are some of these challenges that educational leaders face today and how are they addressing them?

In the 47th annual Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conference entitled: Education in the 21st Century, Meeting the Challenges of a Changing World, educators expressed little confidence in the system’s ability to meet broad economic and social objectives adequately. This uncertainty stems from the shifting global economy and the evolving nature of employment. These doubts reflect the legacy of widening income inequality over the past quarter century (Kodrzycki, 2002). Educational leaders recognize that the existing educational system and the existing “school” paradigm can not meet the needs of our children facing the 21st century reality. This doubt and concern for the void in our current educational panorama can both be motivation for educational leaders to proactively work towards defining and redefining the foundation of education practice. However, it also can have a paralyzing effect on educational leaders who must address the day to day concerns of their organizations and find little or no time or energy to take on the broader concern of systemic change. Nevertheless, as with this conference staged by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and other numerous conferences that are taking over the field of education here and abroad – educational leaders are talking about these issues and are documenting, debating and prioritizing these concerns.

Current research suggest that some of the major concerns regarding our current system and the encroaching demands of the 21st century are: closing the achievement gap between the rich and the poor and between Blacks and Hispanics and Whites; the role of cultural diversity, pluralism and a common identity in schools and society; nationalism vs. patriotism and the emergence of a global citizenry and the resolution of conflicts peacefully and equitably. Although there are many reasons to believe that Americans are by the nature of our history familiar with and competent facing “diversity,” it is clear that U.S. K-12 students still remain too isolated from people who are different from themselves and are not developing respect for differences or the comparative skills they need to contribute effectively to a sustainable local and global society (Quezada & Romo, 2004). Therefore, many of the current concerns regarding our ability to prepare children for a “global society” can be attributed to our country’s historical inability to embrace and capitalize on our inherent diversity.

Research focused on cultural diversity in organizations illustrates that stifling or not acknowledging difference leads to inefficiency, lack of productivity, reduced quality, and the inability to meet organizational goals (Cox, 1993). However, educational leaders who do try to cope with socio-cultural complexity, often lack the means for developing intercultural and interclass dialogue. As often, they are without the culturally precise insights needed to make well-informed decisions (Corson, 2000, p. 114). Research suggests that leaders are very aware of what multicultural/diversity aims are all about and have been for years. They know that the basic principals of multicultural education in the US are: the theory of cultural pluralism; ideals of social justice and the end of racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination; affirmations of culture in the teaching and learning process; and visions of educational equity and excellence leading to high levels of academic learning for all children and youth (Bennett, 2002). However, in a recent national poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, researchers found that white Americans misperceive the socioeconomic realities of African Americans, tending to hold unrealistically positive views of their progress. Moreover, these distorted views are linked to an unwillingness to support social policies and programs that create opportunities and provide support to minorities (Morin, R. (2001). A scrutiny of the most recent journals in educational administration, management and leadership reveals an alarming ethnocentricity (Dimmock & Walker, 1998a, 1998b). Especially in the case in the UK and USA, where researchers seem preoccupied with homespun issues (Walker & Dimmock, 2000, p. 227). It appears that even though our country has been talking about the importance of diversity, intercultural competence, equity and social justice, educational leaders are still struggling with the same issues. However, now, in the 21st century, the need to finally succeed at changing practice is imperative.

What, then, are some of the obstacles that educational leaders face when struggling with issues of diversity in their schools? Educators and other leaders must continue to counter the persistence of racial, religious, class, gender, language based, social, regional and ethnic discrimination in our society. (Quezada & Rommo, 2004). Leaders know that since its inception, the United States has been concerned with the problem of building a national identity among a culturally diverse population (Shujaa, 2003), and that the links between this problem and our urgent challenge facing the 21st century is apparent. Leaders also know that cultural groups, sometimes within states and at other times cutting across state boundaries, are bound together by a common history, ethnicity, and a set of religious beliefs. Common to those groups is a sense of victimhood and humiliation stemming from unacknowledged and un-reconciled historic losses that have generated a desire for revenge against their perceived oppressors (Montville, 1990). This un-reconciled history can create conflicts, violence and failure in school. Educational leaders recognize how the nature of these conflicts can escalate to mass violence in schools and in society, similar to Columbine and September 11th. Findings from a study that examined the emotional and perceptional changes of American people that had experienced 10 – 12 months after Sept. 11th terrorist attacks indicate that the traumatic events on Sept. 11th had long term effects on the mental and emotional health of US adults and brought about perceptional changes to their lives.(Seo, 2004). The increase of conflicts rooted in 21st century challenges educators to rethink the foundation of education practice for the security of future generations.

There has to be something more profound that underlines our inability to take what we know about teaching and learning to create schools that successfully educates all children. If we look at higher education, we might be able to tap into the enormous challenge that is required of educational leaders. The inability of higher education institutions to promote diversity successfully can be attributed to the observation that diversity in higher education has “become an end in itself, rather than a means to a greater education end,” and because “universities have failed to establish the fundamental link between diversity and their educational missions. (Alger, 1997). The fact that diversity, multicultural education, bilingual education, international studies, etc., has always existed as an “add on” or an “initiative” is crucial to the understanding of the failure of our initiatives. It also clues us in on the necessity for systemic change. If initiatives that focus on inter-cultural competence, collaboration amongst diverse participants, equity and justice, continue to remain on the sidelines of vision, mission and consequently policy – it is destined to fail. Global education initiatives, which can very well be the new “tag” word to encompass the change that educators need to make towards whole school reform, must reside at the very heart of the mission of the organization and of the vision of the leader.

