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'Untie My Hands': A Principal's Plea

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I am a school principal, and I’m proud of what I do—especially of my work’s continuing impact on teachers’ effectiveness and students’ learning. Because of this, I’m also committed to being held accountable for the myriad responsibilities principals assume, the most important being the improvement of student achievement.

But as you hold me accountable, I would ask that you give greater thought to a number of factors that affect my job. Here are a few simple requests:

Evaluate my performance comprehensively. My primary role is to be an instructional leader, focused on improving student learning outcomes. But, as everyone must know by now, that’s not a principal’s only role. As Congress’ recent resolution declaring October 2009 National Principals Month indicated, I’m an educational visionary, an assessment expert, a curriculum innovator, a professional-development leader, a community-builder, a public relations professional, a budget analyst, a facilities manager, a technology leader, a special-programs administrator, a restaurant manager, a safe- and drug-free-school administrator, a disciplinarian, a guardian of various legal, contractual, and policy mandates and initiatives, and a leader in improving programs for students with special needs and English-language learners.

My leadership world is not confined to standardized-test scores, yet my evaluation is. If all those other roles factor into my job, they should also factor into my evaluation.

Allow me the time to complete the job. There’s no secret to school improvement. It takes hard work, perseverance, consistent leadership, and, perhaps most importantly, time—perhaps five to 10 years, according to the respected education researcher Michael Fullan. Yet the advocates of instant school transformation still grasp futilely for substitutes to this prescription. There are, in fact, alternative school models, but whether I’m in a charter, a magnet, a private, or a comprehensive public school, I need the time to change that school’s culture, its faculty’s mind-set, and the community’s engagement.

I need time to address the pedagogical and curricular needs of my staff members, and to implement appropriate professional-development initiatives. I need time to assess my students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, and to carry out appropriate intervention strategies. The false urgency we often encounter in education is built on a foundation of anxiety, anger, and frustration. Given the track record in effecting real and sustainable change in U.S. schools, we’d do well to heed the Latin adage festina lente: Hasten slowly!

Provide me with the resources and professional development to enhance my leadership. It’s an exciting time to be a principal. The education universe is rapidly changing, calling for new skills for principals. I wholeheartedly embrace these changes, and want to provide my staff members with enlightened and visionary leadership. But I simply don’t have the resources or the support to fulfill my goals for professional growth.

The state and district provide only minimal support for this aspect of my job. And though federal mandates have placed a spotlight on my performance, neither the U.S. Department of Education nor Congress has deemed my professional growth a priority at budget time. Estimated funds for the federal School Leadership Grant ProgramRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader for fiscal 2010, for example, total just $11 million—or $121.55 for each of the nation’s 90,500 public school principals.

Policymakers recognize the importance of my role enough to issue “shame and blame” pronouncements and threaten my colleagues and me with dismissal. So it’s disheartening to see that all the energy they expend on judging my performance fails to translate into support for more professional development and growth.

Respect my time commitment and my schedule. My work day generally begins between 6 and 6:30 a.m., as the first school buses arrive. It often ends between 9 and 10 p.m., as I finish my rounds at various school athletic events and co-curricular activities, as well as parent, community, and school board meetings. I could get others to cover these activities for me, but I want to be visible and support my students. And frankly, my absence would be interpreted as aloofness and indifference. I can’t take that chance.

I place a premium on personally working with parent groups and community organizations to gain their trust in, and support for, my efforts to improve student learning. In effect, my long school day underscores my strong belief that a successful principal must be seen, heard, and perceived as a full participant in all aspects of school life.

“Accountability must be a reciprocal process,” according toRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader the Harvard University professor Richard F. Elmore. “For every increment of performance I demand from you,” Elmore explains, “I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.”

I’m already accountable. Are those who evaluate my performance prepared to reciprocate? Will I be allowed to select my own teachers and other staff members and make decisions regarding their performance—including termination decisions? Will I be given the opportunity to defend my school’s curriculum and professional-development program? Will I be provided with appropriate staffing levels? Will I receive the budget necessary to support the needs and requirements of my building and staff? If, in fact, I do receive such a reciprocal commitment, then holding me accountable for continually improving my performance is a fair and responsible action.

It is an irony of my working life that, should the various restrictions I face limit my ability to improve student learning to the level desired, my school might be reconstituted as a charter. And then the principal who succeeds me will have all the autonomy I don’t have. I’m simply asking for that autonomy now. Don’t lower expectations for me or my students. Just untie my hands so that I can work to meet them.

Vol. 29, Issue 22

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