Still Searching for Leadership in Educational Leadership

A Postmodern Analysis of the Social Justice Discourse Within the Field
  • Fenwick W. EnglishEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


Social justice interventions in preparation programs for educational leaders have been very slow to develop. Such interventions face a formidable set of barriers in implementing anything approaching deep curricular change. This chapter examines specific barriers to whole-scale social justice interventions and illustrates through a postmodern lens why it has been difficult to implement much more than microlevel interventions. Higher education programs are not independent, but rather they are interdependent with funding, regulatory, oversight, and accrediting bodies that impose their own set of rules and standards upon preparation programs. This interconnectivity among agencies and institutions linked together comprises a Foucauldian apparatus, a network of agents within a dynamic social fabric in which those agencies seek to expand their sphere of influence on the others. Complicating the climate for change is the fact that regnant social science paradigms reflect a post-positivist dominance and the professoriate has historically been the province of former practitioners who tend to exhibit a pronounced fear and aversion of too theoretical readings and perspectives.


Discourse Apparatus Postmodernism Enunciative field Logic of practice Power-knowledge Genealogy Michel Foucault Jacques Derrida De-construction 


The presence of leadership in most organizations is one of the critical elements of its success and survival. One could rationally argue that leadership and organizational excellence are tautological, that is, it is believed that a successful organization is defined by its leader or a process known as “leadership.” A similar relationship is believed to be the hallmark of an excellent school. An axiom of this tautology would therefore be a successful school only exists because of the presence of a successful principal. One defines the other. This tautology becomes explicit when claims regarding national standards for leadership stipulate that “A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a clear vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community” (Ubben et al. 2001, p. 2). In this statement it is “the clear vision” of the principal that creates “success of all students.” The opposite relationship is equally applicable, i.e., if the school administrator lacks a “clear vision,” not all students will or can succeed.

This chapter seeks to unlock this tautology through a postmodern lens by examining the discourse in the field (English 2013). A discourse “contributes to the constitution of all those dimensions of social structure which directly or indirectly shape and constrain it. Discourse is a practice, not just of representing the world, but of signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning” (Fairclough 1992, p. 64).

The Nature of Social Justice Interventions

The nature of social justice interventions in preparatory programs that profess to teach leadership has only a recent history. Such interventions can be visualized as existing on a continuum beginning with (1) inserting it within a curricular unit within an existing course; (2) creating a specific course about social justice, but not studying it anywhere else; (3) citing social justice issues in most if not all of the courses; or (4) scrapping the entire curriculum and revamping it on major social justice themes or issues.

These curricular possibilities involve decisions regarding scope, continuity, integration, and sequencing (Goodland and Su 1992). Scope refers to the breadth of a topic. Continuity is concerned with how many times a concept, idea, or topic reoccurs within the total curriculum. Integration refers to the extent to which a topic or theme is embedded or mixed with other topics, while sequencing regards decisions about the ordering design. Armstrong (1992) has indicated that there are four types of sequencing . They are the chronological approach, the thematic approach, the part-to-whole approach, and the whole-to-part approach. The more an intervention disrupts whatever is already in place within a leadership program, the more radical it is. There are many reasons why a wholesale redesign intervention would be considered highly unlikely as the subsequent postmodern analysis will indicate. The postmodern approach casts a long shadow of doubt about claims made by practitioners and professors that they even teach leadership let alone social justice.

A postmodern approach also closely interrogates the subject matter content which is believed to define the nature of leadership. It similarly interrogates the research methods which continue to add to the knowledge base of the field and to probe deeply into the assumptions upon which that leadership is legitimated as correct, truthful, and/or generalizable. These analyses are language dependent for as Usher and Edwards (1996) explain: “… for scientific knowledge to exist, it has to be expressed in language, in a form of narrative. It is therefore subject to the rules which govern the ways in which languages are used within social formations” (p. 156). Next, the language used to capture the essence of leadership is examined.

The Lens of Postmodernism

Researchers thoroughly schooled in modernism with its hallmarks of rationality, logic, evidence, and a coherent set of principles often find extreme difficulty in grasping the postmodern position. It seems like trying to peer through the fog. Postmodernity is not a “thing.” It has no “thingness” to it. It is what it isn’t. That’s the reason Lyotard (1997) defined postmodernism as “An incredulity toward metanarratives” (p.xxiv). He also opined that rather than being seen as a kind of linear phenomenon following modernism, many view it as part and parcel of modernism.

Lyotard (1992) also insists that “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Thus understood, postmodernism is not modernism at its end, but in a nascent state, and this state is recurrent” (p. 22). If true then, this would explain why postmodernism lacks definitional precision or characteristics of chronology and has no coherent philosophical premises or content. It starts with doubt and maintains deep skepticism about established truths, norms, rules, axioms, customs, traditions, or laws.

The postmodern position is an attitude about paradigms, often referred to as metanarratives (Cherryholmes 1988). They insist that metanarratives are inherently prejudiced because they center some things and marginalize others. In fact, the “centering” process of the normal scientific theory development procedure is inherently arbitrary and most often benefits those already in power. And those in power are usually part of the established field of power-knowledge. These existing role incumbents have difficulty seriously challenging what exists because their own positions of power and influence are firmly embedded in the dominant power- hierarchy. This predicament is often why reformers don’t really change much and resort to repackaging and relabeling the status quo (English and Bolton 2016; McDonnell and Weatherford 2013).