On a more positive note, educational leaders are responding to the needs of the 21st century even though they might not have yet labeled these efforts as part of the two decade old global education movement. In response to September 11th, many educators are both aggressively and covertly bringing their concerns to the forefront on what it means to live in a democracy. In a country where the word democracy has always flown high next to the patriotic red, white and blue banner – recent events surrounding Sept. 11th and the current war on terrorism is clearly bringing to a head the paradox the word democracy creates for us. The “war on terror” that US President George W. Bush has declared is a context in which conformist thought is given sanction under the banner of patriotism. (Shujaa, 2003). In the post 9/11 era, teachers in public and private institutions from kindergarten to graduate school are subject to censure for encouraging their students to consider ideas that differ from those of the nation-state’s administration and its benefactors and supporters (Shujaa, 2003). We are facing at the present moment contradictions in our behavior as a country as it relates to the freedoms we hold so dearly. So, even though the constitution was written on the back of slavery, much of our “public” ideal about our country has been based on democratic ideals. We have always said, “freedom and justice for ALL” even though, we haven’t always reflected that in practice. Similar to our understanding of diversity – we have always said that best practice is about embracing, validating, recognizing, (etc, etc, etc) diverse peoples, cultures, sexual orientation, religions (etc., etc., etc.) – but we still have not made it a reality in our schools through action and policy. Current events continue to mirror our history.

From an international perspective, schools in the United States already go to the extreme in pressing national identity instead of knowledge of the rest of the world (Perkins-Gough, Lindfors & Ernst, 2002). The United States has a long history and reputation for not really putting their “global” aims forward. For example, the United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984. This is significant. Some scholars ascertain that capitalism (and our economy base) is at the heart of our inability (or refusal) to really set the stage for real dialogues amongst the diverse classes, culture and constituents that make up our schools. They suggest that despite appearances to the contrary, capitalism has become one of the most assimilationary cultural forces the world has every seen. And it is prospering even more under the new freedoms and open message systems that are spreading in today’s world. Paradoxically, any variation in provisions that all the many new voices of diversity are winning is quickly lost by the pressure towards assimilation that unrestrained capitalism creates. “One size fits all’ is becoming the rule rather than the exception. (Corson, 2000, p. 102)

In spite of the various reasons for why we have yet to be successful in addressing the root of our country’s “diversity problem”, educational leaders are making strides in changing the way we talk about it. Here, is where we begin to see alternative perspectives taking shape and making a difference.

Educational leaders are considering curriculums and school designs that are geared to the development of world citizens (Parker, Ninomiya, and Cogan, 1999). Now with the focus being “the 21st century,” educational leaders are free to say that we need to incorporate intercultural competence, collaboration, peaceful conflict resolution, social equity and activism, shared leadership and ongoing dialogues that foster team building and community because of our responsibility to the GLOBAL VILLAGE! Efforts to restructure schools by emphasizing school based management, devolution and increased accountability to the central bureaucracy, have become the keystones of reform in many countries. Likewise, curriculum trends in different continents have targeted outcomes-based education and social constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. These similarities are neither fortuitous nor coincidental. They are the result of many complex forces shaping the globalized world: they include the electronic and print media, jet transport, international conferences, international agencies, multinational corporations, and overseas education. (Walker and Dimmock, 2000, p.228)

Now the conversation is being had under a different premise. Schools urgently need to address these persistent issues because now we are being isolated from the rest of the world! – not just because of the achievement gap or the rise in violence in schools! We are broadening our perspective and increasing the stakes! We understand now that the causes of conflict around the world can be found at individual, nation-state, and international systemic levels. (Rossi, 2003, p.2). What we are avoiding doing at the local level is having global affects and will continue to do so.

Educational leaders are getting ready to really make some fundamental changes and some are already doing so. Ministers of education around the world are putting more focus on learning to live together and less emphasis on straight student performance. (Perkins-Gough, Lindors, & Ernst, 2002). Changes, such as cost containment, accountability to the public, globalization, integrating technology, and measuring student outcomes, require more participatory forms of leadership than have existed in the past (Rosener, 1990). To move their “vision” forward, school leaders are bringing collaborative leadership styles, a high level of conflict resolution skills, and recognition that there is a need to strengthen and model these skills in order to be an effective role model (Patti & Tobin, 2001, p. 6). One of the most important roles of educational leaders today is to improve the eyesight of educators, parents, students, and community members, so they can see the vision of their district and school (Peel, 1997). Educational leaders are beginning to talk a great deal about vision and the vision includes some very important “global” qualities.

