Education Opinion

Can Principals Be Instructional Leaders?

By Michelle Rhee — May 29, 2014 4 min read
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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.