Education Chat

Chat Transcript: Leading for Learning—Part 2

A growing number of states and school districts are re-engineering principals’ jobs to emphasize their roles as instructional leaders, according to an Education Week special report. This chat explores the changing roles of school leaders.

Leading for Learning—Part 2

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Question from Yolunda Elam, Bilingual teacher, Duncanville School System:
Do you feel there is a minimum amount of teaching experience one should have before entering into the level of administration? If so, what would that number be? If not, what general qualities would a new mid-level administrator need to possess? Thanks for your time and response. Have a blessed afternoon!

Carole Kennedy:
Yolunda, most of the successful colleagues of mine were teachers for a minimum of 8 to 10 years before moving into administration. However, that doesn’t mean that one cannot be successful with less experience. Much depends upon the individual. You asked for “general” qualities. Here are some qualities I would want an administrator to have, but this list is not intended to be all-inclusive nor in any priority order: intelligent, love of children and desire to make a positive difference in their lives,patience, physical and mental endurance, tenacity, good work ethic,leadership skills, love of learning,good knowledge base of curriculum and pedogogy, appreciation of the arts, understanding of child development and the needs of adult learners and an ability to work with all ages, courage, compassion, curiosity, a good sense of humor......

Question from Karen Hennessey, Teacher- High School:
I am currently taking classes towrds a sixth year in school administration. One of the class discussions became very hot when the topic of removing a tenured teacher from their position if he/she was in inaffective teacher. Some of us felt that the fight was not worth the battle due to the legal ramifications that can occur to the school principal (including lawsuits). When should a principal take on the process of building a case? Does statistics or reserach show that ot can and does happen successfully?

Carole Kennedy:
Karen, ask yourself this question: Would I want my child or grandchild to be in this teacher’s classroom? If the answer is no and there is evidence that the teacher is not effective, then the principal should begin to build a case....always working first to see if the teacher’s performance can be improved. Very few teachers are removed from can be done. I terminated a teacher my first year as a principal. It takes time and you must work with your district to be sure that proper steps are being followed. If you have built a strong case and have the evidence to support it, there should be no legal issue.

Question from Neville L. Matadin, Ed. Supervisor, Adult High School, NJ.:
Shared/disributed Leadership offers a better way in involving teachers in their own development rather than traditional teacher evaluation practices. Comment.

Jeff Archer:
I know a lot of thoughtful people who agree with you. What they tell me is this: Schools will only improve if they find more ways to let teachers benefit from the expertise of their colleagues. At the same time, I know proponents of “distributed leadership” who worry that it’s becoming a buzzword, attached to such a wide range of practices as to have lost meaning.

Researcher James Spillane at Northwestern University is leading some important work in this area by documenting what distributed leadership really looks like. He seems to see it more as a helpful way of looking at the work of schools than as a best practices: that is, good principals know how to evaluate their schools’ situation and distribute leadership to the best effect. (and that might look different in different places)

I wrote about his work in the March 17, 2004 issue of Education Week. (article is titled: “Weaving Webs.” He also has a Web site for the Distributed Leadership Study.

Question from Paul Hoss, 3rd Grade Teacher, Scituate Public Schools, Scituate, Massachusetts:
Principals in Massachusetts today are selected primarily for their PR capabilities. That’s their primary role (and in some districts their only role), public relations. What superintnedent is ever going to abandon these first lieutenants as their first line of defense against parents and local newspapers? Principals as instructional leaders? I think it’s a great idea but it’s a bit euphoric. Superintendents will be very reluctant to abandon the status quo. Also, principals in Massachusetts are supposed to know and evaluate whether teachers are following state standards. Principals know next to nothing of the specifics of state standards per subject, per grade level. ... We recently adopted the University of Chicago EVERYDAY MATH program. Principals haven’t been trained in this new methodology and furthermore don’t care to be trained in it. ... BUT they’ll be in classrooms this year evaluating classroom teachers on this new program. What’s wrong with this picture?

Carole Kennedy:
Superintendents would be better served to hire a PR person and support their principals in becoming leaders for student learning. I know a number of very successful Massachusetts principals who are doing great instructional leadership work in their schools and who wouldn’t agree that their primary role is PR. Their priority is teaching and learning. Principals should attend training programs whenever new curriculum is being introduced so they are aware of expectations for instruction.

Question from Stephanie Farland, Policy Analyst, California School Boards Association:
How can prinipals in states where collective bargaining contracts restrict what teachers can and will do to improve instruction, perform their roles as instructional leaders?

