A School For Leaders
Nashville--It wasn't much different from most classrooms. The desks showed their age by the random carvings of generations of bored students. At one time, "Emilie & Robert" went together. On another day, someone traced the revolutions of a compass deep into the soft wood.
Today, however, the students were excited. The teacher used the simple, time-honored gimmicks of class participation and reinforcement: "Richard," he said, "you're a doer."
Richard Gulbin--the student, the "doer"--is also a high-school principal from Johnson City, N.Y. And in a little more than an hour, he and his 15 classmates at a summer institute sponsored by Vanderbilt University's George Peabody College for Teachers had covered three large sheets of paper with a list of 57 "problem areas" for elementary-school principals.
The list had begun with the obvious: teacher-student conflicts, teacher-teacher conflicts, attendance, student discipline, parental involvement, irate parents, staff development, scheduling, and building maintenance.
It included problems unique to elementary schools: "mother patrols,'' day care, cooperation with secondary-school principals.
The tribulations of any management position also found their way onto the list: supervision of large groups, reports, dealing with a disloyal secretary.
'Expanding the Frontiers of Knowledge'
Mr. Gulbin scowled in mock exasperation as the teacher, Don Lueder, taped a fourth sheet of paper to the board.
"Don't think of it as another sheet of paper," Mr. Lueder said, to the amusement of the class. "Think of it as expanding the frontiers of knowledge."
When Mr. Lueder, an associate professor in the college's department of educational leadership, asked his students to designate the "important" problems, they selected "people problems"--the kinds of conflicts that demand immediate attention.
"But does anything surprise you that you don't have starred?" he asked.
"Staff development" had ranked seventh on the original list but never made it to the roll call of "what's important."
Kent Peterson, the director of the institute, summed up the lesson of the morning: "Problems tend to push out planning. A lot of these problems [have nothing to do with] improving student achievement."
The 16 principals and other administrators from eight states are among what the institute's organizers believe to be a very small number of school leaders around the country who have received any formal training in their roles as educators rather than building managers. Unlike traditional in-service programs, which many educators term "nuts-and-bolts" sessions, the Peabody institute focused on policy issues and major trends in education.
The typical principal, the institute's organizers believe, has at best been trained only in the mechanics of building operations--supervision of the cafeteria, accounting for student-activity funds, and filling out reports for the central office. One principal who participated in the institute reported that her preparation for the job consisted of being handed a set of keys.
"Historically, we have trained school principals to be at a middle-management level," said Willis D. Hawley, Peabody's dean. "Now, we know that principals can have an important effect on the education in their schools."
The project was conceived as a way to acquaint principals with techniques that have been identified as hallmarks of "effective schools" in the research of James S. Coleman, Ronald Edmonds, Michael Rutter, and others.
Summarizing 15 years of "effective-schools" research in the January-February issue of American Education, Michael Cohen wrote: "A number of effective-schools studies suggest that differences in effectiveness among schools, defined in terms of student performance on tests of basic skills, can be accounted for by ... five factors." Listed first was "strong administrative leadership by the school principal, especially in regard to instructional matters."
Added Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor in the department of educational leadership and co-director of the university's Center for Educational Policy: "This is a more constructive approach than the despair of 10 years ago. We have tried to structure a situation--so they can huddle with other principals to talk about issues and techniques--that is one cut above war stories. We have tried to move them into an analytic mode.
"There's still a tendency to make the gym teacher the principal," Mr. Finn continued. "He's big and tough and speaks loudly ... and is a male. ... We don't have a cookie cutter out of which we want to shape what a principal should be. We do know there is a set of cognitive skills that can be learned and should be taught."
Mr. Finn divided the "cognitive skills" taught at the institute into three categories:
Knowing how students learn and how teachers teach, including the ability to interpret test scores and diagnose shortcomings in the curriculum.
Knowing how to communicate effectively, both orally and in memoranda. "Most [principals] need a lot of attention in their communication skills," Mr. Finn said. "They have never been asked to reflect on them."
Knowing the relationship between national educational policy and what is happening in their districts and schools. "I hope what they have learned in this area they consider important and interesting, not just interesting," Mr. Finn said.
These skills were not wholly unfamiliar to the administrators who came here. But more often than not, according to the institute's organizers, participants had learned the techniques on their own, through trial and error, not in formal preparation based on the experiences and observations of others.
"The things they tick off [in the classroom sessions] are intuitive," said Susan Rosenholtz, a senior associate of the institute. "We try to use the literature that is available to help them identify effective behavior."
Organized around two two-hour classroom sessions and a one-hour seminar each day, the institute sought to expose students to information and techniques aimed at promoting effective instruction and an environment in which it can thrive.
More than 20 faculty members lectured on their specialties, ranging from leadership skills to federal education policy; from teacher burnout to interpreting test scores; from analyzing teaching styles to desegregation; from community relations to the politics of state education policy; from collective bargaining to relations with the central office.
Although each participant received a "dean's scholarship," the cost of the institute ran to about $500, plus travel, lodging, and meals. Many paid their own way; in some cases, school districts helped out, and in one student's case, a foundation paid.
Most of the participants, while complaining good-naturedly about the heavy workload, appeared to find the investment of time and money worthwhile.
Mr. Gulbin, a former athlete, pointed out that coaches customar-ily attend clinics where the best experts are made available. "[But] it's very unusual for you to say you had an opportunity to go to a workshop for principals and talk about the trends in education," he said. "I've never been to a workshop that attempted to deal in so much depth with so many issues on what makes a principal effective."
Projects Put Into Effect
During this school year, each participant will put into effect in his or her own school a project developed during the summer.
For example, Maurice Grant, a high-school principal from St. Louis, is attempting to develop a more concrete way of evaluating teachers. He recalled his own days as a teacher, when one evaluation of his performance seemed to concentrate on the fact that "the shades weren't straight in the classroom."
Sister Julia Sharp, an assistant principal at McAuley High School in Cincinnati, wants to develop a more precise diagnostic test in algebra for incoming freshmen. Many of the students are supposed to have had some instruction in algebra, she said, and in class they are "bored and inattentive." On tests, however, "their performance does not show that they know this material."
Next summer, a new group of principals will come to Peabody, Mr. Peterson said, and this summer's participants will return to report on their projects.
How will the institute's organizers judge their program, say, three years from now?
"Reasonable, tangible evidence that the kids in these principals' schools are learning more," Mr. Finn said.