Guide to College Majors in Educational Leadership

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other
--John F. Kennedy

What is Educational Leadership?

All high-level educational administrators need educational leadership skills to deal with increasingly complex school environments and changing job demands. In an environment where parents demand stronger accountability from teachers and higher levels of achievement on student standardized tests, educational leaders must walk a fine line between the social responsibility to their pupils and the fiscal responsibility to their bottom lines.

In a recent British study of effective school principals, respondents agreed that successful educational leaders were:

  • values-led
  • people-centered
  • achievement-oriented
  • both inward and outward facing
  • able to manage ongoing tensions and dilemmas

A team of researchers at the University of Washington studied leadership in 21 different schools. They distilled school leadership into seven common functions that no school can afford to neglect:

  • instructional leadership,
  • cultural leadership,
  • managerial leadership,
  • human resource leadership,
  • strategic leadership,
  • external development leadership, and
  • micropolitical leadership.

Educational leadership careers can involve all kinds of learning environments, from pre-kindergarten to adult extension programs, and from public schools to private institutions. Success in educational leadership requires a detailed understanding of the educational process, empathy with instructors and their challenges, and insight into the needs of students. A good educational leadership degree program fosters leadership skills in the seven functions noted above.

Successful educational leaders understand their environment. They know how to create a vision and implement programs that move toward that vision. Having been teachers themselves, they recognize the challenges that teachers face in an increasingly diverse and complex society.

Trends for Educational Leadership Careers

Across the nation, school systems and private institutions require enthusiastic educational leaders with training at the post-graduate level. Like the teacher shortage that experts predict for the next decade, the retirement of experienced educational leaders will create a vacuum that must be filled quickly. Growing numbers of school-aged children whose parents demand small class sizes only magnify the problems facing the education sector. The current demand for educational leaders reflects the needs of an increasingly diverse and complex society.

Most public school systems require their principals, assistant principals, and school administrators to hold at least a master's degree in educational leadership. Many principals and central office administrators hold doctorates in educational leadership. Because of the diversity of duties and levels of responsibility, the backgrounds and experiences of educational leaders vary considerably. But principals, assistant principals, central office administrators, academic deans, and preschool directors usually hold teaching positions at some point in their careers before moving into administration.

Many educational leaders begin their careers in related occupations and prepare for a job in education administration by completing a master's or doctorate degree. Online degree programs in educational leadership allow busy teachers to attend courses on flexible schedules, so they can earn their advanced degrees without sacrificing valuable income.

Some teachers move directly into principal positions, while others first become assistant principals. Many educational leaders gain valuable experience in other central office administrative jobs, at either the school or district level. They serve as department heads, curriculum specialists, or subject matter advisors. In some cases, administrators move up from related staff positions such as recruiter, guidance counselor, librarian, residence hall director, or financial aid or admissions counselor.

Educational Leadership Degree Programs

Nearly all educational leadership degree programs exist at the master's level and higher, attracting educational professionals who already hold at least a bachelor's degree. Quality degree programs emphasize the core knowledge and skill sets required to lead an educational institution. Some educational leadership degree programs focus on learning policy areas, while others require field-based experiences and internships.

Teacher Certification Programs

Most educational administrators working in a government-managed school system require certification from the state in which they work. To support this requirement, many online colleges and universities offer teacher certification programs to cover licensure regulations and to augment students' degree levels.

Many successful professionals who shift their careers into education can augment their existing graduate degrees with licensure programs. Some compressed programs allow new leaders to complete the necessary requirements over the course of a few months. Meanwhile, many states permit new leaders to begin their new jobs under provisional licenses. Online teacher licensure programs have become particularly popular among students in these circumstances, allowing them to transition between careers without a loss of income.

Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Educational Leadership

Many accredted on-campus and online colleges and universities offer Master of Education degrees in Educational Leadership or Instructional Leadership. In any state education system, and in most private venues, this is the first step to pursuing a career in administration and management.

Master's programs prepare professionals for mid-level administrative positions in schools, school districts, and educational agencies. Students must develop professional and theoretical knowledge and demonstrate skills in applied research and the practice of leadership. Master's degree programs emphasize strong academic training and the development of individual candidates as aspiring leaders. Educational leadership majors must cope with the challenges of making snap decisions in the constantly changing education landscape.

What Can You Do With a Major in Educational Leadership?

Educational leadership degree programs prepare you to serve in leadership roles in primary and secondary schools, community colleges, universities, technical schools, governmental and adult schools. Some educational leaders put their skills to use in the business world, developing training programs for Fortune 500 companies. Educational leadership graduates can fill any number of highly rewarding positions, such as:

Principal. Regardless of your feelings about principals (perhaps derived from your first "trip to the office" or repeated viewings of "The Breakfast Club"), principals do much more than lay down the law for misbehaving students.

In fact, principals spend the majority of their time working with their staffs, including teachers and support workers. They visit classrooms, review their school's educational objectives, and evaluate learning materials. Much of the time, they coach their teachers and implement professional development programs designed to retain quality staff members in a very competitive job market. Principals also serve as the outward face of a school, working with politicians, school board administrators, and funding sources to assure the very best opportunities for their students. They create and monitor budgets and report out to concerned parties about their school's overall efficiency and effectiveness.

Public or private school administrator. Whether they lead departments under the guidance of a principal or they direct an independent learning facility, education administrators enforce standards at their places of employment. Many administrators set the policies and procedures for their department or their facility, and they work with their direct reports to assure the effectiveness of their ideas.

Administrators often oversee line managers, support personnel, librarians, counselors, teachers, coaches, and other specialists who keep a school running. Many administrators handle back-office affairs as well. Educational leadership majors who add courses in accounting or finance can find ample job opportunities as record keepers and budget coordinators.

In smaller facilities, especially day care centers, an administrator may handle a multitude of tasks, even dealing directly with parents. Meanwhile, in larger institutions or school districts, administrators often oversee a focused department or program. Many administrators share their knowledge by serving on advisory groups and non-profit boards of directors.

District-level administrator. Working from central school district offices, another group of administrators coordinates system-wide efforts to provide quality education. Many district level administrators concentrate on specific programs, making sure that principals and teachers stay up-to-date with changes in curricula. Many specialists who used to teach areas like special education, mathematics, and vocational education can segue into roles as administrators and coordinators after earning a graduate degree.

Other district-level administrators work with national and regional grant programs and other funding providers to synchronize school district policies and procedures with national standards. These specialists often play an important role in evaluating other school systems as part of reciprocal accreditation programs.

College admissions director. Although some parents may view them as little more than talent scouts, college admissions directors use their educational leadership skills to perform a careful juggling act. They constantly attempt to balance the needs of prospective students with the financial goals of their institution in a way that honors their academic standards.

College admissions directors must evaluate each year's crop of candidates before issuing acceptance letters to lucky students. They must issue more invitations than the school can possibly hold, since many students will accept other offers. If the admissions director guesses wrong, their school could end up awash with underserved first-year students. Or if they accept too few, they could face four years of empty halls and tuition pressure for the remaining degree seekers.

College admissions directors maintain strong relationships with faculty heads and other college administrators, in order to accurately answer student questions about school offerings and campus life. Many college admissions directors travel frequently so they can recruit new students in person.

College department chair. Every college and university president relies on a network of deans and chairpersons to maintain a set of high educational standards. A department chairperson, in addition to maintaining his own teaching schedule, must coordinate the efforts of the faculty and staff in their specialties.

Department chairs synchronize course schedules and class offerings with campus resource administrators and room schedulers. They handle the same kinds of personnel chores as an office manager, such as scheduling staff vacations and administering performance evaluations. They also lead search committees whenever a new tenure track position opens up in their department. Since many schools hire professors for life, a strong chairperson can influence a college or university for decades after her departure.

Many department chairs start off as tenured faculty members who take advantage of their college's professional development program to gain administrative skill through classes and hands-on experience. Most college deans appoint chairpersons based on their track record with publishing important research, as well as their interpersonal skills and their commitment to the mission of the institution.

Business and industry professional educator. American businesses love to invest in professional development. For enterprising educational leadership graduates, this market for corporate knowledge can convert into a lucrative career as a business educator.

Corporate trainers work directly with front line staff members in banks, at call centers, on the floors of department stores, and just about anywhere else where businesses directly connect with their customers. In today's demanding economy, a single slip-up by an employee can cost a company many thousands of dollars in lifetime value. Corporate trainers use the best practices from the academic world to help staffers improve their skills and provide value to consumers.

Higher up the corporate ladder, executive coaches work with top decision makers to groom them for business success. Whether self-employed or working directly for a company, professional coaches combine personal development meetings with group learning opportunities like classes and workshops.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

Like teachers, most school administrators must earn a license before they can start a career as a principal or educational leader. Although a handful of states do not yet require licenses, most states follow the national guidelines set by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium. Many states use these national standards as guidelines to assess beginning principals for licensure.

As with teachers, state school boards and other employers require administrators to receive on-the-job training. Some states require administrators to keep their licenses current by participating in regular continuing education courses. Many regions also require school administrators to participate in accreditation programs for their institutions. During the accreditation process, administrators will travel to other schools to evaluate their peers. They receive a similar site visit of their own, which allows them to identify areas of opportunity.

Most educational leaders must prove themselves in a teaching or a training role before an employer will consider them for a position as an administrator. Experienced leaders enjoy watching new leaders develop within their organizations. Cultivating home-grown talent often provides institutions the chance to promote a supremely qualified candidate while sparing the expense of recruiting from outside the organization.

The PRAXIS Exam

Most educational leadership majors who want to transition from a teaching career into an administration position will probably already have passed the Praxis Exam. Most states have integrated the Praxis teacher certification examination into their teacher licensing program.

Business professionals who want to leap into an academic career as an administrator will almost certainly have to take the Praxis exam at some point in order to qualify for open positions. The exam not only helps them experience what many of their staff members must go through, it also provides a new administrator with another baseline reference with which to evaluate their team.

Special Considerations for Child Care Administrators
Because of the special demands of running a child care facility, many states now require child care administrators to earn a credential like the Child Development Associate designation, sponsored by the Council for Professional Recognition. The CDA assessment process evaluates administrators on their effectiveness in meeting six very important goals:

  • Establishing and maintaining a healthy environment.
  • Advancing physical and intellectual competence.
  • Supporting emotional and physical development while providing positive guidance.
  • Establishing positive and productive relationships with families.
  • Ensuring a well-run program, responsive to participant needs.
  • Maintaining a commitment to professionalism.

In addition to the guidelines set for the CDA designation, the National Child Care Association also offers a National Administration Credential. Recent college graduates may voluntarily obtain this credential, which can qualify job seekers for positions at larger child care centers or in nationwide day care corporations.

Certification for Business Educators

Although corporate trainers do not require state or federal licenses, many trainers and coaches have bound together to provide voluntary certification to expert members. Many businesses respond more favorably to hiring solo practitioners when they can show they adhere to industry standards of ethics and education requirements.

Coaching and business education groups like the International Coach Federation can validate a business educator's formal training, along with the amount of on-the-job experience they have gained over the course of their career. As with other educational leaders, coaches and trainers must keep their certifications current by participating in ongoing professional development activities, like continuing education courses or association conferences.

Other Associations and Certification Bodies

  • Council of Chief State School Officers
  • Interstate Consortium on School Leadership
  • National Policy Board for Educational Administration
  • National Association of Secondary School Principals
  • American Society for Training & Development
  • Society for Human Resource Development

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