The Meta-field: Understanding the Concept of Apparatus and “A Field of Power”

The arena where intervention occurs in higher education may be transparent on some accounts but hidden in others. The social space where intervention occurs is anything but visible. This space may be referred to as a kind of “meta-field” (Wacquant 1992, p. 18). A “meta-field” may be mapped. What is required is an identification of the agents/groups/institutions which can be located as players and then to work to understand the dispositions of each one and their respective agendas. While two-dimensional views of a social space may be used to map these players, it should be remembered that static views of such a space may provide a false perspective because “There is no level playing ground in a social field; players who begin with particular forms of capital are advantaged at the outset because the field depends on, as well as produces more of, that capital” (Thomson 2009, p. 69).

The “meta-field” is also hierarchical because decisions regarding the content and composition of higher education preparatory programs are not the final or most powerful resting place for the authority to change habits, practices, ideologies, or theories regarding educational leadership. Colin Gordon (1980) explaining Foucault’s conception of “power-knowledge” described the reality of the complex web of relations that comprise the state of affairs at any moment in time:

Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localized here or there, never in anybody’s hands, never appropriated as a commodity or a piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power … individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application. (p. 98)

The distribution of power coexists in a chain of agencies and individuals that Foucault (1980) called the “apparatus.” He defined it even more broadly as “a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions … Such are the elements of the apparatus” (p. 194). The interconnectivity of actors and agents within the apparatus acts in ways that are both stimulants and barriers to changes which impact all of those actors and agents within the network as a whole. None of them is independent and can act without considering, consulting, or conjoining with one or more of them. This dynamic is a never ending social and political struggle because, as Bourdieu explains “Legitimacy is indivisible: there is no agency to legitimate the legitimacy” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1970/2000, p. 18).

Social justice thinking in educational leadership also began not as a coherent movement but as a deep sense of moral indignation and a grappling with the fundamental issue of fairness among human beings. Its ascent in the curricula of educational leadership programs was and remains controversial, uneven, and ambiguous, particularly as some aspects of the manifestation of a more full-bodied definitional content of social justice have expanded and emerged over time (see Oliva and Anderson 2006). It is a perfect example of the postmodern moment merging into a modernistic agenda which is still a movement in progress.

Interventions Within the Foucauldian “Enunciative Field”

In his classic book The Archaeology of Knowledge regarding the nature of knowledge, Michel Foucault (1972) posited that an enunciative field was comprised of a series of statements within a designated social space, but above all, “a set of rules for arranging statements in series, an obligatory set of schemata of dependence, of order, and of successions, in which the recurrent elements that may have value as concepts were distributed” (p. 57). And Foucault asserted that the nature of knowledge was not formed as though it was “out there” awaiting discovery. Rather, knowledge:

is constructed through the process of interaction between human beings, during which reality is negotiated, and may evolve through the process of further discussions. Within this perspective, knowledge is relative rather than absolute because it is produced through interpersonal discourse. (Oliver 2010, p. 157)

A discourse, however, “is more than just language, it is also the emphasis of a complex set of practices that engage some statements while at the same time excluding others” (Niesche 2011, p. 20). Bourdieu (1998) referred to this phenomenon as “the logic of practice” or the “logic of work” and observed that “they (practitioners) may engage in behaviors one can explain, as the classical philosophers would say, with the hypothesis of rationality, without their behavior having reason as its principle” (p. 76).

According to Foucault (1972) an “enunciative field” can be broken down into (1) a field of presence, (2) a field of concomitance, and (3) a field of memory and that these coexist in a designated social space.

A Field of Memory

A field of memory consists of those concepts, metaphors, ideas, and theories which are no longer considered relevant or applicable to researchers or scientists in the field. Of course there may be disagreements about such things. One example in educational leadership is “scientific management,” the brainchild of American management consultant Frederick W. Taylor who lived in the time period 1856–1915 (Kanigel 1997). The doctrine of “scientific management” blossomed in educational administration between 1911 and 1916 (Callahan 1962). Scientific management was about measuring work, establishing work standards, and increasing work productivity, i.e., output. The adoption of “scientific management” in the schools took a firm hold within the national Department of Superintendence within what is now the National Education Association. Professors in higher education became infatuated with it and openly supported it. Indeed one could argue that a separate field of educational administration was the offspring of Frederick Taylor’s seminal studies in the steel industry.

Today that history is considered fairly tawdry by most scholars of the field. It is viewed as relic of a past that is never saluted as even salutary but acknowledged (Button 1990). A corollary is how the field of psychiatry thinks about Sigmund Freud today (Sulloway 1979). So “scientific management” as a past practice and mode of thinking is in the field of memory of the field of educational administration. However, in the basic principles of scientific management, the deskilling of work involved, breaking a total job into much smaller parts to reduce the cost of labor, is very much in the field of presence as Slossen (2001) vividly explains in his expose of the American fast food industry. The influence of scientific management morphed into an entire discourse centered on efficiency with the implicit corollary assumption that if things were cheaper, they had to be better (see Tyack 1975).

A Field of Presence

The statements in a field of presence are those that are believed to be “truthful, involving exact description, well-founded reasoning, or necessary presuppositions” (Foucault 1972, p. 57). The relations within the discourse of a field of presence are established by “the order of experimental verification, logical validation, mere repetition, acceptance justified by tradition and authority, commentary, a search for hidden meanings, the analysis of error” (Foucault 1972, p. 57).

A Field of Concomitance

The field of concomitance is comprised of statements, theories, and concepts which belong to other fields than educational administration or educational leadership. As an applied field educational administration has borrowed extensively from psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and in contemporary times from business and economics. The reasons for such borrowing is “because they serve as analogical confirmation … as models that can be transferred to other contents, or because they function as a higher authority than that to which at least certain propositions are presented and subjected” (Foucault 1972, p. 58). Some examples are from a 1939 social psychology experiment, the concept of leadership style (Lewin et al. 1939); scientific management from business (Kanigel 1997); vouchers and privatization of schools from economics (Friedman 1962); total quality management from economics (Deming 1993); and emerging leadership models from social cognitive neuroscience (Lakomski et al. 2017).

Methods of Postmodern Analyses

The postmodern approach to textual discourse involves at least three forms of analytical methods: (1) de-construction, (2) genealogy, and (3) tracking the trace (English 2013, p. 873). These are not “new” in the sense that they form a kind of methodological triumvirate embodying postmodernism. Rather these forms of analyses are also found in literary analysis, philosophy, linguistics, and semiotics. They are particularly suited to unravel and closely examine linguistic or textual claims and the larger discourses in which they are embedded.

De-construction (Method #1)

De-construction is a method of critiquing a text. According to Critchley (1992), de-construction is the double-reading of a text. The first reading is called “the dominant interpretation” (p.23). This is how the majority of readers would react and interpret the text. The second reading, however, is quite different. This is a close, critical examination of what the text leaves out, i.e., its blind spots or silences.

The quality of the second reading is dependent on a faithful first reading. For the second reading to be valuable, it must rest on a scholarly consensus that the first reading is accurate, that is, a truthful rendering of the majoritarian interpretation. If this condition is met, then the second reading can delve deeply into the essence of that majoritarian interpretation. One of the key understandings is that the “silences” of a text can form an alternative narrative.

This approach is a time-honored tactic in criticizing a literary text or any text for that matter. If a critic can point out that a text consistently remains silent on a concept, an issue, or an idea, then one can begin to create a de-constructive reading, a different alterity to that dominant interpretation. Critchley (1992) reinforces this perspective when he says “Deconstruction opens a reading by locating a moment of alterity within a text” (p. 28).

The other approach to de-construction is to expose hidden binaries within a text. The most famous person associated with this practice was the French philosopher Jacques Derrida (Peeters 2013). De-construction is about poking into a system of meaning as, for example, in the system of structuralism which depends on the use of binary opposites:

De-construction … has grasped the point that the binary oppositions with which classical structuralism tends to work represent a way of seeing typical of ideologies. Ideologies like to draw rigid boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not, between self and non-self, truth and falsity, sense and nonsense, reason and madness, central and marginal, surface and depth … by a certain way of operating on texts—whether ‘literary’ or ‘philosophical’—we may begin to unravel these oppositions a little, demonstrates … in order to [show] how one term of an antithesis secretly inheres within the other. (Eagleton 1983, p.133)

Genealogy (Method#2)

On the surface genealogy looks like history, indeed genealogy is a special kind of history. “Foucault’s history is the history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects” (Ball 1991, p. 3) [or 1991 check refs]. In a traditional historical discourse, the historian creates trends and patterns in connecting people, decisions, events, and outcomes. “Foucault stresses discontinuity, complexity, and circumstance and shows little interest in causality” (Ball 1991, p. 6). Genealogy has been called a kind of “counter history” (Visker 1995, p.17).

Above all Foucault’s genealogy aims at examining relations of power within institutions or classes (Shumway 1992, p. 26). Such relations are an example of “discursive practices” (Johannesson 1998, p. 308). Genealogy is a study of how ideas shift and mutate over time within specific periods of history (Oliver 2010). That is what this essay is about and how ideas and concepts have changed over a period of time within educational administration. In that respect Dreyfus and Rabinow (1983) indicate that “The genealogist is a diagnostician who concentrates on the relations of power, knowledge, and the body in modern society” (p. 105).

Tracking the Trace (Method #3)

Tracking the trace is a method of linguistic analysis sometimes located within de-construction (Evans 1991). To fully understand the full meaning of a “trace” is to understand the basis of Saussurean linguistics (Gadet 1986). Briefly, Saussure established that a language consists of an image and a sound which stands for that image. Together they form a sign. Signs are arbitrary and they vary from language to language.

The meaning of a sign depends on its relationship to other signs. Signs are historically constituted (Derrida 1973). Meaning is never completely revealed in a sign. Meanings shift. Meaning depends not only on what is present but also on what isn’t present. A “trace” is therefore what is not directly present as signs are assembled together. Looking for what is involved in determining meaning in any text is a search for the “trace” (Critchley 1992).

In this essay “trace” has been used as an ancillary tactic of working back on sign meaning simply to unlock an array of meanings from the earliest usage to more contemporary times. In this sense it resembles an etymological search. Somewhere in the past, written words fade away. It is clear that once they appeared in writing, it is only an event in which an idea, concept, and actions were in spoken language before they were put to paper, that is, they disappear into speech and Derrida calls speech a form of proto-writing (Evans 1991, p. 125).

Barriers to Social Justice Interventions in Higher Education Preparation Programs

Using the three forms of postmodern analyses which have been just reviewed, they will now be applied to the field of educational administration in order to show why social justice interventions have been difficult to implement and will continue to face resistance and/or rejection in higher education preparation programs. Table 1 maps the difficulties of implementing social justice issues in contemporary educational leadership programs. The lateral axes locate social justice issues as to which Foucauldian enunciative fields are involved. The vertical axes illustrates the three methods of postmodern analyses and which ones were used in flushing out a more detailed description of those issues. The table also shows that more than one method of analysis may be employed. Letters have been inserted into the cells, indicating where the barriers to social justice interventions were involved and analyzed. Six barriers follow the table, each discussed in turn (1) a near half-century of textual unresponsiveness to social justice issues; (2) school leaders are agents of organizational conservatism; (3) social science methods that erase subjectivity and diminish moral choices; (4) an aversion to emotionality and other nonrational factors in decision-making; (5) a troubling legacy of national leadership standards; and (6) a field historically dominated by rampant anti-intellectualism.
Table 1

A postmodern analysis of barriers to social justice issues in higher education leadership preparation programs

Foucault’s enunciative field

Types of postmodern analysis

Field of memory

Field of presence

Field of concomitance


A, E







Tracking the trace



A School leaders are agents of organizational conservatism; B Social science methods that erase subjectivity and diminish moral choices; C An aversion to emotionality and other nonrational factors in decision-making; D National leadership standards: A troubling legacy; E A field historically dominated by rampant anti-intellectualism

A. A Near Half-Century of Textual Unresponsiveness to Social Justice Issues (Barrier #1)

Social justice concepts based on notions that economic inequalities, racism, sexism, sexual orientation, and other inequities, let alone interventions in K-12 preparatory programs in higher education, were slow to be recognized let alone addressed (Anderson 2002). In fact, an examination of the subject matter indices of leading textbooks used in educational administration departments in the USA between the mid-1950s and the mid-2000s does not include a single reference to social justice.

The texts examined were (Campbell and Gregg 1957; Cunningham and Cordeiro 2000; English 1992; Gorton 1976; Guthrie and Reed 1986; Hack et al. 1971; Haller and Strike 1986; Hanson 1985, 1991; Hoy and Miskel 1982; Kimbrough and Nunnery 1988; Knezevich 1975; Lane et al. 1967; Lunenburg and Ornstein 1991; Miller 1965; Milstein and Belasco 1973; Owens 2001; Owens and Valesky 2007; Razik and Swanson 2010; Sachs 1966; Sergiovanni and Carver 1973; Sergiovanni et al. 2004; Silver 1983; Stoops and Rafferty Jr. 1961; Yukl 1981.)

One does not begin to see social justice concerns surface until the first decade of the twenty-first century (Marshall and Oliva 2006; English 2008a; Wang 2018). The shift also then begins to impact mainstream texts. For example, in the eighth edition of School Leadership and Administration by Richard Gorton and Judy Alston (Gorton and Alston 2009), the first inclusion of social justice appears in the index with such examples as “ability grouping, busing, disabled students, gay-straight alliance, metropolitan integration, multicultural climate, racial disparity, racially motivated fight, special needs students, total integration …” (p.427).

When the first edition of the ISLLC standards was released in 1996, there was no mention of social justice or any of the major concerns which undergird a concern for social justice today (Hoyle 2006). The absence of attention to an interest in social justice or social justice interventions is similarly noted in the 1999 Second Handbook of Research on Educational Administration indices (Murphy and Louis 1999) with a similar and silent lacuna.

Even now the topic and related issues remain controversial, especially outside the immediate academic community (English 2008b). A prime example of how social justice can be viewed as nothing but a leftist plot to politicize the university curriculum is David Horowitz’s inflammatory (Horowitz 2006) book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Horowitz claimed that the “tenured radicals” of the 1970s took over the university and:

They rejected the concept of the university as the temple of the intellect, in which they described a curriculum insulated from the political passions of the times. Instead, these radicals were intent on making the university ‘relevant’ to current events, and to their own partisan agendas. Accordingly, they set about re-shaping the university curriculum to support their political interests, which appeared in their own minds as grandiose crusades for ‘social justice.’ (p. x)

Horowitz (2006) expanded his view of the expansion of radical thought by describing the proliferation of radical ideas “to ‘serve’ minority groups previously neglected” (p.x), and the new agendas included “Cultural studies, peace studies, whiteness studies, post-colonial studies, and global studies—even social justice studies” (p. x). These kinds of broadsides are unfortunately part and parcel of the contemporary political landscape in higher education.

B. School Leaders Are Agents of Organizational Conservatism (Barrier #2)

Although there is much rhetoric regarding school leaders becoming agents of radical change, there is scant evidence that they become so, let alone turn into social activists in or outside of their school or school system boundaries. Dunham (1964) offers a cogent explanation as to the reason. The first task of any organization’s leadership is to develop, maintain, and advance its unity. Unity is usually constructed around what Dunham labels its “orthodoxy” or around certain tenets or beliefs. It doesn’t matter if those beliefs are true or false. Without a sanctioned set of beliefs or principles to bind its members together, the organization risks dissolution. No leader can permit organizational dissolution.

It is therefore part of the strategy of leadership and part of the politics of organizational life to regard doctrines not merely as true or false but as conducive to unity or disruptive of it…a doctrine is orthodox if it helps unite the organization; it is heretical if it divides. (Dunham 1964, p.18)

Dunham (1964) observes that innovators posture themselves as in the pursuit of truth, justice, or some other high-ground social causes. If any specific innovation is seen as threatening the unity of the organization, it is viewed as heretical no matter its ultimate goodness. However, from the outside looking in if “… the apparent motive of the leaders is organizational unity, the tenor of their conduct, whether right or wrong, seems rigid and reactionary” (p. 19). Even modest interventions can lead to serious disruption and political reverberations that can threaten organizational unity.

For example, in March of 2020, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza faced outraged and vocal Asian-American parents when he proposed to change admission standards to bring about higher levels of enrollment in the city’s top high schools from Black and Hispanic students. Part of that effort involved getting rid of the admission tests for the top high schools. If adopted, “Asian students make up a majority of the schools and would lose about half their seats under the city’s proposal” (Shapiro 2020, p. A25).

