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Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as The Principalship

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The Principalship

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School Reform's Missing Imperative

Teacher quality is important, but it is the collection of teachers working with a unified purpose that transforms a school.

The saga of school reform continues into 2000 with changing curriculum and instruction strategies, teacher-improvement initiatives, standards implementation, accountability models, and more. Conspicuously absent from the reform agenda, however, is the important leadership role of the school principal.

How is it possible to improve a school without recognizing and respecting the role of its leader? School improvement takes place where the students are, within the school building. Distant policy gurus, corporate and business leaders, and various legislative bodies may promulgate educational policies and pontificate on their merits, but policies are meaningless without strong leadership to implement them in the school—the critical leverage point where teaching and learning happen.

Changing America's schools, reforming educational practice, and realizing student-achievement gains do not take place one classroom at a time. Teacher quality is important, but it is the collection of teachers working with a unified purpose that transforms a school. Academic excellence for students, with long-term, sustained improvement, must take place across grades and across academic disciplines. Reform strategists who concentrate only on improving teachers are captives of celebrating small "victory gardens" when the need is for an "amber waves of grain" approach to whole-school reform.

Schools cannot be transformed, restructured, or reconstituted without leadership. The burden falls on the principal to provide the instructional acumen, curriculum support, professional-development opportunities, data-driven decisionmaking, and visionary perspective to mold a faculty of teachers into a unified force to advance academic achievement for all students. In this construct, the school becomes the unit of analysis and accepts its rightful place as the focal point of accountability.

Within the school walls, there must be continuity of purpose and a shared commitment to excellence. Establishing this climate and preparing and engaging a faculty for this age of accountability requires enlightened leadership. The principals of 21st-century schools will not be recognized and rewarded based only on their management skills; they will be applauded for their ability to lead the school toward curricular change, innovative and diversified instructional strategies, better decisionmaking, and accountability models for students and staff members. The litmus test for the principalship will be rooted in results—improved student achievement. Of course, with a litmus test must come genuine support for the principal.

It is difficult to comprehend why we lack the national resolve to commit ourselves to excellence in school-based leadership.

The business and corporate community has long considered enlightened leadership a prerequisite for successful change. It cultivates young leaders and provides extraordinary resources for their development. Ask Wall Street. No reputable mutual-fund manager would think of investing in companies that do not have strong leadership. This commitment to developing and ensuring strong leadership extends to the armed forces, where we provide officer-training programs and service academies for preparing leaders for all military services.

Considering the pivotal role leadership plays in all spheres of our national life, and the high regard and recognition accorded to leaders in other fields, it is difficult to comprehend why we lack the national resolve to commit ourselves to excellence in school-based leadership.

The need for a new and revitalized commitment to the principalship takes on greater urgency as it becomes more evident that we face a potential shortage of school principals, especially at the high school level. The issue is not a lack of enough certified individuals for these positions; it is, rather, that the pool of high-quality candidates who have the will to do the job is rapidly diminishing.

While teachers have received well-deserved salary increases, communities and school boards have been reluctant to adjust principals' salaries proportionately.

There are many possible reasons for this lack of interest in pursuing the principalship, from long hours and lack of adequate support to new forms of scrutiny and the constant threat of legal actions. In addition, over the past several years, while teachers have received well-deserved salary increases, communities and school boards have been reluctant to adjust principals' salaries proportionately. The resulting "salary compression" has removed a strong incentive for taking on additional responsibilities.

There are, of course, thousands of outstanding women and men who daily and proudly perform the duties of the principalship on behalf of America's students. If ever there was a time to recognize them for their efforts, it is now. Now is also the time that we must focus on, and commit time and resources to, the leadership needs of tomorrow's schools.

What will it take to recognize, respect, prepare, reward, and compensate those individuals who take on school leadership? The following recommendations are a start, but each will need support and commitment at the national, state, and local levels:

•Dramatically transform principal-preparation programs in higher education, which generally are woefully lacking and staffed by individuals who have very little, if any, experience in school leadership.

•Provide an intensive induction and mentoring program for all new school administrators.

•Commit significant funds to allow for comprehensive, sustained professional-development programs for the principalship.

•Establish a national school leadership academy with a commitment and resolve similar to that which we have for our military academies.

•Institute a national board for recognizing exemplars in the principalship—building on the model of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

•Celebrate school leadership and encourage individuals both from within and outside the field of education to pursue careers as school principals.

•Establish a federal student-loan-forgiveness program for those who are committed to a career in school leadership.

•Encourage states to provide additional financial resources to communities to allow for much-needed salary compensation to principals and assistant principals. Bonus incentives also should be considered.

•Ensure that the voice of the principal is heard at all levels of school reform discussions and debates.

•Occasionally, pause and seek out a school principal and say "thank you" for what he or she does on behalf of America's children.

School reform will not happen if the principal is not a central part of the equation.

What we need is a sea change in our thinking about the importance of school leadership, and an enlightened vision of how a school actually is transformed. School reform will not happen if the principal is not a central part of the equation. Only that individual can build a collective sense of mission in a school and give a coherent focus to our disparate avenues of reform.

A new millennium demands a new mindset. Are the reformers and policymakers listening?


Vol. 19, Issue 29, Pages 44,68

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