Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Educational Leadership as a Political Enterprise

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_241



Educational leadership is a political enterprise. Scholars in the field first acknowledged the political nature of educational leadership around the middle of the twentieth century. Since that time the study of politics in education has expanded and flourished, becoming a staple of inquiry in leadership and educational administration studies. Not all scholars, however, approach the study of politics in the same way; the manner in which they explore this realm is associated with the meaning they attribute to politics and the research traditions with which they identify. This entry explores how scholars have approached the political aspect of educational leadership over the years. It reviews the various traditions, the meanings associated with them, and the research on politics and leadership that they have generated.

Politics in Education

Inquiry into leadership has a long and varied history. While scholars have focused most of their attention on individual leadership, they have also acknowledged the collective side of leadership, that is, group and institutional action that influences what happens in organizations and beyond. Scholars have also explored leadership in education, including its political aspects. But inquiry into leadership and politics has a decidedly shorter life span than research into politics generally. This is due, in part, to the belief in much of the Western world that education is, or at least should be, an apolitical enterprise. This belief took shape as a response to the excessive presence of politics in educational institutions of the past.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, reformers sought to put an end to the abuses associated with political interference in school systems, by introducing reforms that would leave education to the professionals and keep it away from politicians. For a period of time, many believed that these changes removed education from politics. Academics bought into this apolitical myth, seeing little need to explore politics in education where none existed. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that scholars began to recognize that the education system and the leadership that governed it was indeed political. They acknowledged that the earlier reforms had merely exchanged one type of politics for another; politics were still present, but they took on another form (Scribner and Englert (1977). The first significant move toward acknowledging and studying politics in education was the work of Elliot (1959).

A field of educational politics eventually grew out of Elliot’s efforts. Its initial focus revolved around government- or State-related activities. In time, however, it expanded its horizons to more informal and less legal-centered phenomena. Even so, the meaning of politics was contested and continues so even to this day. One “definition” that many who studied politics agreed upon, however, was as practices associated with “who gets what, when and where” (Laswell 1936). Another way of putting this, as a number of scholars who studied educational politics did, was as “the set of interactions that influence and shape the authoritative allocation of values” (Scribner and Englert 1977). Both of these definitions highlight the distribution processes in communities and schools. As subunits of State government, educational jurisdictions and leaders have the authority to allocate values and can influence the process and outcomes. In this sense they are engaged in political activity.

Over the years, scholars have attempted to categorize the various approaches to politics in a number of ways (e.g., Scribner et al. 2003). The categories they proposed, however, were contestable and, in practice, often overlapped. For the purposes of this entry, three idea are identified. Two of these approaches – systems and micropolitics – emerged from what has come to be known as the field of educational politics; the other, equity politics, has taken a different route, although more recently scholars have associated it with the politics of education field (e.g., Cooper et al. 2008). Each of these perspectives approaches politics – the allocation of values – in a different way, and each is associated with a research tradition that shapes the purposes of scholars’ inquiries, the manner in which they understand politics, and the ways in which they inquire into them.

Systems Politics

The first studies in education politics took place in the mid-1900s, and they provided the basis for the field of the same name. Many of these inquiries took their lead from the longer-standing discipline of political science. The preoccupation with science at the time was firmly entrenched not just in research into politics but also inquiry in other social domains, like education. Most academics believed that in order to generate authentic knowledge of social phenomena, scholars had to explore the terrain as a science. This was as true for the discipline of educational administration and leadership as it was for most other areas in education. In the struggle to ensure the legitimacy of this form of (social) science, scholars adopted the methods, frameworks, and theories used by the physical sciences and techniques that they believed would allow them to distance themselves from the social phenomena that they were studying and convey in neutral terms accounts of an objective social world. Adherence to these procedures would supposedly allow them to generate generalizable laws that could explain and predict human behavior.

Positivist approaches were attractive for more than just legitimacy reasons; scholars also believed that they could provide social engineers, including leaders, with the keys to control their respective social or physical domains. In order for them to do this though, social scholars had to integrate functionalist/systems theories into their inquiries. These theories allowed scholars to isolate and measure the relationships of important elements/variables. Information about these relationships could then be relayed to leaders who could use this knowledge to predict the outcome of their actions. This ability to predict the future was predicated on the not-always-acknowledged assumption that human beings were more or less determined by their circumstances and had little choice but to respond to the stimuli that leaders and others initiated.