The chancellor’s efforts to push for the elimination of inequality in one direction resulted in a counter push from a group of parents who also felt the sting of inequality in another. Asian parents have also aligned themselves with some groups of white parents who fear that the integration of the system’s gifted and talented schools, already 75% comprised of Asian and white students, would be penalized with a loss of access. As some groups met they chanted “Fire Carranza” (Shapiro 2020, A25).In a strange case of reversal, the use of the word “integration,” a long-held social justice idea of racial equality, has become a symbol of anti-inequality for one group of minority students. At the same time without changes in parental sentiments, “integration” could become a force of disunity and polarization for the entire school system, not to mention the loss of the incumbent chancellor who is the point person on this initiative.

Social justice issues in the schools are not scientific ones. They are moral ones. And Hodgkinson (1991) reminds us that “… any administrator, is faced with value choices. To govern is to choose … Each day and each hour provides the occasion for value judgments, and each choice has a determining effect on the value options for the future” (p.93). The importance of emphasizing what has been called “the moral imperative” of the equity work of educational leadership was underscored by Niesche and Keddie (2016) when they said “It is clear that the norms and values of leadership shape the way schools approach issues of equity that can, in turn, generate transformative political effects” (p. 3).

C. Social Science Methods that Erase Subjectivity and Diminish Moral Choices (Barrier #3)

A second reason that social justice issues have been erased or neglected in the past has been the field’s long-standing infatuation with traditional social science methods, specifically a search for a theory of educational administration that was rooted in the here and now. Near the end of his life, Jack Culbertson (1995), one of the founders of the UCEA, ruminated about the beginning of the “theory movement” of the 1950s. In reminiscing about the influential scholars and their thinking 70 years earlier, he commented about the most influential scholars of that period. Among them was the psychologist Andrew Halpin (1960) who railed against the insertions of values into research regarding educational administration and observed that “… there does not exist today, either in education or in industry, a single well-developed theory of administration that is worth getting excited about” (p.5).

Halpin (1960) was imbued with the doctrine of logical positivism as advanced by the infamous Vienna Circle philosophers (1922–1938) who struggled to define a theory of analysis that excluded metaphysics and created a border between science and nonscience, especially as it dealt with so-called “unobservables” in empirical contexts such as mental, spiritual, or emotional states (Uebel 1999). Halpin heaped scorn on the educational administration curriculum of the time as consisting:

of maxims, exhortations, and several innocuous variations on the theme of the Golden Rule. The material was speculative rather than theoretical in the true sense of the term, empirical research on administration was slighted, and contributions from the behavioral sciences and personnel research in industry were zealously ignored. (p. 4)

According to Culbertson (1995), Halpin “made clear that ‘ought’ statements reside outside science” and that “Theory must be concerned with how the superintendent does behave, not with someone’s opinion of how he ought to behave” (p. 41). Another expert outside of educational administration was James D. Thompson (1967) who, echoing Halpin, wrote “The values capable of being attached to education and to administration will not be incorporated into the theoretical system itself; instead, the system will treat such values as variables” (p. 31).

While Halpin (1967) was correct that values are not scientific, his insistence on their elimination from the nature of administration made their exclusion rational and justifiable. They were written off as inappropriate arenas for conducting “scientific research” or including them in the leading textbooks of the time for at least five decades. Foster (1986) summarized one of the consequences of this approach when he wrote “The administration of education is perhaps one of society’s most central concerns; yet when administrative programs neglect social analyses, they neglect the possibility of choosing a more attractive future” (p. 10).

It is ironic that even at the time of the theory movement, there was criticism of the sole reliance on social science methods in the field of educational administration. Roald Campbell with co-authors W.W. Charters and William Gregg (1960) commented that:

Now I would submit that the findings of social science are of no help to the school administrator, and that they cannot be applied directly and immediately to his (sic) world. They cannot be useful in his(sic) prediction problem because of their very nature … One reason is that the social scientist’s findings do not always hold true. In the present state of the field, about all the social scientist can say is that the finding is more often right than wrong … More importantly, research findings are of no help to the administrator because they deal with too small a slice of the administrator’s complex milieu. He can assume that other things are equal only at his (sic) peril. (p. 178)

Interesting enough there are now renewed calls for improved theory as an antidote to the lacunae of social justice matters in educational leadership:

The equity work of school leaders in the contemporary educational environment is incredibly complex, challenging and demanding. While the number of studies exploring these issues has increased in recent times, we feel there needs to be a richer theoretical engagement, focus and depth to capture this complexity. (Niesche and Keddie 2016, p.3)

D. An Aversion to Emotionality and Other Nonrational Factors in Decision-Making (Barrier #4)

The wellspring of social justice issues is found in religion, not science, specifically in the nineteenth-century Protestant social gospel movement and similarly in the Catholic Church’s plea for it as well (Shoho et al. 2005). The penchant of the early founders of educational administration was grounded in Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” ideology. In this perspective there was no room for subjectivity or emotion (Callahan 1962) though in reality a trenchant de-construction of Taylor’s work and his life reveals the presence of both (Kanigel 1997).

