Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

‘Highly Qualified’ Principals

January 08, 2008 3 min read

To the Editor:

I read with interest and amusement the article “Policy Focus Turning to Principal Quality” and the three Commentaries “Getting Serious About Leadership,” “Toward the ‘Highly Qualified’ Principal,” and “How States Can Build Leadership Systems,” all regarding principal preparation, in your Dec. 12, 2007, issue. As a professor of school administration for approximately 20 years, I wondered, “Where have their writers been?”

Three of the Commentary authors, Paul D. Houston, Gerald N. Tirozzi, and Gene Bottoms, all know full well that there has been a focus on improving principal preparation for a number of years. Don’t they remember the “effective schools movement” in the 1980s and the role of the principal in making schools effective? This led to Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards, National Association of Elementary School Principals and National Association of Secondary School Principals standards, American Association of School Administrators standards for superintendents, and the formation of the Educational Leadership Constituent Council affiliated with the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Furthermore, most states in the 1990s and the early part of this century developed their own standards for school principals.

In New York state, we had a brief focus on school leadership. In the 1990s, the state education commissioner convinced the legislature to fund a leadership academy primarily concentrating on improving principal preservice and in-service preparation and support. A director of this academy was hired with much fanfare. Further, a blue-ribbon panel on school leadership was formed, and crafted a set of standards for school leaders that was later the foundation for state certification changes. And, interestingly, not a whole heck of a lot has changed.

In most instances, preparation programs look essentially the same today as they did in 1980. Sure, there may be a stronger focus on principals’ using data to make school improvements, but I see few other significant modifications. Why is this?

As the school critic Myron Lieberman once noted, policymakers are more interested in the illusion of change than in actually making substantative change. If we are to significantly improve principal preparation, orientation and induction, and ongoing development, we have to commit the resources over an extended period of time until the entire culture of the profession is altered. There is not the political will (and perhaps not the interest) to do this.

Resources are scarce, and maybe improving principal training is not the correct lever to lift schools out of failure—but I can sure find many other less worthy levers being supported.

William D. Silky

Professor of Educational Administration

State University of New York

College at Oswego

Oswego, N.Y.

To the Editor:

“Highly qualified” principals may soon be designated simply as those who raise test scores. The ones that increase parent involvement, improve teachers’ attitudes, stand out in the rain to welcome buses, and sit with kids as they eat lunch will be lost. A passion for helping children is becoming subordinate to a bottom-line mentality adopted from business models of leadership. There are many nuances to the job that go unnoticed by those who have never tried it.

One issue that seems to be growing is that of organizational climate—how the principal affects the morale of the adults in the school building. Too many writers are either confusing climate with culture or claiming student discipline as a proxy for it. The whole notion behind school climate studies is the belief that a happy teacher is a better teacher. If this is true, then the school leader is challenged to manufacture happiness, either by instituting more happy things or by removing the unhappy things. Sounds simple. What’s more, it may be easier to assess than people think.

One can sense the climate of a building fairly quickly after entering a school. This is a direct result of the principal, good or bad.

Let’s not allow test scores (which can be improved with superior teaching) to be the measure we use to determine whether one person is making a difference. Let’s just ask how many teachers, secretaries, custodians, cooks, and other staff members like coming to work, and how many feel they are driven to do their best.

Steve Gruenert

Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership, Administration, and Foundations

College of Education

Indiana State University

Terre Haute, Ind.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2008 edition of Education Week