Carole Kennedy:
This is a question without an easy answer: contracts are so varied. In the districts I’m aware of where change has taken place it has happened slowly. When superintendents and union leaders agree that their focus must be on students and their learning, where union and teacher leaders are involved in discussions, where lines of communication are kept open and teachers and principals are proactively engaged in planning and vision building....much depends upon the leadership skills of the superintendent and union leaders. There are also examples of principals using the same ideas having success within the school. We often confuse “leader” with “leadership"--leadership roles can be distributed within the school--this idea could also inform the discussion.

Question from Sharon Burcham, Educational Leadership Consultant:
I am a retired elementary administrator in Maryland. I am aware that Md recommended the additon of school managers to assist principals, as was done in Talbot. Since dollars are always the reason why some systems do or don’t implement new approaches, how did Talbot Co. fund this change? Did they receive a grant from MSDE or some other organization?

Jeff Archer:
Excellent question, and one that raises others. Talbot’s district leaders told me that they paid for the school manager positions by eliminating another position at each of their schools: that of an instructional faciliator, essentially a teacher released from the classroom to coach and support other teachers. Why? District officials said the facilitator position wasn’t having the effect they had wanted, perhaps in part because the person wasn’t really seen as being in a leadership role.

The result is that the change may have actually saved the district some money, since the instructional facilitators were veteran teachers who were paid more than the school managers are paid. Obviously, this kind of move can be controversial, because some would say that instructional leadership really should come from teachers--not the principal. Regardless, that’s how they did it in Talbot. I know of other districts that have done things differently: A few years back I wrote about how the Montgomery Co. Md. system had put teacher leaders in each school--and at the time I recall a principal saying she appreciated it because she didn’t have time to serve as an instructional leader. Clearly, there are various ways to attack the problem.

Question from Maggie Bello, UVA, educational administration doctoral student:
What are some ways to get teachers excited about teaching within the state standards?

Carole Kennedy:
Try having teachers work in teams, give them time to plan instructional units and lesson plans that embed the standards into their daily practice. Encourage them, as a team, to study students’ work, identify problems and victories, and then plan the next step. Collaboration can be powerful, but they must have the TIME to do it productively.

Question from Anthony Normore, Assistant Professor, Florida International University:
This question focuses on “moral obligations” to “counsel out” unpromising leaders from leadership roles:

What are the moral obligations of university faculties and school district personnel regarding the prevention of ineffective leadership among candidates and/or practicing school leaders? Should individuals be permitted to enter leadership training/preparation programs if they show little promise as leaders? Is self-selection for entering programs a valid method?

Thank you.

Carole Kennedy:
Self-selection has been THE avenue of entry to administration jobs. Should it be? I don’t think so. University faculty should ask themselves if they would want their child or grandchild to be in a school led by an ineffective leader. The idea of self-selection is being challenged in school districts that are “growing their own” principals. They want only those who have the potential to be very good leaders. Fairfax County, VA, with some funding from the Wallace Foundation, is an example.

Question from David Lynn, graduate learner, Capella University:
Is there a shortage of school administrators?

Jeff Archer:
Most people I know who’ve studied this say that what we have a shortage of is quality. There are many more people officially eligible to serve as principals than there are administrator positions to fill in this country. Part of the reason is that teachers often get paid more if they get the additional education that makes them eligible to be a principal--even if they have no intention of moving into that role. Surveys that I’ve seen of district leaders suggest they’re not worried about finding somebody to fill their principalships, but they are concerned about the skills those people have.

Question from Tim Maniccia, Director, School Turnaround:
Do you think it would help change the expectations of school boards if we adopted the British term ‘head teacher’, with its strong connotation of instructional leadership, instead of principal?

Jeff Archer:
I’ve always liked the British use of “head teacher” instead of principal. And I do sense that in the UK the lines between teachers and school administrators are, in some ways, a bit blurred. I believe, for instance, that their education unions include both, as opposed to here in the United States. Clearly, the word “administrator” doesn’t conjur up much that has to do with instruction. You’re the first person I know who’s suggested that.

Question from Kara Kitchen, Teacher, Gateway Regional High School:
How can a new principal best affect the instructional practices of vetern teachers to better student achievement?

Carole Kennedy:
Kara, I’m not sure there is a “best” way but I can make some suggestions: First of all don’t discount what a new principal can learn from veteran teachers. If the veteran is not keeping up with changes in pedogogy, curriculum, you can arrange for teachers to visit classrooms of effective teachers...go with a checklist of things to observe, then have a conversation with the principal about the visit. After making several classroom observations develop a professional development plan with the teacher with specific things to address....give the teacher support while he/she attempts to make change....put veteran teachers in teams with enthusiastic new teachers--they will learn from each other. BUILD A RELATIONSHIP with these teachers.....

