Opinion
Education Opinion

Can Principals Be Instructional Leaders?

By Michelle Rhee — May 29, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Michelle and Jack continue their discussion about effective principals, considering whether it’s possible to promote “instructional leadership” in K-12 schools

Rhee: You ended our conversation Tuesday with several questions about whether principals can be instructional leaders. I actually agree on your first point—that great principals need to have been successful teachers first, and that not all great teachers will make great principals.

With regard to your questions about instructional leadership, I think the frequency of being in the classroom is a cultural thing. I know some principals who are in classrooms very regularly and their teachers really like that and the feedback that they get. They feel the principal is truly seeing what their classroom looks like every day. I also know some great principals who observe less frequently and that works, too. Again it’s about the culture that they set, and the relationships and trust they foster more than it is about the specific number of times they visit.

But you seem to be arguing against yourself on your last point. Are you saying that principals can’t be expected to be instructional leaders and do the operational pieces of their job because it’s too much? I agree it’s a lot. That’s why it’s so hard to be an effective principal. And I think good leaders figure out how to build a team that can help them so they don’t have to do every single thing themselves while ensuring everything does get done.

Schneider: Our most successful principals are not only exceptionally talented, but they also work 80 hour weeks. How, I wonder, are we going to find a great principal for each and every one of the 100,000 public schools in the United States?

I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine we can recruit two football stadiums full of exceptional leaders—leaders who are great teachers, who are willing to put their personal lives on hold, who have the right set of dispositions, and who can run a small business at nonprofit wages. What I do think we can do, however, is engineer the principalship so that it doesn’t require such rare talent and such extreme sacrifice.

One way to do this is by dividing up the principalship, distributing leadership as many organizations do. Most assistant principals currently spend their time on management tasks that inhibit involvement with the instructional program—issues like scheduling, discipline, and lunchroom supervision. But what if assistant principals were the chief learning officers in a school? Not only would this bring more capacity to bear on the issue of instructional leadership, but it would also reduce the burden on principals and make that position more attractive.

Rhee: Interesting. I am definitely open to it. I’ve just found in my experiences of managing schools that if the principal isn’t the instructional leader with some real credibility on the insights, feedback, and direction they are giving to teachers, it falls short. I don’t think it’s impossible to do, and I’d certainly think it’s one option to look at. But on top of the fact that in a whole lot of schools there isn’t the budget for an assistant principal, I also think that creating the right dynamic that you’re talking about might be pretty rare.

Schneider: The average principal spends 50 percent of her day on managerial tasks. Another 20 percent goes to political tasks. Only 13 percent of the average principal’s time is spent on instruction.

So we can train a whole cohort of principals to be instructional leaders. But the reality is that once they enter schools, they are going to have a lot of other responsibilities competing for their attention.

Principals can’t do it all. Attrition rates attest to that. In New York, for instance, half of schools are managed by a principal with less three years of experience.

What choice do we have, then, but to reimagine the nature of school leadership? The principalship is a product of the 19th century, after all, when schools were small enough and their aims simple enough that they didn’t require formal leadership. Principal is short for “principal teacher"—a position usually assumed by the most experienced of the three or four teachers in the school. As schools grew larger and more complex, an entire administration developed. Yet leadership of most aspects of school life remained the domain of the principal.

Last week I talked a lot about the importance of building district capacity—something that doesn’t really get a lot of attention in reform rhetoric. And I think reimagining the principalship is similar in importance and similar in the kind of systemic impact it might have. So many reform efforts, like value-added measures of teacher effectiveness, are rooted in distrust. Policymakers don’t have confidence in teacher growth, and they don’t have confidence in principals as evaluators. So they’re trying to short-circuit the system. I’d prefer building systems we can trust, which of course would take a tremendous amount of investment—of time, money, and energy. But it also might work.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP