Fullan, Michael. (2003). The Moral Imperative of School Leadership. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press

88 pps.
$24.95 (Paper)   ISBN 0-7619-3873-7

Reviewed by Anthony H. Normore
Florida International University

May 19, 2004

Although the value and impact of the educational reform movement over the past two decades may be cause for debate, many school practitioners and researchers have asserted that one fact remains clear: the role of the school administrator has increased in complexity. The ground rules have changed dramatically. Across North America there is mass exodus of persons from leadership positions due to early and planned retirements, public scrutiny, changing expectations, and increasing demands in the role leaving a shortage of individuals qualified or interested to occupy these vacancies. It is predicted that this rate will accelerate over the next few years. To end the exodus from the principalship, and for great school leaders to evolve in large numbers, it becomes crucial to redefine the position of the school leader. In order to meet the challenge of this leadership crisis, leaders from all levels in school districts will need to focus on systemic change to enhance change capacity and sustainability. The time has come to change the context of school in an effort to make the position more rewarding and exciting. The role of the principal is pivotal to systemic school change and student achievement. This is the fundamental message in Michael Fullan's new book, The Moral Imperative of School Leadership.

Fullan shows how moral leadership can reinvent the principalship and bring about large-scale school improvement by challenging all who work in education to rethink the critical role of the principal as school leader in the current era of accountability. With clarity and insight, he offers a series of strategies to reshape the culture and context of leadership in schools to create learning communities where both students and teachers can excel and where no teacher, no administrator, nor any child is left behind. Fullan shifts the principal’s role from one of a site-based superpower, and recasts it as one in which principals figure prominently both within their school and within the larger school system that surrounds them. The author examines the moral purpose of school leadership and its critical role in "changing the context" in which the role is embedded. The challenge, and moral imperative, for today's principal is to lead system transformations to resolve the top-down/bottom-up dilemma that exists in systemic change.

The format of the book is practitioner-friendly. It is clear and easy to follow and provides an excellent source of new knowledge for all stakeholders in education. Essentially, the book provides strategies for reshaping culture and leadership in schools by “creating conditions for transforming the principalship into a powerful force for reform” (p. xv). Each chapter consists of a comprehensive discussion about school leadership in public education, with the head of the school as the focal point. Public education has always been morally considered the “common good…that everybody has a stake in the caliber of schools, and education is everyone’s business…quality of public education system relates directly to the quality of life that people enjoy, with a strong public education system as the cornerstone of a civil, prosperous, and democratic society” (p. 3). With this in mind, public schools in diverse multicultural societies must include citizenship and character education supported by leaders who believe in changing context and changing behaviors. Fullan demonstrates that the principal with a moral imperative can help realize it only by developing “combined forces of shared leadership” in others to make a difference in the system (p. xv).

There are five chapters in total. Chapter one sets the stage for the discussion by showing why changing the context is critical for school leadership. Focus is on conditions that surround school leaders including school culture, how schools are interconnected, the role of school district-and how changing the immediate context can result in changed behaviors in the short run and beyond. The author reiterates that reform strategies as they currently exist have little hope of sustainable effects if they are to remain disconnected from changing the culture and working conditions of schools. As Fullen asserts “what students should know and be able to do and what teachers and administrators should know and be able to do…are important, but in themselves they will not change situations and systems” (p. 3). He further explains “you can have the goal of having credentialed teachers in every classroom, but the effect will be blunted…if you do not focus on the working conditions, good teachers will not stay long-or come in the first place” (p. 3) Additionally, a two-layered perspective on the role of leadership is presented. The first layer reveals that the principal’s role is to help create and sustain disciplined inquiry and action on part of teachers, while the second layer concerns what needs to be done to help create and sustain the number of school principals who actually do this. Fullan emphasizes that by changing the immediate context, school leaders can help develop and mould other leaders at many levels who can carry on and perhaps do even better than they did. These leaders are more like “chief operating officers than managers”. (p. 11)

Chapter two identifies some barriers and obstacles to the current principalship. An interesting comment made by Fullan is “leadership is to the current decade what standards were to the 1990’s for those interested in large-scale reform…standards, even when well-implemented, can take us only part of the way to successful large-scale reform…only leadership that can take us all the way” (p. 16). Some of the barriers presented by the author range from self–imposed barriers that include: loss of moral compass, ‘if-only’ dependency, inability to take charge of one’s own learning, and responsibility virus, to system-imposed barriers that include: role overload and role ambiguity, limited investment in leadership development, neglect of leadership succession, centralization/decentralization, and absence of a system change strategy. In essence, when so many demands are placed on the school administrator, it is not just the amount of work this is problematic, but also the inconsistent and ambiguous messages that often accompany these demands (i.e., “do more with less” syndrome). Fullan identifies strategies that require going deeper in transforming schools such as fostering and supporting leadership opportunities for all teachers and using capacity to build capacity. Understanding and implementing these strategies in team formats are considered a pivotal role of the principal since school leadership is a “team sport” (p. 26).

Chapter three focuses on new directions for sophisticated leadership at the school level with emphasis on the moral imperative. Fullan introduces four levels of moral purpose: individual, school, district, and society. However, the chapter focuses on the first two levels: the individual school and the community. The author clearly indicates that it’s impossible to have moral purpose on a large-scale unless the role of the principal is recast as chief operating officer in transforming schools and school systems. Moral purpose of the highest order is having a system where “all students learn, the gap between high and know performance becomes greatly reduced, and what people learn enable them to be successful citizens and workers in a morally based knowledge society” (p. 29). The use of case study vignettes to illustrate the principal’s role at different degrees of depth with respect to school change is highlighted throughout this chapter. Furthermore, Fullan capitalizes on the importance of effective school leaders continually selecting the right people and then developing and supporting them to reinforce school values. As in any organization, leading schools requires principals with courage and capacity to build new cultures based on trusting relationships and a culture of disciplined inquiry and action

Chapter four explores what it means to make a difference beyond the school. The author claims “the moral imperative will never amount to much unless school leaders also take it on the road…sticking to one’s neck of the woods guarantees that the moral imperative will never exist in more than a very small percentage of schools” (p.47). The overarching argument in this chapter is that schools cannot develop and grow if individuals within that school do not have common values and goals, nor can districts be effective if school leaders do not identify with and participate in district-wide developments. System leaders are crucial for system improvement and are more akin to chief operating officer of the Public School System. Of interest to the author of this article is the reference made by Fullan to the No child Left Behind Act. He states how important is for schools to work together and to be concerned about the success of each other’s schools and the district overall. The No Child Left Behind Act states that “parents of children who are attending poorly performing schools that are not improving can send their children to other, better-performing schools where practical…while the intention of the policy may be honorable, it has no chance of changing the system and hardly any chance of working for more than a handful of individuals” (p. 48). What Fullan continues to argue for is a strategy designed to change the context whereby the goal is to mobilize leadership at all levels to transform the system as a whole. He links this process to what is currently happening in Bristol, England where leaders of challenged schools are working with leaders of more successful schools to improve all schools and the district as a whole. Identifying with and being concerned about the state of moral purpose in the bigger picture is what Fullan calls “great leadership” (pg 50). Consequently, schools must learn from each other if they are to have any hope of large-scale reform and to transcend the “little neck of the woods to the whole forest” (p. 60)

Finally, Chapter five addresses how the principal might engage in the new evolution of school leadership by pursuing the complex processes of “traveling the pathway of creating new roles for principals—one set focusing on what individuals can and should do; the other focusing on what changes are needed at the system level” (p. xv)—in other words, how school leaders get there. Fullan concentrates on new directions and new contexts that require the individual and system action on an independent, as well as on a collective basis. At the level of the individual, the author identifies two implications for school leaders. The first is to take action consistent with the moral journey; the second is to push for and be responsible to system opportunities to deepen and extend moral purpose. Ironically, in many systems, teachers and administrators have maintained their moral commitment despite the system. The author indicates that it’s time for the system “to reward and enhance those already working from moral premises and create the conditions under which all leaders will be expected and enabled to lead in powerful new ways” (p. 71). A fundamental issue raised in this chapter is understanding what there is about a larger system that produces so little of what is needed. Indeed the system is not conducive to attracting, supporting, and developing the leadership that is needed for moral purposes to thrive. As Fullan explains, system transformation, “of the kind we are talking about, will take at least 10 years” (p. 73). He outlines some fundamental policy and structural strategies that will most likely enable movement substantially in this new direction. These strategies include: reconceptualizing the role of school leadership, getting school size right, investing in leaders developing leaders, improving the teaching profession, improving the capacity of the infrastructure, and recognizing and working with the continuum of development (p. 73).

In reading this book it is necessary to bear in mind that school administration and educational leadership, like other fields, are expanding so rapidly that it becomes difficult to keep up. This book, The Moral Imperative of School Leadership, is very timely and well written for many different audiences. The book is a highly valuable and insightful volume, presented with rigor and thought. It is especially valuable for aspiring and practicing school administrators, school district office personnel, and other leaders, including policy makers, who are in a position to change the system. Teachers and parents can benefit from reading this book as well. It is not uncommon for parents and teachers to question the leadership practices of school and district office administrators. This book could serve as their guide for understanding their own leadership roles in education and how they too can best contribute to enhancing the quality of student learning. Moreover, the book is equally valuable as a resource for professors and students of educational administration and leadership programs.

About the Reviewer

Anthony H. Normore, Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, College of Education, Florida International University, Miami, Florida

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