Question from Dr. Alex Schneider, Kfar Shmaryahu Rishpon, Israel:
Traditionally, school principals are selected from experienced teachers working in the field of education. During the last century, educational systems have gone through major conceptual changes, including changes of role for educational leaders. Modifications of the principal’s role have led to broadened requirements for fulfilling the task. This may lead to a shortage of candidates for headship. In this case the recruitment of additional candidates for leadership roles may become an increasing challenge. One possible solution may be found by integrating personnel from beyond the field of education with the right qualities, abilities and capabilities willing to take this mission upon themselves please comment on that possibility .

Jeff Archer:
There is some support for doing that, though it’s unclear just how widespread. Michigan changed its rules a while back so that people who haven’t been teachers can serve as principals. What I’ve heard from the field, however, is that, for the most part, districts there continue to seek out administrators with teaching experience. Some groups are advocating similar deregulation elsewhere. Others however say that while having been a teacher does not ensure success as a principal, it is nonetheless essential if you are going to lead a school toward improved instruction.

Question from Isben Jeudy, Vice Principal, Jericho High Shool New York:
What area of school leadership do you think need additional research to help deal with student achievment and administrative supervision?

Carole Kennedy:
The areas of certification and licensure...meaningful professional development (Where/how do practicing principals get the type of development they need?), the use of data to improve instruction, how principals deal successfully with adult learners, interviewing and hiring practices (hiring staff) , impact of teacher evaluation on student achievement....are some areas that come to mind.

Question from Tim Maniccia, Director, School Turnaround:
I was struck by the number of principals in Jeff’s article that felt unprepared for the role of instructional leader given than 99% are former teachers. If the complaint they make is accurate, why haven’t administrator-preparation programs been more responsive to this need?

Jeff Archer:
Great question. Most of the people I spoke with would say it’s a matter of incentives. Admin prep programs have little reason to change so long as they can get students (who, because of state licensure rules must enroll) and so long as their graduates can get jobs. To be fair, most people also would say these programs have been woefully neglected--that universities do not invest enough in making sure their admin prep programs are top-notch. Contract that to what universities spend to improve the training that goes on in their business schools.

Question from Carol Stephens, teacher, Cobb County Schools, GA:
Do you see hiring a businees administrator for a school, instead of an assistant principal, as a cheaper and more effective way to run the business-end of schools, thus clarifying the roles that principals and assistant principals play to be more in line with educational leadership?

Carole Kennedy:
Carol, I don’t know about “cheaper”... would depend on the district and the person hired....and whether or not it is more effective would again depend on the arrangement and the individuals. There would be role clarification if this is done. Those districts with which I am familiar that are using managers are finding it works for them. Time will tell if it’s a good educational and financial move. At least the districts are attempting to address the problem of principal overload and indicating their expectation for principals to be involved in instructional issues.

Question from Clyde G. Colwell, Ed.D, Director of Language Arts Services, K-12, Abington Heights School District, Clarks Summit, PA:
NCLB poses a lot of serious questions to administrators. Is NCLB forcing us to abandon “real curriculum” for “test prep” instruction? Is meeting the same standards at the same time fair to special subpopulations such as special education and ESL students? Can/should we support/condone the above practices in our districts or fight back?

Carole Kennedy:
Dr. Colwell, your questions are ones that are being discussed at the school, state and federal levels by all stakeholders.....and I’ve not seen any clear-cut answers. The US Department of Education has granted some flexibility for special education and ESL subgroups. This resulted from educators voicing their concerns. No educator can fault the goals of NCLB, but educators are in the schools, know the challenges. I suggest you tell your stories, the impact on teaching and learning in your school/ honest about the challenges, but have suggestions for solutions so you aren’t seen as “whining” because accountability (in some form)is not going away....Don’t take it for granted that nobody is listening.

Question from Rhoda Tillman, Director, Educational Leadership Program, Wilkes University:
How can administrator-preparation programs best prepare principals to carry out the “organizational changes asked of them?”

Jeff Archer:
One trend I’m seeing is greater involvement of business schools in administrator preparation. I believe both Stanford and U.Va. have close partnerships now between their ed schools and their biz schools, so that their students can benefit from both worlds.

Also, I’ve heard many experts say that what prep programs need to do is put candidates into positions where they actually lead change. For the most part, such programs still merely require principals-in-training to do some kind of shadowing of more veteran administrators.