Like many other social science disciplines of the time, educational politics embraced systems theories and positivism. Systems theories were particularly influential in this regard. In fact the institutions on which political scholars focused actually became known as (political) systems. This had two consequences for the study of politics in education; it had an impact on what was studied and how it was studied. This systems approach dictated that research into educational politics focused on institutions rather than individuals as systems were to be found at an organizational rather than an individual level. And so scholars concentrated on large-scale politics including government processes and educational institutions. They studied conflict, struggles for power, pressure group activities, government institutions, structures and actions, policy and policy making, influence attempts, decision making, political parties, and voting behavior. These researchers did not question the allocation processes associated with these phenomena or who benefited from them; they simply took for granted the neutrality of these processes.

The adoption of systems theories also influenced the way in which scholars studied educational politics. Researchers considered educational institutions as if they were systems. For example, many looked at how inputs (demands, supports) were converted (through a political system) into outputs (e.g., authoritative decisions) which resulted in certain kinds of outcomes (e.g., consequences of the decision) that in turn fed back into the political system as new demands or supports (Scribner and Englert 1977). Scholars routinely measured relationships between power structures and educational decisions, the impact of community contexts on political processes, and the effects of political and economic inputs upon policy outputs. While some employed case studies, most employed surveys and quantitative analyses to confirm these and many other causal links.

The first researchers to study politics in education, then, saw politics as institutional phenomena that could best be studied by employing systems frameworks and positivist methods. Subsequent approaches to politics challenged this position. The first that emerged came to be known as micropolitics.


Micropolitical approaches first emerged in the 1970s and were prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s. Although they varied, most differed from systems approaches in a number of ways. While system theorists concentrated on institutional phenomena, micropolitical scholars studied the actions and interactions of educators, often within schools. This approach was made possible by changing trends in forms of inquiry. After many years of positivist domination, the field of educational administration and leadership embraced, slowly at first, other theories of organization and methods of inquiry, following the lead of social scientists in other disciplines. In doing so, they paved the way for different ways of understanding educational organizations, leadership, and politics.

The research tradition that first challenged the systems approach in educational leadership studies was known as subjectivism. Much of the subjectivist criticism of systems/quantitative inquiry targeted the assumptions on which these latter approaches rested. Thom Greenfield (Greenfield and Ribbins 1993) was perhaps the most articulate advocate of subjectivism in educational administration and leadership. Greenfield claimed that organizations were individual constructions originating in the minds of people. For him, people were not in organizations; organizations were in people. In marked contrast to the systems/positivist approach, organizations were constructed entities, the product of the perceptions, wills, and values of the people who worked and learned in them. Students, teachers, administrators, and trustees interpreted what they saw about them, often in very different ways, and then acted on the basis of these interpretations. Unlike the automatons of the systems/positivist world, these individuals could decide for themselves what they wanted to do.

The idea that the willful perceptions and values of people shaped organizations seriously undercut the possibility of establishing causal relationships in organizations. If people were responsible for making the organizations of which they were a part, capable of deciding for themselves what they wanted to do, and thus unpredictable, how could one reasonably establish causal relationships in organizations? Critics like Greenfield argued that people did not obey general laws, but simply did what they felt like doing. The conclusion that he and others reached was these input/output system models, attractive as they were to those seeking control of their organizations, did not adequately depict the world in which educational leaders worked. This subjectivist view also ushered in another, perhaps more realistic way of seeing and studying organizations and leadership. If organizations were constructed by people, then tapping into their perceptions and experiences could reveal what really happens in these places. While these methods might not generate the useful (yet illusory) generalizations that systems advocates sought, they could nevertheless provide useful insights into practice.

Motivated by a desire to compensate for the shortcomings of the systems approach and a wish to explain the failure of current reforms, these academics looked for politics not at an institutional level, but within schools. While not denying that politics existed at a systems level, they nevertheless sought to understand how allocation processes played out on an interactional level within educational institutions – in what people felt, said, and did. Unlike systems scholars, they assumed that these organizations were conflicted entities, populated by people who employed power to promote their own interests. Those who explored politics from a microperspective painted pictures of organizational life from which leaders could learn. Unlike systems scholars, some researchers specifically studied individual (school) leaders – how they used power to realize their interests and influence the way in which values were allocated in their institutions.

Micropolitical approaches differed from systems politics in two key ways. Shunning methods that sought to establish causal relationships and predictability, they attempted to illuminate allocation processes within schools by revealing how they worked on the ground, in the daily grind, and in the thoughts, words, and actions of the people involved. Although they acknowledged the impossibility of achieving objectivity in their studies, they nevertheless sought to distance themselves from these political practices, neither questioning these processes nor advocating for particular practices. Another way in which they distinguished themselves from systems researchers was in the role they attributed to individuals. Microresearchers looked at micropolitical practices through an individualistic lens; they assumed that individuals or groups of individuals, not processes or structures, were responsible for shaping allocation practices. Unlike systems scholars, they assumed that power, interests, and conflict were largely individual products. Advocates of yet a third approach to politics would react critically to this undue emphasis on individuals and an implicit endorsement of allocation processes in schools.

Equity Politics

A third approach to politics in education focused on the fairness of the allocation process. In education, this view of politics was the last to emerge, although it is somewhat puzzling that it did not appear earlier, given its explicit focus on distribution. This perspective draws on a long history of ideas about critique and fairness. Central to this tradition is Marx who drew attention to the inherent unfairness in the quickly expanding nineteenth-century capitalist production system. One of his fundamental conclusions was that a few benefit from social arrangements that penalize many others. Subsequently other scholars, most notably those associated with the Frankfurt School, broadened Marx’s critique, targeting, among other things, rationality and positivism. Scholars in education eventually embraced a number of these ideas, including a critique of current social structures and a desire to engender change.

In contrast to systems and micropolitical approaches that implicitly and explicitly endorsed the current distribution of values in educational organizations, equity scholars questioned the manner in which these processes occurred. They believed, first and foremost, that these processes were unfair and that inequities occurred systematically both within organizations and communities. The result was that some groups were persistently, consistently, and systematically marginalized, while others continued to enjoy privileges. Unlike Marx who concentrated exclusively on social class, though, scholars in education illustrated that these unfair practices also cut across gender, race, sexual orientation, and many other structures of opportunity.

The first scholars to introduce these ideas to education drew on Marx and the Frankfurt School and others like Freire and Dewey. They emphasized that education played a crucial role in the generation of wider inequities that were the product of wider systemic structures. A particularly influential early inquiry by Bowles and Gintis (1976) provided a wealth of empirical data that demonstrated that the education system both reflected and reproduced wider inequalities. Other scholars (e.g., Giroux 1983), however, took issue with this overly deterministic approach. They maintained instead that these inequalities played out in more intentional and subtle ways in the day-to-day interactions in schools. Policies and practices generated unique cultures where taken for granted practices – such as the hidden curriculum – provided advantages for some students at the expense of others. As a result already-marginalized students continued to be disadvantaged, while the privileged continued to benefit from the system.

It was not until the 1980s that scholars in educational administration and leadership imported these views. Drawing on sociology of knowledge and Frankfurt School ideas, scholars (e.g., Bates 1980) exposed the inequities associated with management and leadership practices. In doing so, they both critiqued current approaches to inquiry in leadership and advocated for change. Among other things, they demonstrated how the research at the time – positivist, postpositivist, and subjectivist – was not neutral, but worked to prop up leadership practices that sustained an inequitable status quo. Others identified leadership practices that generated equity in educational organizations. Operating under the social justice leadership banner, these scholars both critiqued the idea that leadership practices are naturally neutral and fair and studied leaders who promoted equity, inclusion, and social justice.

Only recently has equity politics been embraced as a legitimate part of the field of educational politics. The first substantive offering appeared as part of a Politics of Education Yearbook (Marshall 1991), and the chapters were described as representing the new politics of race and gender. Other articles, book chapters, special issue journals, and edited books have followed. They have explicitly targeted the allocation of value processes in education, educational administration, and leadership. They have explored issues of school finance, segregation and desegregation, school services, gifted students, and urban governance. These and other scholars make the point that many school policies, and, in particular, recent reform efforts are not neutral, but highly political and value laden, often obscuring race, class, and gender inequalities (Cooper et al. 2008)


To this day, political inquiries continue to be a staple of research in the field of educational leadership and administration. The research traditions that provided the foundation for systems, micro-, and equity political approaches still guide these inquiries, although contemporary approaches continue to develop and transform. Whatever the approach, it is evident that scholars have come to acknowledge the place and importance of politics in educational leadership in education.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Ontario Institute for Studies in EducationUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada