Education Opinion

Principal as Leader #TBT

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 20, 2014 3 min read
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Mandates and policies from outside of the system may have changed the shape or direction of education, but have yet to change the system. Changes that may have taken hold in pockets of districts have yet to take hold across the country. We have to wonder why. In December, 1985, Professor Dale Mann from Columbia University’s Teacher College wrote in EdWeek:

If the lesson of the 1960’s was that the federal government cannot drive the system from the top down, the lesson of the 1970’s should have been that neither can it be led from the bottom up.

If we look at the present, we see the federal government has attempted to not leave any child behind and then asked us to race to the top, with little notable result. Now, the support for P-TECH and other STEM initiatives hold promise. We need to step up and meet these system changes with the engagement necessary to make a positive difference. Otherwise, the wheel will turn, energy will be spent, and little will change. The question remains how to step up and meet these system changes.

Professor Mann noted that there was focus on the development of teachers in order to improve student achievement. The burden for success was placed on their shoulders. But, he stated that there was a noticeable absence of focus on leadership development. Teacher PD was abundant, little focus on principals was apparent. He continued:

One explanation for the curious inattention to administrators could be that they are doing a bang-up job. But recall that woolly mammoths were found frozen solid with buttercups in their mouths. It must have started out as a swell day in the meadow.

So here we are again. Swell days are fleeting and rare as wooly mammoths. Faced with 21st century student and economic needs, policymakers and business leaders with reform ideas, mandates aplenty, and scare resources, the principal still leads, often searching wildly for buttercups. The attention to the immediate often pulls leaders off course as they learn new programs, new evaluation systems, new technologies, and new student issues.

From the 1985 article:

The politics of school leadership has been too much about adult working conditions and too little about children’s learning conditions...It is not so much that principals cannot provide instructional leadership as that they have not. This failure is not surprising, because most principals get judged on everything but instruction--their paperwork, their skill at avoiding conflict, their popularity with parents, their ability to get classes covered, buses loaded, and lunches served. If that is what we expect of them, that is what they will deliver...

In 2014, the evaluation of school leaders, mostly based upon The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards (ISLLC Standards), turned the corner. The new draft includes items like “promoting the success and well-being of every student by enhancing instructional capacity.” In order for a school leader to accomplish that, developing instructional leadership skills is paramount.

What is it that is needed in principals that has always been of value, but has become, in this century, a necessity? Building leaders must carry and maneuver the schools through the hills and valleys of a change effort. As we think of development for these leaders, we wonder where they learned to create vision, develop and deliver a strategic plan, apply technology, and understand how children ...all of them...learn.

We wonder if they do still keep things functioning smoothly as Mann observed, or if they are leading instructional success and utilizing assessments to improve the strength and reach of the teaching and learning arm. We wonder where they got to exercise the courage and confidence that allows them to stand as peers with corporate and businesses leaders and higher education faculty and administration and speak with authority about children and what the schools need. We wonder where they go and who they talk to on bad days they don’t want to bring home. We wonder if a human being can be prepared once in a lifetime for a role this complex, fast paced and ethereal. We wonder if leaders aren’t always developing...or in need of it. Let’s be sure we know what is we need from our leaders and support them in ways that keep their hearts and minds open and their schools thriving.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.