Question from Rich Foley, Professional Learning Executive, Association of California School Administrators:
How are principals dealing with the many demands and pressures of NCLB? Do you see increasing difficulty in retaining principals?

Jeff Archer:
There is a lot of turnover right now. I see more stories of districts in which larger percentages of principals (20 or 30 percent) are in their first couple years on the job. It’s not clear, though, why. Demographics may have a lot to do with it, as we’re in the middle of a wave of retirements.

Clearly, NCLB has a profound effect on principals. Under the law, schools are the main unit of accountability--they’re the ones that face reconstitution if they can’t improve.

On the other hand, one thing I hear again and again from savvy administrators is that they’re able to use outside pressure to make the changes they feel are needed. It gives them a kind of leverage.

Question from Brenda Sears, Graduate Learner, Union Institute & University:
What are some of the current methods used by school districts to monitor the preparedness of school leaders in the area of instructionsl leadership? Are you aware of any studies in which school leaders self-report on issues of the availability of adequate professional development for instructional leadership and their satisfaction with those opportunities?

Carole Kennedy:
Using the hiring process to help determine preparedness, skills and attitudes...unfortunately in many districts there is little supervision of principals which hurts both the district and the principal (feedback on performance is necessary for growth) There are, however, good examples of central office administrators who work with principals on a regular basis...some use mentoring and coaching as so much in education, it depends on the leadership at the district level. I believe that both the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals have studies....also, in the work of the Wallace Foundation, the Institute for Educational Leadership, Southern Regional Education Board, the regional education should find some of the studies you are interested in.

Question from Sue Neiditch Schwartz, Principal, Hebrew Academy:
Doesn’t a significant part of this dilema begin with the superintendent’s vision of the principal’s role? Aren’t a significant number of current superintendents ex-building administrators who learned administration in a different educational climate? Perhaps it is the role of the superintendent that needs realignment first.

Jeff Archer:
Sure. Most superintendents are former building administrators, so they likely came up through the ranks in a culture in which management, not instruction, was a principal’s the main job. I doubt very much that principals can act much more like instructional leaders if their superintendents, school boards, and even state officials feel that’s important.

Question from AJ Beck, Administration and Supervision Graduate Student, Loyola University, Chicago, IL:
How do new principals decide when a position is the right fit, so that they are highly effective leaders in their new culural enviornment?

Carole Kennedy:
Determine when you are in the interview process...ask lots of questions that get to this to principals who are in the district to determine if they are encouraged to be “highly effective” to teachers to see what they say about their principals.....You can usually know by what I call your “gut feeling” if the position is right.....however, sometimes we make wrong decisions! Good luck!

Question from Gary Avery, J.D., Consultant, Law Advisory Group:
How deeply involved should principals be in planning for school safety and security?

Carole Kennedy:
Be as involved as possible, very involved, very, very involved! .......if there’s an incident chances are it will be the principal standing before the TV cameras and that principal better know what the security plan is and how it worked....!

Question from Lucy Michal, Director of Mathematics, El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, El Paso, Texas:
Carol: We are currently working to develop content leadership in principals and assistant principals by using an observation protocol we developed that represents a vision for teaching and learning. Do you know of any resources we can use to further add to principals’ content knowledge to assist them in becoming better instructional leaders, specially in the areas of mathematics and science?

Carole Kennedy:
Lucy, for starters I would check with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the national associations for these discipline areas, your local university, and textbook publishers....

Question from Pam Davis, National Board educator, Maplewood Elementary:
What is the budgetary cost of changing the focus of administrative to instructional?

Carole Kennedy:
Good question, Pam. Cost will depend upon how the district structures the role, the level of expertise within the district, and many other factors. There are creative examples out there that aren’t overly expensive. We should not let cost deter us from studying the possibility. Not improving student learning is very costly!

Question from Pam Davis, National Board educator, Maplewood Elementary:
How do you change the corporate culture of the school district that expects Principals to be administrators, not instructional leaders?

Carole Kennedy:
Changing culture whether at the school or district level is not easy. However, NCLB mandates and the need to increase student learning will force districts to look at school leadership in new ways. Open discussions with district level administrators can be helpful...use examples of schools where instruction leaders are being successful...look at the work of Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker on building learning communities...sometimes principals have to be mavericks who make instructional leadership their first priority in spite of the district’s culture....sometimes a new superintendent can assist in making this type of change.

Ann Bradley (Moderator):
We’re out of time. Thanks to everyone for good questions and to Carole Kennedy and Jeff Archer for answering so many. The transcript of the chat will be available online shortly at

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