Principals’ Leadership and Leadership Principles
For much of the past century, the typical role of the school principal was to serve as the manager-in-chief, an administrator who made sure the boilers worked, the buses ran on time and new teachers were hired and placed in classrooms. Certainly, the principal disciplined children who misbehaved and awarded certificates to those with perfect attendance, but to most students the person running the school was usually a shadowy figure, someone lurking on the periphery of their day-to-day educational lives.
In the wake of school reform during the last decade, however, the role of the principal has changed dramatically. Forget a slow evolution of duties—what took place was a sudden seismic shift in expectations by legislators and the public. Needless to say, many principals and district superintendents were caught off-guard.
“The major driver here was the emergence of this era of massive accountability that holds principals and schools responsible for student outcomes in achievement scores,” explains Joseph Murphy, Frank W. Mayborn Professor of Education at Peabody College. “That required principals to learn whole new sets of skills. And these were skills they weren’t hired on, or trained for or promoted for.”
Leadership as a catalyst
The federal data-driven education reform acts, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, brought American school principals under sharp scrutiny. As researchers began examining their data, they realized that the leadership qualities of the principal, or the lack thereof, strongly correlated with student achievement across the board in grades K-12, in small and large, urban and suburban, wealthy and underserved schools. These findings generated a wellspring of programs, such as those supported by the National Institute for School Learning and the Wallace Foundation, with the purpose of expanding upon this data and creating professional development programs, commonly referred to as PD, based on their findings.
Those findings included evidence that leadership by the principal was one of the most pressing issues in public education—second only to classroom instruction—among school-related factors that affect student learning. According to the Wallace Foundation’s report, The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning: “Teacher quality stood above everything else, but principal leadership came next, outstripping … dropout rates, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, student testing, and preparation for college and careers.”
Leadership qualities of the principal, or lack thereof, strongly correlate with student achievement across the board in grades K-12, in small and large, urban and suburban, wealthy and underserved schools.
Most of a principal’s influence is indirect and takes place by raising the standards of education and adding rigor into the curriculum, by motivating both teachers and students to strive for quality education, and by creating a positive work environment for teachers and students. Outstanding principals do not spend most of the day in their offices, but are front and center in the building. When considering both direct and indirect effects, a school leader’s impact on student learning accounts for about a quarter of total school effects. Not surprisingly, these leadership effects tend to have the greatest impact on student learning in schools saddled with the biggest problems. In fact, Wallace Foundation researchers emphatically state in How Leadership Influences Student Learning: “There are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader. Many other factors may contribute to such turnarounds, but leadership is the catalyst.”
Given that principals are so important to raising and maintaining high academic standards, the logical solution would be to remove principals who aren’t up to snuff and replace them with individuals who are. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Experts predict a shortage of principals in the coming years, when as many as 40 percent of the current sitting principals are expected to retire. In addition, the Wallace Foundation discovered “… a significant shortage of individuals willing and able to take on these tasks, especially in the most challenging schools and districts…. Nationally, almost half of superintendents report difficulty in finding qualified and effective individuals to fill principal vacancies.”
All of which places a unique burden on professional development programs: first, to help new incoming principals acquire the skills and techniques that will have a beneficial impact on instruction; and second, to help sitting principals hone their expertise and change activities or habits that interfere with this revised role as instructional leader.
“Being an effective principal is about getting adults to live up to their potential, as the adults get the students to live up to theirs.”
Impact and outcome
School districts across the nation are spending millions of dollars a year on professional development for principals. “The question is: does it make any difference?” asks Ellen Goldring, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Education, Policy and Leadership. “And more importantly, what type of PD would be most likely to improve the leadership practices and behaviors of school principals and ultimately lead to changing the outcomes for kids? A lot of programs are out there, but there’s very limited rigorous research about the impact of these programs. We don’t know much about outcomes. We know they can’t be that great, because given all the money that’s spent on PD, if we were doing a great job then the outcomes would be better.”
What makes the issue so frustrating is that researchers know the qualities and characteristics that make a school principal successful. The downfall has been in crafting professional development that leads to transformational action by school leaders participating in these programs—in transporting them from knowing what to do, to actually being able to do it under the pressure of their own unique circumstances.
One of the biggest differences between being a teacher and a principal is that the principal must be skilled at working and influencing adults. Jody Spiro, director of education leadership at the Wallace Foundation, says an effective principal must be skilled in six primary areas: shaping a vision of academic success for all students, creating a climate that is hospitable to education, cultivating leadership in teachers and other employees in the building, managing people and data to foster school improvement, engaging the support of the surrounding community, and doing all of these tasks in a way that enhances instruction. Spiro adds, “It’s about getting adults to live up to their potential, as the adults get the students to live up to theirs.”
A leader of leaders
It’s difficult for a principal to find protected time for overseeing a new social studies curriculum when the roof is leaking, parents are calling, children don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods and classroom teachers are dealing with burnout. Therefore, a major component of high-quality professional development is helping principals prioritize and manage their time so that their entire school day isn’t spent addressing crisis after crisis. This entails handing off some of those managerial duties to other adults in the school—in other words, becoming a leader of leaders.