Despite the observation of presidential historian James Barber (1985) that “Every story of Presidential decision-making is really two stories: an outer one in which a rational man calculates and an inner once in which an emotional man feels. The two are forever connected. Any real President is one whole man and his deeds reflect his wholeness” (p. 4), preparation programs for educational leadership have precious little to say or do with emotion. In fact, elements of leadership that are dependent on emotion, intuition, caring, and compassion are seldom dealt with only marginally or not at all in the curriculum of higher educational preparatory programs.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs. First, “emotions have historically been treated as individual psychological manifestations premised upon a rational/emotional binary, and second, one of the most evident is the privileging of rational (equated to masculine) leadership in education” (Blackmore 2009, p.110).

A decision-maker becoming “emotional” was seen as a sign of weakness and a hallmark of females involved with having to make “tough decisions.” For this reason university-based graduate preparation programs set quotas for the admission of women fearing that the field would become over-feminized (Blount 1998).

In addition, the heavy emphasis in educational administration course work on behavioral and structural texts proffered from a so-called “scientific underpinning” and at present from the world of business is heavily gender-biased against women. Sexism is built into the course content of programs of preparing school administrators because “Masculine dominance in educational leadership is part of wider social ‘relations of ruling’ premised upon the ‘gender order’ in politics, economics, religion, the media and sport” (Blackmore 2016, p. 65).

The barriers against women in school administration were not legally erased in the USA until the passage of Title IX in 1972. However, course content remains heavily tilted towards post-positivist perspectives and white masculinism, even as many graduate degree programs are more evenly balanced now by female students and role incumbents, except in the very top-level executive positions (Blackmore 2016).

Second-wave feminists have also worked not only to address the historic lack of gender balance in leadership roles but:

to redefine how leadership is understood and practiced. For feminists, leadership is about accessing the power, resources and authority with the purpose of re/defining knowledge and promoting inclusivity through gender equity reform. Feminists relational view of leadership has always been oriented towards the moral and ethical purpose of social justice. (Blackmore 2016, p. 67)

The link between social justice issues and emotion in decision-making has become more important as circumstances produce “tough decisions” (Johnson Jr. and Kruse 2009) or sometimes referred to as “wicked problems” (DeGrace and Stahl 1990). These types of decisions are characterized by ambiguity and lack of definable borders because ends and beginnings are unclear. Decision-makers often don’t know where to start in addressing them. The decision-making moment is usually accompanied with partisan overtones, confrontation, and conflict between participants. They are also crisscrossed with value conflicts. One experienced college dean called them problems where it was “right versus right.” By that he meant that both sides had a “rightful” logical and defensible position. This situation often presents itself in cases where the rights of the individual are at odds with the rights of the collective or group.

An example of a “tough or wicked decision” which was highly emotional, controversial, partisan, and charged with social justice issues was the occasion when in 2017 new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced a recalibration of the rules concerning sexual assault and misconduct hearings on college and universities under Title IX, the law that bars sexual discrimination. The Obama administration had issued a letter laying out new guidelines for how students accused of sexual assault could be prosecuted by campus tribunals. What those guidelines contained were instructions for “universities to adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct using the law ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard, in which the mere 50.1% likelihood of guilt is sufficient” (Silvergate 2017, p. A19).

At the heart of the controversy was the matter of not only insuring “due process” in which cross-examination of witnesses was at stake for the accused but women’s groups have long argued that such procedures frighten many women from coming forward when they have been victims of sexual assault. Critics of Mrs. DeVos’ recession of the Obama guidelines aver that this action “has had a chilling effect on victims who are reluctant to report assaults” (Green 2018). The lower bar of evidence in the Obama guidelines gave women’s complaints greater weight and seemed to even up the judicial process by denying the defendants’ rights and processes they would have enjoyed in a regular court hearing.

However, the new guidelines appeared to others, including professors of law at Harvard and other prestigious law schools as well as several federal court judges and the American Council of Trial Lawyers, to deny a defendant the right to confront and cross-examine his accuser, be offered the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the right to legal representation, and the right to appeal under the Obama guidelines, were an overreach (Johnson and Taylor Jr. 2017). The Title IX controversy was not only a social justice issue of the most basic type but one in which the usual rules regarding decision-making being a mostly rational and logical process were laid bare as unhelpful. A logical and rational case can be made for both positions in incidents of alleged campus sexual assaults.

While problem-solving in graduate courses in educational administration and leadership may be taught separately or within a variety of other courses, historically it is largely confined to forms of analysis dominated by economic and business decision-making models such as those proffered by Herbert Simon (1976) whose “normative theory of decision-making seeks to explain decisions from the perspective of the omniscient decision maker and how decisions should be made” (Johnson Jr. and Kruse 2009, p. 27). The other aspect of decision-making is the avoidance of using subjectivity at all by “appealing to economics, the most formal and quantitatively successful of the social sciences, and specifically to the concept of expected utility as a way to unify a theory of economic behavior” (Bohman 1992, p. 209).

Such normative approaches to decision-making have relegated emotion to an undesirable element of the process which has to be carefully monitored so as to avoid unwarranted seat-of-the-pants determinations based on the whim of the moment. Recently there has been a rise in reinserting emotion into decision-making with the work of Goleman’s (1995) popular text Emotional Intelligence.

In a trenchant analysis of Goleman’s EI work, Lakomski (2015) labels it “…a colloquial expression without explanatory force” (p. 73) because it perpetuates the idea that emotion and cognition are separate entities, bares all of the hallmarks of positivistic science, trades on common-sense notions of emotion, and bears little resemblance to “scientific explanations … currently developed in both emotion science and affective neuroscience” (p. 73). She then points out that scientific explanations move to “recast emotions in terms of dynamical systems theory that is biologically realistic, coheres with our currently best knowledge of brain function and architecture, and is able to account for emotions’ variability, context-dependence, and time boundedness” (p. 73).

It seems that for the emotional component of much of the social justice agenda to become interdependent with leadership preparation in the formal curricula of most higher educational programs, an expanded perspective on the role of emotion in decision-making will be required. That would also require a different type of training for the professors involved as well, many of whom are likely to have little knowledge of contemporary neuroscience.

E. National Leadership Standards: A Troubling Legacy (Barrier #5)

The creation of the national educational leadership standards was begun in the USA in the 1994–1995 academic year and was the project of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA). According to Neil Shipman (2006), one of the national leaders who worked to establish the standards, there were six principles upon which they were grounded. The standards should do the following:
  • Reflect the centrality of student learning.

  • Acknowledge the changing role of the school leader.

  • Recognize the collaborative nature of school leadership.

  • Be high, upgrading the quality of the profession.

  • Inform standards-based systems of assessment and evaluation for school leaders.

  • Be integrated and coherent (p.525).

A close examination of these six principles shows that none were based on promoting social justice and they were all focused on what is internal to school or institutional operations. The principles are centered on advancing and promoting the school leader in the name of student success. The principles are about legitimizing the role of the school leader and underscoring their importance and centrality in schools in which their roles are located. Similarly, Bourdieu had observed that reforms almost always benefit the reformers and that they would not advocate for changes which would diminish their importance or role in that change (English and Bolton 2016, pp. 107–8).

The six standards for school leaders were promulgated as follows. A school leader promotes the success of all students by the following:
  • Facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that I shared and supported by the school community

  • Advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth

  • Ensuring management of the organization, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment

  • Collaborating with families and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources

  • Acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner

  • Understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context (Shipman 2006, pp. 525–6)

These standards are devoid of any reference to or appreciation of the diversity that is within many American schools and school districts. Ikpa (1995) highlights why this is so by saying:

… in their quest for an appropriate knowledge base, reformers have failed to consider the impact of gender, ethnicity and race … Scholars and researchers must come to the realization that the dominant philosophy of logical positivism enveloping the departments of educational leadership cannot incorporate diversities relevant to gender, race and ethnicity. (p. 175)

Ikpa (1995) further notes that the major problem with positivism is that it eliminates “reflective and dialectical thought and allows the perpetuation of an extant social order” (p. 176). The type of knowledge that is in alignment with the doctrine of positivism is what Anderson and Page (1995) have labeled “technical knowledge” (p.130). It is the kind of knowledge that is about the “doing” of administering schools, from getting the heating system fixed to creating a specific type of school culture or fashioning a vision about learning to which school operations are then to embody. The problem of this type of knowledge is that it “uncritically promotes the legitimating myths that reproduce our schools and our society from one generation to the next” (Anderson and Page 1995, p. 130).This is the political function of the standards, i.e., they become the platform upon which the current structure and function of public schooling is perpetuated with the same people in control of them as before but with this new manifesto a reinforced social power sanctioned to do so. By not differentiating among the learners to be served, the differences among learners, including race, social class, and gender which include huge existing inequalities, are ignored. They are simply passed over and survive intact. The maxim is “If we don’t name the differences, we don’t have to deal with them.” Social justice work is about understanding the differences that advantage some and disadvantage others due to how the system works. The deepest social justice problems arise when they are part and parcel of system functions, whether intentional or not. What that means is that while achievement inequalities may exist among learners, they cannot be due to race, social class, or gender, especially in an institution which portends to treat them all fairly and without bias towards their race, social class, or gender.

The new iterations of the national leadership standards contain some of the same blind spots and emphasis on technical rationality as the original. In the statement of context for the NELP standards on which accreditation rests, the document indicates what has changed to provoke revisions. The reasons are the following:
  • Globalization

  • Economic transformation

  • Technological advances

  • The changing conditions and characteristics of children

  • The politics of leadership and changes in leadership personnel

  • Reductions in school funding

  • Competitive market pressures

  • Higher levels of accountability for student achievement (NPBEA 2018, p. 1)

There is nothing in these changes that would directly confront historic and long-standing issues of continuing racial prejudice in schools and communities, the chronic underfunding of inner city and/or rural schools, and the lack of equal educational opportunities of all students regardless of postal zone addresses. Here are all of the leadership standards:
  1. 1.

    Mission, vision, and improvement

  2. 2.

    Ethics and professional norms

  3. 3.

    Equity and cultural responsiveness

  4. 4.

    Curriculum, instruction, and assessment

  5. 5.

    Community of care and support for students

  6. 6.

    Professional capacity of school personnel

  7. 7.

    Professional community for teachers and staff

  8. 8.

    Meaningful engagement of families and community

  9. 9.

    Operations and management

  10. 10.

    School improvement (NPBEA 2018, p. 2)


Standard 3 includes three components which involve concerns regarding social justice when it stipulates that “program completers” (i.e., graduates in preparation programs) (1) understand and demonstrate the capacity to use data to evaluate, design, cultivate, and advocate for a supportive and inclusive school culture; (2) understand and demonstrate the capacity to evaluate, cultivate, and advocate for equitable access to educational resources, technologies, and opportunities that support the educational success and well-being of each student; and (3) understand and demonstrate the capacity to evaluate, advocate, and cultivate equitable, inclusive, and culturally responsive instruction and behavioral support practices among teachers and staff.

Some of the skills required to reveal their mastery of these leadership components are the following:
  1. 1.

    Use research and data to design and cultivate a supportive, nurturing, and inclusive school culture.

  2. 2.

