Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Schools Really Need Principals?

By Peter DeWitt — November 30, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Some educators may be yelling “No!” at their screen, while others may be yelling “Yes.” The answer to the question of whether schools need principals may be dependent on your relationship with your principal. Many of us have wondered what would happen if we opened our own schools. Over the past few years with increased mandates and accountability measures, that question comes up more and more...even with school leaders. We dream of a community school where all stakeholders have a say, including the students and parents.

That should be the way it is in every school...but it doesn’t seem to be going in that direction. Some may say that schools never really allowed students and parents to have much of a voice.

Remember, being that this is a dream, we also work with teachers, students and parents who pull their own weight, and just because this is a dream, we can have debates about radical ideas that end up working well because everyone comes to consensus at the same time...in a dream.

And then of course, we get into our cars, drive to our schools and realize that teachers and leaders don’t have as much control over their days as everyone on the “outside” may think. And students definitely don’t. The reality is that as the constraints become tighter, our dreams of having more control become bigger. And our community school dream gets pushed back to the corners of our mind.

But...it does lead us to think about the roles we all have in our schools. Do schools really need principals? What role does a principal play in school? Are they the disciplinarian only? Do they contribute to curriculum and instruction discussions or do they lack the experience to do that? Are curricular choices based on what all stakeholders agreed on or are they forced on staff by the school leader?

In our dreamed-up community school, we would never focus on compliance. We would focus on meeting the needs of all students and not get caught up in the adult issues that can plague schools. Point scales on evaluations? Never going to happen, because we all see the bigger picture and don’t need those compliance-based examples of holding people accountable.

A School Without a Principal

Don’t get me wrong, I know many school leaders at the building and district level who do an outstanding job fostering collaboration among teachers, and listening to the feedback of students and parents. But let’s be real, we have all worked for leaders who were not as engaging...supportive...democratic.

There have been, and still are, principals who don’t provide much feedback, don’t seem to know a great deal about learning, and focus on test scores more than anything else in the school. Sometimes it feels as though principals block creativity more than they foster it because they focus on rules.

So some schools are moving forward without principals...I guess that dream of a community school isn’t so far away.

Some schools are taking on a much more Democratic stance to education, and they are bypassing the school principal in the process. In this US News and World Report article, Allie Bidwell wrote,

More often, teachers across the nation are looking to restructure their schools' governance models and run them on their own. At a time when teacher evaluations and accountability have become linchpins in widespread and federally backed school improvement plans, the movement is born partly out of a frustration with the structure of America's public school system and top-down reform. Currently, there are nearly 60 so-called teacher-powered schools nationwide in cities such as Denver, San Francisco, Boston and Cincinnati."

During a time when schools seem to be overly concerned with being compliant to the next big demand coming down from the state or federal level some school districts are going in an opposite direction by moving forward without a principal.

Call it a pilot program...or whatever you like, but it’s an interesting idea. And since I was a principal for 8 years I do wonder what it looks like to have a school without one. In this guest blog in Education Week, Kim Ursetta a teacher in a Colorado school without a principal, wrote,

Our school is teacher-led; with no principal. We serve 300 students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Teachers control curriculum delivery, choose resources and materials, manage student conduct, and establish a positive school culture. In exchange, we embrace higher accountability and increased collaboration. We implement our own peer-review process, and divide the administrative roles among our teachers, who work in teams. Our students choose "passion areas" to study that are infused with mathematics and science. Parents are critical partners, and volunteer daily in our classrooms. Class sizes are capped at 25 so that our students can receive more personalized learning. Technology is an integral part of daily instruction. Our students also benefit from a well-rounded curriculum including music, art, physical education, and a science laboratory. Those that have visited often report an incredible energy and excitement from teachers, parents, and students about their learning."

But...Don’t We Need Principals?

I’m not adverse to a school without a principal, but keep in mind that the principal isn’t always responsible for accountability and mandates. However, a principal does set the tone of the school climate. If they only focus on compliance, the climate will stifle creativity.

As great as community schools may sound, if the structure of a teacher-led school is not strong it will not be any better than a school with a principal. In this Education Next article which focuses on the teacher-led school, Beth Hawkins interviewed Richard Elmore and focused on teacher-led schools. Hawkins writes,

Adolescents--their life work is to sniff out the hypocrisy of adults; that's their full time job," observes Harvard education professor Richard Elmore. "So you're setting yourself up when you put yourself in that situation. You really do have to act according to your beliefs or the structure you set up doesn't have any authority for kids and it just becomes chaos." According to veterans, teachers often imagine the absence of a full-time administrator means no hovering boss, but few are prepared for the demands of a system that can't afford free riders. "Small communities tend to be pretty vicious about driving people out who don't do the work because there's no one there to soak up the difference when the work doesn't get done," says Elmore. "They operate according to a pretty powerful normative structure."

Hawkins goes on to write,

Without a strong structure, teacher-run schools are vulnerable to collapse when core members retire or move on. EdVisions cofounder Doug Thomas worries that a minority of the co-op's 250 members are truly invested as owners. "I'll be brutally honest," he says. "About a third of the people who belong really get it. A third like the idea but they're really busy. A third look at their check every month and wonder, 'Why does my paycheck come from EdVisions? What is that?'" If he had it to do over, Thomas would constitute the schools as nonprofits, chiefly to make it easier for teachers to write grants."

In the End

Principals, good principals involve all stakeholders in the decision-making process, but that probably happens less in reality and more in our dreams. Principals also don’t have as much control over the day as others would believe, and in this day and age of school safety, they have that as their #1 priority.

I think our world needs to have a variety of schools that look different from one another. No one model should rein supreme because we should not be one size fits all. I’m sure there are some great teacher-run schools, and I also believe there are great principals who lead by a democratic process. Problems occur when we start comparing the two too much and have an “All or nothing” mentality with how all schools should look.

However, teacher-led schools should give us pause, especially if we are school leaders. What kind of legacy will you leave behind when you are finished being a principal? Do you encourage risk taking or rule following? As a leader, do the teacher leaders you choose merely act as minions who follow through on all of your orders, or are they diverse-minded individuals who bring strength to a decision.

And most importantly, do students feel as though the school is a place that fosters individuality and student voice, or do they feel that school is a place that doesn’t listen to their input? Teacher led schools or schools with a principal won’t matter unless students feel like they have a voice and that begins by giving teachers a voice.

Connect with Peter on Twitter

Peter will be a panelist for ASCD’s Whole Child Symposium on teacher leadership in Washington DC on Wednesday, December 3rd.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.