Like its myriad counterparts across the country, the Metropolitan Nashville school district has been investing heavily in a variety of professional development programs, workshops and leadership institutes to train principals in specific areas of good instruction. Some of these include the Skillful Observation and Coaching Lab, The Artisan Teacher, and the Principals’ Leadership Academy of Nashville. (See sidebar). Armed with ideas for promoting high-quality instruction, the principals then return to their schools and pass this knowledge forward so teachers can improve their practice. “A lot of principals are telling me that the most effective thing they do is to be visible in the classrooms during the school day,” says Jesse Register, superintendent of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. “They say that observing instruction has had a positive effect on the climate in the school.”
“Principals need to know what good practice is, but that is not enough; they need to know how to engage with it in their schools.”
Of course, it’s tough for principals to be out of the building attending professional development workshops, Joseph Murphy admits. “They put pressure on themselves not to be gone,” he says. “Plus they have financial constraints. And we have a long history of poor professional development—where people went in, got lectured to for three hours and went home.”
The key to creating a pipeline to student outcomes, the experts agree, is to provide job-embedded professional development that is tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of a particular school, and to provide high-quality coaches and/or mentors who can observe, guide and support principals while they are in the trenches, dealing with an onslaught of issues. While it’s much easier to conduct professional development off site, researchers claim that it’s crucial to have a highly trained coach periodically come to the school and observe the principal on the ground, helping him or her design and reflect upon a course of action to solve a particular problem.
“Principals need to know what good practice is, but that is not enough; they need to know how to engage with it in their schools,” Goldring says. She describes an example where a principal wants to hold a meeting with teachers about improving an area where data indicate students are struggling—third-grade math. In a professional development session the principal would practice forming a team, leading that team, developing a plan for improving student math skills, and then would go back and actually call together her third-grade teachers for a meeting. During this meeting the principal would be observed by a coach, who would provide feedback. The best professional development creates a back-and-forth channel between training and practice.
How to eat an elephant
Tom Ward is a former lecturer in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organization at Peabody, most recent director of PLAN and formerly the principal at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, one of the highest-achieving schools in Tennessee. He advocates a “continuous improvement model” for the coach/principal relationship. “A coach helps a principal set smart short-term goals, which are time-bound, relevant and related to the work,” Ward explains. The key to tackling an avalanche of problems in difficult school situations, he says, is for the coach to hold the principal accountable for achievement by focusing on short-term increments.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, for example, includes 5,500 classrooms. Superintendent Jesse Register wants to see change in instructional practice in every one of those classrooms. Given the task of formulating instructional changes in every classroom in their schools, it’s clear why principals would feel overwhelmed.
“Being a principal is a job that’s so big, it’s like eating an elephant,” Ward says. “You’ve got to learn how to break it into manageable pieces if you really hope to achieve what you want to achieve.”
“Being a principal is a job that’s so big, it’s like eating an elephant. You’ve got to learn how to break it into manageable pieces if you really hope to achieve what you want to achieve.”
The Wallace Foundation has chosen to mainly support professional development for new incoming principals—either those in their first years of principalship or those who are assuming the job in a totally new situation, such as an administrator from a middle school who is moving to a high school. In these situations, Spiro says, a coach or mentor can be invaluable. “No matter how much you prepare somebody or how fast they get out of the gate, it’s still a new experience. A mentor will ask critical questions, causing you to be self-reflective and sharing some of his or her experiences when relevant,” she says. “In the past, mentoring was for remedial purposes for a principal who wasn’t doing well, and where a more experienced person was telling an inexperienced person what to do. That’s not what this is. This is a different concept of mentoring where the mentor is a coach.”
She stresses that the mentor-mentee relationship needs to continue for at least three years, and importantly, that mentors or coaches need professional development, as well. “We did a perspective on mentoring and here is our big conclusion: You’ve got to train the mentors. That’s been a missing link.”
Ward believes that although coaches or mentors are not a panacea for principal professional development, they can be valuable, “if for no other reason than that the job is so lonely. Ultimately, you are responsible for every decision made in the building,” he says. “You are the custodian of every student record by law. When a teacher is callous and hard on a kid, you’re going to be the one who has to clean that up. A mentor helps you stay the course when you’re doing the really hard work.”
The multiplier effect
Obviously, professional development for principals is expensive. Experts argue, however, that high-quality professional development, while costly, is extremely cost-effective. Spiro says, “We know that an effective principal is the key factor in teacher satisfaction and in the retention of good teachers. Even beyond money, having an effective principal is the number one issue for teachers. So how do you put a price tag on that? For every one principal we prepare, that principal coaches maybe hundreds of teachers. There’s a multiplier effect.”
Perhaps real cost savings will come about when colleges and universities that grant degrees in school administration critically examine their obligations in this issue. Jesse Register says, “Frankly, I think a lot of the training programs for principals in a lot of our colleges and universities are not very good.”
Goldring agrees, adding, “The million-dollar question is: Why is there a need for PD in the first place to the extent there is, especially for the new generation of principals? If they were being correctly trained and highly prepared, then why is there a need for PD? They just finished their degree program! One of the reasons why there is such a huge need for professional development is because many initial preparation programs—these are master’s degree programs—are not doing their job in preparing people to enter the principalship.”
In the meantime, she believes not only that the funding streams for principals’ professional development must continue, but also funding for rigorous academic research into PD programs. That research will ultimately lead to districts being able to scale up across their school systems and significantly raise the quality of American education.
“I’m an optimistic person,” Goldring says. “I think with better technology and more people focusing on the delivery and implementation of job-embedded PD, and with better diagnostic tools to help principals identify where they need PD—because it’s not one-size-fits-all—then strides can be made.”