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Authority and School Improvement: An Essay on "Little King" Leadership

by Dale Mann - 1986

Leadership strategies that encourage voluntary compliance are compared with those that are more assertive and demanding. Specific problems and possibilities challenging those who would lead movements of institutional reform are outlined. (Source: ERIC)

This article was prepared in connection with a grant to the Center for Education and the American Economy by the Exxon Education Foundation. The content is, however, the authors sole responsibility.

Authority relations in public schooling are up for grabs. In pursuit of reform, state legislators have flexed their muscles reminding everyone of the disappearance of the federal government, the putative inadequacy of school districts, and the unpalatability of mandates from anybody. Teachers are moving fast to expand the base created by collective bargaining and augmented by the implementation studies that have been read to make teachers the sine qua non of reform. Parents are out of the game (again), nobody likes administrators, and hardly anybody respects school boards, so, like Petrograd in 1917, power is in the streets, authority is up for grabs.

However it is derived, the basis of authority in schooling is wobbly. Teachers, legislators, parents, professors, business interests, administrators, boardsnobody is able any longer to claim an unambiguous base for assertions of authority in and over schooling. This article confronts the question of the proper place of authority in the administration of educational policy and practice in public schools.

We can best understand the relations between authority and pedagogy by examining a particular case, that of school improvement. Change is necessarily a challenge to authority. Successful change requires trumping the previous orthodoxy with a new one. Change is a political process and politics ordinarily deals with rights in conflict, for example, teachers whose own family responsibilities dictate higher salaries versus a board that wants to keep taxes low for the sake of the communitys families. While everything is relative, some things are preferable to others and in education, the most preferred answers are those that help children the most.

The legitimate basis of educational authority depends on how certainly any imposed act benefits children. We cannot say for sure that all children will be unequivocally better if they have foreign language instruction or more vitamin C. We encourage but do not require those things. Learning Cantonese is optional and so is the salad bar. At the other extreme, schools go to great lengths trying to guarantee that all children can read and that no child is allowed in school without inoculations against communicable diseases.

Determining legitimacy involves deciding who will be helped how much by which alternative. Where all options are equal (including equally uncertain or equally futile), school improvement is not a problem. Change is a priority only if the current outcomes are unsatisfactory and could be improved.

Where there is a lot of dissatisfaction combined with better but unused techniques that would yield better outcomes, it is easier to understand one of the core relations of the problem of change, that is, the semi-legitimate autonomy of the individual employee in collision with the semi-legitimate imperative of the public organization. Imagine, for example, the discovery of a learning pill that would guarantee that its takers permanently remembered everything said for the next fifty minutes. That discovery would be followed by swarms of moral dilemmas: Could teachers not use it because (a) they never have? (b) they do not believe it? (c) they did not invent it? and/or (d) they disapprove of it?

The autonomy of two million teachers is a standard feature of American education.1 One consequence is that the curriculum of our schools is determined behind that many closed classroom doors. But what is the teachers responsibility in the presence of a definitive technology? Are professionals subject to a moral imperative that pedagogical art should yield to pedagogical science? (Every bad teacher hides behind the art definition of instruction.) The shadows of this clash are evident in a lesser version of the learning pill, the computer. American public schools are not particularly conversant or comfortable with the gathering revolution in electronic learning. But the elite part of most communities cares less about the teachers comfort than that someoneusually an administratorsomehow get schools into the future and vice versa. The organizations goals combine with a definitively preferable technology to overwhelm the otherwise legitimate authority of the teachers.2 And they should.

Nested within the question of school improvement are other judgments about pedagogy and values. People of good will can differ about those matters but that generally springs from how satisfied they are with the status quo and how probable improvement seems. This article makes the case for extending our repertoire of improvement techniques beyond the current set. My own judgment is that American schools have a mixed record that can and should be better. While we are adding emphasis to excellence, our equity goals have not been reached and ought not be diminished. In addition, there are better techniques of teaching and learning, but they are less used than their potential warrants.

In 1972, Harvey Averch could accurately summarize the state of the art and science of schooling with the dictum Research has not identified a variant of the existing system that is consistently related to students educational outcomes.3 The Coleman studies and their offspring came to roughly similar conclusions about schooling effects, especially with respect to compensatory education, and that opened the door for Arthur Wises work on the futility of legislated learning and David Tyacks rejection of the one best system premise.4 Both rest on an estimate of the state of the art and science of teaching. Our uncertain estimates of that state are reflected in the curious amalgam of conviction and indifference that is the public schools current authority base. We support 85,000 public school buildings and compel childrens attendance; we mandate that some topics be presented. Beyond that, authority relations in schools suddenly become loosely coupledin large part because the outcomes of current technology for students will not justify more assertive leadership practice. But to the extent that schools may increasingly be able reliably to cause particular children to learn particular things, then what are the consequences of that more powerful pedagogy for authority relations in the school?5

If the moral basis of education authority is the ability to help children, then measuring that ability is a necessary part of determining how much power should be granted to whom. Ideally, the amount contributed to children by each of the actorsso much for teachers, assistant principals, counselors, superintendentsalso ought to be established. That determination, while important, is beyond the scope of this article. But any informed person can answer these questions: Is Averch still correct? Are schools still impotent? Has nothing changed? Is the stock of reliable knowledge about, for example, effective teaching so static and puny that we are no more able to help particular children learn particular things than we were at the end of the 1960s? Is instruction all and only still an art, unknowable and unprescribable except in the idiosyncratic and literally unique interaction, each moment, between each child and each teacher? Denying growth in the science of teaching has some short-term uses in deflecting mandates but hardly contributes to the long-term cause of the teacher-as-professional.

Reassessing the moral basis of education authority does not require that Averch, Wise, and Tyack be wrong but only that, as the stock of knowledge about teaching and learning increases, we reestimate all of its consequences. My own assessment of the gains from mastery learning, effective teaching, effective schools, and programmatic research and development (R and D) suggests the necessity of such a reexamination. The growth of valid and reliable data about how teaching and learning should proceed is evident in the federal Department of Educations publication of What Works, a compendium of research-based better schooling precepts that departs from the federal governments historic reluctance to endorse any particular practice.6

It is important to understand where we have been in the recent past in school improvement. Until the 1960s, federal programs were designed more to support American education than to change it. Improvement as an implicit goal became explicit with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. That act devoted two of its five titles to innovation. Title IV greatly accelerated R and D by creating the federal laboratories, which are now twenty-one years old. Title III provided direct federal sponsorship for local innovation. A variety of motives reinforced federal activism: a concern that civil rights were not being served adequately, a conviction that schooling could be used as a tool for a more just society, and a belief that better practices existed but were not being used. A final element, mistrust of or disappointment with local officials, resulted in a decade-long attempt by the federal government to cause improvement in local schools.

The result was far more modest than anyone (at the federal level) would have hoped. The multi-year Rand Corporation critique of the Change Agent programs documented conclusively how the federally driven system had been outgunned by the social-political culture of 85,000 school buildings.7 Teachers did not agree that they needed improvement; those who took part were already the best. The net improvement was slight and peripheral, and the compromises necessary for outside improvement activities to enter the schools gutted the projects.

Since teachers had blocked a federally imposed system, the next generation of reform efforts attempted to capitalize on their involvement. User-driven systems have important contributions and important limits. The main feature of user-driven activities is that they rely on volunteers; they maximize the initiative, dedication, and commitment of the teachers who already have those qualities. Examples of such voluntary systems are plentifulteacher centers, mini-grant programs, development networks, proposal competitions, credits for graduate coursework, and so forth. Such devices work well with the best teachers but that group is also the least needy. There are 2 million teachers in America and, as Walter Garms of the University of Rochester has observed, with 2 million of anything, you are going to have a whole lot of average. The policy problem of public schools comes not so much from the best but from the mediocre and worst faculty members and volunteer strategies leave them untouched. Second, voluntary efforts target individuals but schooling outcomes are determined organizationally, as children are passed up grades and among specialties. Benefiting children requires more than effective teachers; it requires effective schools. Improvement techniques for individuals are different from those for organizations. Third, volunteer systems improve whatever their participants think needs improving. Where seventeen teachers choose to work on macrame and nine on basic skills instruction, we can only hope that distribution corresponds to what children need. Should public policy outcomes be solely determined by that which is acceptable to some or even all professionals? Should we vote on school improvement? If you want to test that question, go into a faculty meeting some afternoon and ask those teachers who want to work harder please to raise their hands. If the lesson of the 1960s was that we could not drive the system from the top down, the lesson of the 1970s should be that neither can it be led exclusively from the bottom up. In sum, the greatest strength of voluntary, user-driven systemsteacher self-determinationalso describes its limits. Voluntary, soft strategies are helpful but not sufficient. We ought to add hard strategiesand that takes us back into the world of power and authority.


What would be the biggest challenge to the improvement of public schooling? Presumably, that impossible mission would have some or all of the following characteristics. It would deal with (1) all teachers, especially those most in need of improvement; (2) the school building, including all specializations and all grade levels; and (3) the core of teaching, the central functions of classroom instruction. Having come this far, we might as well add that the improvements should be (4) substantial, observable, demonstrable, and (5) permanent.

The easy rhetoric of proposal writing, and sometimes of leadership, frequently announces the kind of wholesale reform outlined above. Just as frequently, improvement projects that are begun with those ambitions end very differently. Much of the confusion around innovation arises from having treated all reform, all innovation, all change, as basically similar. The taxonomy I propose separates soft and hard strategies along four dimensions: goals, teachers, administrators, and the intervention itself.


At first glance, the kind of radical change I am discussing seems unlikely and risky. Not many people who set goals take many chances. Curiously, boards and administrators exhort teachers to have high expectations for students performance but when it comes to teachers performance, it is important to be realistic, prudent, accommodating, and otherwise not to expect much more than what is already presented. Most people make decisions according to what theorists call probability maximizing. They aspire for what they can reach. The soft strategies offer a certain chance to reach a small number of good-to-excellent teachers. The hard strategies seem to offer a lower probability of affecting a larger number of teachers. Where the greater net outcome lies is not readily apparent, unless, as I think is the case, we have given up on the most needy teachers.

In addition to the matter of estimating probability and range, there is the question of how much to try for. The soft mode leaves the answer to teachers. The alternative is for someone else to establish aspirations that include growth, development, and change, not simply the recognition of already established excellence. The education enterprise is defined by its aspirations to change its clients. It is ironic that that aspiration no longer extends to those who do the work of education. Every commentator who decries the quality of beginning teachers and concludes that the answer is to recruit better candidates has given up on the possibility of education (here, of adults).

Change can relate to knowledge, to attitudes, and/or to behavior. The three are connected on a hierarchy such that it is one thing to understand that smoking is bad (knowledge), it is a second thing to dislike smoking (attitude), and it is a third thing to quit (behavior). Most behavior-changing programs work on those targets sequentially, but it is also the case that some people dislike smoking without knowing why and still continue, others know it is bad but like it and do it, and so on. Changing attitudes increases the likelihood that behavior will change, but it does not guarantee it. Depending on the other contingencies, attitude change is neither necessary nor sufficient. It is clearly preferable to staff schools with adults who like children and are fervent about their potential. But not everyone on the public payroll meets those standards. Regardless of how they feel, it is their behavior that counts. As one New York superintendent put it, Ive tried every human relations technique in the book, and I know that I still have some principals who are racist. All right, but not weekdays between 8:30 and 3:30. The hard mode is aimed at changing behavior.

Moreover, that behavior will be at or near the core of the schools purposes. Some school practices are temporary, rarely used, and peripheral. Other things are far more important, like how lessons are begun and ended, how the needs of children are diagnosed, and how material is presented. Those instructional techniques permeate the teachers work with children, but are less likely to be proposed by teachers as the focus of their development.

Adding together these components of behavior change at the teaching core makes the point that the hard methods aspire to more than incremental changes. These goals might be described as radical but the label is accurate only in measuring the distance between the goals of the soft and hard modes. The ultimate goal is conserving the premise of the public schoolquality education for all. Change is not radical if it yields more of what public schools are about. Radical changes are things like tuition tax credits and private school vouchers that jeopardize the possibility of a democratic school system.

The macro changes characteristic of the hard mode are also permanent. It is not enough to buy a particular kind of teaching if that disappears when the money runs out or the supervisor moves on. U.S. foreign aid was once delivered as technical assistance, that is, building power plants for people who we thought should want them. But in the absence of training people to utilize, repair, and replicate those things, their contribution is limited to the lifetime of the weakest part in the machinery. Capacity building, on the other hand, is an attempt to give people the continuing skills to solve whatever problems are presented. Permanent change in the capacity of a schools faculty is a major undertaking.


The first thing to be understood here is the difference between teachers who volunteer and those who do not. Every principal knows which teachers will raise their hands when extra work needs to be done or when the school can send two people to a Saturday workshop. Principals also know that the teachers who should go will not, at least not voluntarily.