    Develop strategies for improving school culture.

  3. 3.

    Evaluate sources of inequality and bias in the allocation of educational resources and opportunities.

  4. 4.

    Cultivate the equitable use of educational resources and opportunities through procedures, guidelines, norms, and values.

  5. 5.

    Advocate for the equitable access to educational resources, procedures, and opportunities.

  6. 6.

    Evaluate root causes of inequity and bias.

  7. 7.

    Develop school policies or procedures that cultivate equitable, inclusive, and culturally responsive practice among teachers and staff (NPBEA 2018, pp. 16–17).


A casual review of the remainder of the standards and components does not reveal any further direct actions that a school leader would take to confront social justice issues, and when the opportunity arises for such a leader to do so, they fail to outline an activist leader in the school’s community to address them. For example, in the standard involving working with diverse families in strengthening student learning in and out of schools, the school leader only has to gather information, cultivate collaboration, foster two-way communication, identify community resources, develop a plan for accessing resources, and become an advocate “for school and community needs” (NPBEA 2018, p. 23). None of these would require drastic action, confrontation or intervention, radical, or otherwise. There is little in these new standards that would suggest that the role of the administrator in school sites or school system central offices required anything but the continued place for a powerful and socially omniscient “leader” to preside over their operations. Standards for school leaders rest on the assumption that such leaders are always required. This is the tautology that prompted this paper’s claim in the beginning.

F. A Field Historically Dominated by Rampant Anti-intellectualism (Barrier #6)

Another feature of the field of educational administration in higher education is its rampant “anti-intellectualism.” This characteristic is described as “a suspicion of intellect itself… it is part of the extensive American devotion to practicality and direct experience which ramifies through almost every area of American life … Practical vigor is a virtue; what has been spiritually crippling in our history … is the tendency to make a mystique of practicality” (Hofstadter 1964, pp. 236–7).

A hallmark term that captures this posture is calling students and the faculty who are engaged in preparing future school leaders “scholar-practitioners.” Born (1996) criticizes this term as an example of the anti-intellectualism which often constitutes school leadership studies and extends his criticism of it by saying:

… the hyphenated term (scholar-practitioner) implicitly announces that the

emerging discipline transcends the academy precisely because it is more

than mere scholarship; it is scholarship plus. In other words, the new

discipline is more practical, or in the vernacular of the sixties, of greater

‘relevance.’ (p. 47)

All of these traditions make intervention in preparation programs regarding social justice or anything else that is not immediately skill-based and behaviorally observable, extremely difficult. The obstacles regnant within the higher education context are often not acknowledged. Certainly the “blind spots” by professors and students themselves to their own biases, their insistence that “hands-on learning” is superior than intellectual rigor creates a climate opposed to serious academic studies. Born (1996) summarizes this situation:

… for leadership programs to fulfill their often hyperbolic claims, what is

needed is more and better scholarship, not less, and higher standards of textual

proficiency rather than more community-volunteer hours. (p.48)

Intervening in the world of educational leadership preparation programs for any reason is the equivalent of broaching the famed French Maginot line of World War II. While professors usually consider themselves open-minded, the continuation of research models and procedures which block out nonmeasurable aspects of leadership, the resistance to consider alternative perspectives lodged in the arts and humanities, and the domination of educational licensing standards on courses and curricula firmly anchored in functions and skills all but obliterate the full panoply of the leadership quotient (English and Ehrich 2015).

It is into this scenario that attention to social justice must find room for full expression. It is a formidable undertaking because as Hodgkinson (1991) observes “By and large administrators and those who write about administration are not trained in the techniques of modern philosophical analysis nor, again by and large, can they be said to be particularly amenable to philosophical or abstract or ‘intellectual’ interests …” (p.49).

Nearly a half-century ago, Roald Campbell and colleagues W.W. Charters and William Gregg (1960), three of the founders of the “theory movement” in educational administration, contrasted the world of the researcher scientist and the world of the practitioner and remarked that they:

… live, think, and work in two utterly different, if not alien, worlds. The scientist’s world is a world of concepts, abstractions, and generalizations…The scientist’s theories give rise to prediction about tiny pieces of reality… The administrator’s world is quite the reverse. It is the complex, baffling world of the here and now. It is the unique, concrete situation, with its own history and tradition, and its own cast of idiosyncratic characters. (pp. 176-7)

Campbell et al. (1960) then summarized this difference by indicating that the value to the practitioner was found in “… providing him (sic) with concepts. The concepts of and theories of social science afford the man of practical affairs alternative ways of viewing the world around him (sic)” (p. 179). Concepts were simply different glasses with which to view problems and issues and to proceed to problem-solve accordingly. The advice and observation of these three pioneers has been lost in today’s milieu of skill-based practicums and textbooks that are packaged cookbooks of varying recipes for issues and problems when they wrote “The administrator will best be trained not in the meager technology drawn from research findings but in the new and varying perspectives offered by social science concepts” (p. 180).


Given the fact that educational leadership programs are situated within an apparatus of interlocking agencies and institutions such as state departments of education, federal and state laws, accreditation agencies, and professional associations, in addition to the prevailing and generally accepted ways of thinking about the field, roles within the field, and functions within jobs, it is not likely that social justice interventions of any radical nature are going to be initiated in higher educational preparation programs. Higher education programs are interdependent and not independent entities. The barriers to radical change serve to fashion the teaching of leadership to the social status quo and ensure that the leadership of today will be about the same as the leadership of tomorrow. It is a temporal tautology because one is the other.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Teachers College, Ball State UniversityMuncieUSA

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