The challenge of educating a committed global citizenry is to change the societal and university paradigm from a strategy of competitiveness to one of collaboration, from a perspective of scarcity to one of sufficiency and inclusion, and from a stance that looks for expedient solutions to one that engages and commits to a series of values and a way of life (Gabelnick, 1997). Students need skills in leadership and multicultural awareness and ongoing involvement in “real world” community projects; faculty need certain skills to promote these competencies throughout the curriculum; their institutions in turn must support faculty development, cross-departmental collaboration, special programming, and external support (Gabelnick, 1997). Assessment needs to reflect these activities at the individual level and at the school level.

Here is a promising example. After extensive discussions, the Learning and Teaching program faculty at the School of Education at the University of San Diego organized the credentialing program around six principles that are infused through courses and field experiences and which are derived from and connected to a social constructivist perspective. These are 1) Inquiry and Reflection, (2) Values, (3) Service, (4) Technology, (5) Social Justice, (6) Diversity and Inclusiveness (Quezada & Romo, 2004, p. 6).

Another positive trend is to define the school as a learning community. Learning communities are grounded on three foundations (1) a culture based on human values; (2) a set of practices for generative conversation; and (3) a capacity to see and work with the flow of life as a system (Kofman and Senge, 1993). In a study designed to examine how institutions contribute to the moral and ethical development of high school students, findings indicate that in teaching children and adolescents, it is important to emphasis the necessity of group attachments – the value of community – across the human life span and to create communities that cultivate individual attachment and responsibility to the community (McHenry, 2000). Data revealed that principal’s efforts were critical in creating conditions necessary to build a learning community…the principal has to relinquish top-down control and give the green light to teachers to move forward in their own learning-by creating and crafting new ways to achieve growth and renewal (Zepeda, 2004).

Included in these “new” visions of the 21st century education paradigm is the recognition that it is imperative that we combat ethnocentric attitudes and the behaviors that emerge from them if our students are to function harmoniously in an increasingly interdependent world. (Scott, 1998). The fundamental reason we are urgently being called to address (and succeed at transforming) how we view “diversity” is that we can learn to work together peacefully. Every educational leader’s vision needs to be to increase the capacity for collaboration, peaceful conflict resolution and the betterment of the world. Educational leadership today must foster the development and implementation of global education, social justice and peace curriculums. Recognizing this need — a multinational research team from nine nations has developed a curriculum geared to the development of world citizens (Parker, Ninomiya, and Cogan 1999). Curriculums for peace, social justice and conflict resolution are need to be put on the table for serious discussion, dialogue and hopeful integration.

Educators need to make a committment to participate in a sustained dialogue, systematic and prolonged, among small groups of representative citizens committed to ending conflict and building peace in our schools. The dialogue should be about what is on people’s minds, to identify concerns, and interests, to accept the enemy as human with feelings, pain, hopes, and interests comparable to others (Saunders, 1999). The dialogue needs to be about empowering each other to take action to adopt, validate and promote the use of socio-culturally responsible curriculums and school designs. Socio-culturally responsible teaching serves to empower students to the point where they will be able to critically examine educational content (curriculum) and process (instruction) and ask what its role is in creating a truly democratic and multicultural society (fair, just and inclusive). (Quezada & Romo, p. 4). Students must begin to examine cause-and-effect relationships, make plausible predictions about the future directions global issues will take, and be able to analyze those issues in a holistic manner. (Scott, 1998).

There is much to say about educational leadership for the 21st century, but more importantly there is much to do. What we identify as “21st century” competencies have long since been labeled a variety of other things. Unfortunately, the political, social and economic global situation here and in the rest of the world has tainted our understanding of these very dire issues of human survival. There is some evidence that suggests that slowly but surely educators are making head way through the grime and the gravel towards recognizing the undeniable interdepence each of us faces when we work with each other, both locally and globally – we have to believe that we are headed in the right direction and at a sure pace. Globalization, technology and the unequal distribution of resources here and the rest of the world are bringing much of our work to a head.

In recognition of the consistent lack of value and respect we have for people of color, people of limited economic means, people of diverse linguistic backgrounds, people of alternative sexual orientation, and other rich and varied human experiences – it is difficult to find optimism and faith that educational leaders are taking their power and responsibility seriously. In a time when people are increasingly patriotic, where fundamental (and sometimes fanatical) religious groups are taking center stage in politics and policy, when families are still being judged by the color of their skin and where people are overwhelmed with fears that fester in their homes through television and “public opinion,” it is now more than ever an urgent, urgent cry for educational leaders to stay on the path towards teaching our children to “walk in another’s shoes.” For was it Mahatma Ghandi who once said, “if we are to reach peace in the world, we have to begin with the children.” And that is exactly what educational leadership ought to be about. It is a transformational practice these days and research suggests that perhaps – and hopefully so – we are very close to our collective vision.

2 responses to “Educational Leadership for the 21 Century”

  1. Nerissa Avatar

    This documentation of what is currently happening in our educational system is so in depth and well voiced. Your representation of a true educator is definetly present and well heard. You have helped to bring truth to the issues that we as Americans face today.Your research and insite are well appreciated. This is truly a very strong document from start to finish. Well done.

  2. stan Avatar

    looks great!!


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