Most of the social-psychological literature of behavior change argues that the individuals choice is a precursor to individual change, and that the amount of change is directly related to the amount of participation. But the least participation comes from those teachers who most need what they will never choose. The real problem lies in the mismatch between the goals of some teachers and the goals of some parts of the system. Where teachers do not agree that they need to do a better job, then what? Yogi Berra said, If the people dont want to come out to the park, nobodys going to stop them. That is all right for baseball. But what if the teachers do not like and never use the computers that were bought for the childrens classrooms? What if schools persist in being realistic about (low) expectations for black students? In the absence of cooperation and where reasonable persuasion does not avail, the exercise of leadership may end with the assertion of power, that is, the leader requiring the follower to do what the follower would not otherwise have done. The first resort in instances of disagreement between individual and public goals is to try to change the individuals goals by persuasion or influence. But as teacher organizations have become more powerful, teachers have gained the ability to change the systems goals to coincide with their own. Empowering teachers (still more) is the new hot button for education policy and it will shift the balance of power even more deeply into classrooms. The collision between the control by professionals and control by the public becomes more imminent as pedagogy becomes more definitive. Where persuasion fails and the individual persists in disagreement, the choice about who is more right should be made.

But in the soft mode, there is no question and no choice. Where persuasion ends, the leader walks away and the teacher goes on doing what he or she had been doing. In contrast to this policy by default, public goals trump private goals. This is quite different from adding up all the things teachers are willing to do and anointing that as policy. Although common, it is also reminiscent of St. Exuperys Little King on Asteroid 324 who was always careful to order his subjects to do only those things they were already doing. Because he was a very good man, he made his orders reasonable.8

Where persuasion fails, there are in fact a number of options, all of them hard. If individual goals remain at odds with system goals, one can either change individuals or change behavior. Australians call the former the Golden Handshake; incompatibility is resolved by finding someone who fits better. The latter option keeps the dissenting individual, and that person keeps his or her values, but acts differently. One result is someone in the potentially unhappy circumstance of doing what he or she does not believe in. But one ought not to jump to the conclusion that that is bad policy. Whether it is or not depends on how satisfactory prior performance was. At least some people will have moved from contentedly poor performance to unhappiness about their more effective work. The tension between unsynchronized beliefs and attitudes may lead to a change in beliefs, or to a vacancy.

There is an intermediate case between consonance of goals and beliefs and dissonance between the two. Some people will not change their minds but will nonetheless change their behavior. Some will do this because it is easier, some from a need to conform, some from curiosity, some out of a sense of organizational citizenship. Little King leadership that never asks anything of anyone perpetuates the infantilization of teachers. Some administrators overestimate the amount of resistance from teachers. A quick review of the evidence about teachers support for school reforms will indicate that those administrators are selling their faculties short.9

In the hard mode, the basic reconciliation between conflicting individual and organizational goals is consent. In the soft mode, change waits on consensus, that is, on the willing participation of virtually the entire membership. But in complex organizations with diverse individuals whose roles and personalities differ legitimately, to wait for consensus is to wait forever. Moreover, since the expectation of consensus requires holdouts literally to change their minds, it may be an immoral intrusion on the dissenting individuals. American politics rests on an alternative. In consent, we temporarily suspend our disagreement and acquiesce in order that the polity can move on. The hard mode uses consent as an expectation of organizational citizenship and as a point of departure.

When dissatisfaction with public policy outcomes is coupled with better but unused techniques, there are options to the staus quo. Tammany Halls Boss Plunkett once contrasted the dangerous game of politics with a childrens game: Politics is not beanbag he said, and neither is leading teachers at the level contemplated here. The tactics have to be designed with some resistance as an ordinary expectation, even as a point of beginning (not as an ending, as in the soft mode).

Where we aspire to bring growth and development to all teachers, there will be resistance. Teacher organizations have usually defended themselves from what others would have them do by invoking professionalism. But it is possible to argue that the involuntary, constrained behavior of the hard mode can be more professional than the hyper-autonomy of the soft mode if there are objectively preferable practices going unused. For example, ophthalmologists may be bored by the similarity of cataract operations but they suppress their urge to creativity and instead follow the same monotonous routine with great precision and no loss to their professionalism. They do that because it works, not because they like it. When the facts of science change, even to the embarrassment of those who discovered the now deficient ones, scientists feel themselves obligated to change their beliefs and their actions. Progress is often marked by restricting behavior, even for, perhaps especially for, professionals. It is not an accident that a body of scientific knowledge is called a discipline. Thus, it is not at all clear that the hard modes emphasis on grounding change in demonstrably preferred outcomes is less professional than the soft mode, which leaves the body of effective practice about teaching and learning to the determination of each classroom teacher isolated in solo practice.

Finally, the hard strategies approach teachers as faculties, as citizens in an organization. Current theories of school improvement stress the building level. Participation in the work group does condition productivity and childrens schooling outcomes are influenced by their experience in the school as a whole. For both reasons, it is important to engage teachers in their primary organizations. It is also important to affect enough teachers so that they can sustain each other and so that the innovation can be stabilized. Thus, the imperatives of organizational change are added to those of individual change.


The soft modes are determined by teachers, and that takes a load off administrators. The hard mode puts it back on. Administrators must ask themselves how satisfied they are with the current outcomes and whether they think improvement is possible. Then they will need to ask themselves what they, personally and professionally, believe about how teaching and learning should proceed. Hard strategies may entail conflict and risk. If, for example, a principal sets high standards for all teachers with all children, that practice departs from the current, probably modal, practice in which the principal protects the teachers from unreasonable demands. Knowing what is reasonable depends on what is possible. If the faculty is to believe in the possibility of its work, the schools leaders must first understand the issues and their potential. Schools have been rightly criticized for being adult-centered, not child-centered. The politics of education has been too much about adults working conditions and not enough about childrens learning conditions. Principals in this mode may need to risk, at least temporarily, the comity of the organization as it moves from less to more effectiveness.

The contrast with the current practices could not be more clear. Where teacher improvement rests solely on the initiatives of volunteers, the principal can shrug his or her shoulders at what others decide. If exhortations lead to not very much, at least that was the decision of the professional cadre of teachers. The hard mode is likely to be uncomfortably anxious for everyone, especially its leaders. Some of these features may be mitigated by the tactical requirements of the hard mode. The hard mode does not mean working only through confrontation, although some conflict may be necessary; that fact is one of this modes distinguishing features.10 A complete repertoire may require that goals be kept in pectore. Leaders frequently come to a reluctant estimate of the sorry condition of their organizations and still maintain public postures that are relentlessly cheerful and optimistic. There can be a necessary hypocrisy to leadership. What is important is that rhetoric not be confused with reality and that action be based on the latter.

Given the other characteristics of leadership, it follows that the impetus and sustaining force for change cannot come solely from outside the school organization. In the 1960s it was argued that schools would change only from exogenous shock. But to their credit, schools have changed spontaneously. Exogenous (even federal) forces turned out to be insufficient, and the maxim was in any case an insult to the commitment and ability of people on the inside. Change in the hard mode rests on better knowledge and better techniques, but it also rests on the presence of more authority and more legitimacy than foundations, citizens committees, universities, or other third parties can muster. It is a challenge for duly authorized leaders and followers.


Interventions within this strategy will also have some distinguishing features. They are more likely to be high tech than high touch; they will emphasize product over process. Every innovation has two parts, the technology or artifact, and the process of using it. In general, we know more about how to introduce changes in schools than we do about the things that should be introduced. The process dimensions of gaining access, diagnosing needs, and building trust must culminate in teachers actually changing their classroom instruction. Too often, school improvement projects have stopped at the point where teachers begin to believe in the prospect of improvement, rather than closing the circle by putting specific changes before them for adoption. The last step is the product step.

The hard mode also has some additional processes. The most apparent one is required, not simply voluntary, participation. The Federal Aviation Agency does not invite volunteers who may be willing to be updated on instrument landing procedures for wide-bodied aircraft at Lindbergh Field to stop by on their own time, for wine, cheese, and training. The technology works and there is too much at stake for its adoption to be optional. The hard parts of the process here are required participation (read force) and the probable, if eventual, necessity that the change be initiated or induced, not simply reinforced or continued.

Birds with one wing fly in circles. Educational improvement now rests too much on soft strategies and too little on a complete repertoire of leadership. Harold Hodgkinson quotes John Dillingers observation that it is possible to get so much more done with a kind word and a gun than it is with a kind word alone. I am not arguing for scorched earth in the schoolroom but rather for a balance between soft techniques and hard ones. User-driven systems have solved the problem of soft change but the problem of school improvement remains. The situation requires, and the technology will support, augmenting soft strategies with more assertive approaches. Leading schools takes both strokes and pokes. Adding, balancing, alternating the two, will enhance the outcomes of public schooling.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 1, 1986, p. 41-52
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 578, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:00:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Dale Mann
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    Dale Mann entered the labor workforce at fourteen and later worked his way through the University of California at Berkeley as a construction worker and a bartender. During the Johnson Administrator he worked for the U.S. Office of Education and the (former) Bureau of the Budget. A fellow in Human Resources Development at the Community Service Society, Mr. Mann is also professor of and chairman of the department of educational administration at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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