Education Commentary

Principals, Leadership, and Reform

By Dale Mann — December 18, 1985 6 min read

By centering their recent reforms in the classroom, the states have kept the faith with the importance of teaching. Teachers certainly deserve the attention. But the breathless observation that “it all comes down to the classroom” is too simple a solution to the problems in education. 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.

There is an important role for principals in improving the schools, yet most state reforms have skipped over the schools’ nominal leaders. Compared with the investment in teachers, principals and other administrators are being ignored. One hundred fifty-eight of the enacted state reforms catalogued by the Education Commission of the States are aimed at teachers (another 132 target students). In contrast, between 1981 and 1984 the 50 states implemented just 19 programs for administrators.

The obsession with teachers is Japanese management run amuck--no gain sharing, no productivity measures, no sanctions, no incentives, and no attention to supervisors. If we cannot get Madeline Hunter, the effective-teaching expert, into 84,000 faculty lunchrooms every day at noon, must we give up?

To the extent that anything is being done for, about, or to administrators, it is primarily through that honorable strategy, inservice training. About 30 states have principals’ academies, 16 of which were begun in the last few years.

The way these academies are financed and operated is revealing. Most of the programs rely on user charges and voluntary participation. Thus, the principals who benefit are likely to be those who already have ample resources and commitment; what about the others? As Yogi Berra observed, “If the people don’t want to come out to the park, nobody’s going to stop them.” That’s okay for baseball.

In addition, most of the academies are run under contract to administrators’ associations. Upgrading member skills is at the heart of any professional association, but one must wonder to what extent such groups merely recirculate conventional wisdom.

If inservice training of teachers had worked, legislators would not be experimenting with so many methods of reforming instruction. That inservice training remains the policy of preference for administrators is not encouraging.

Universities have been noticeably absent from these efforts. The new academies have not only bypassed universities, they have also begun to compete directly with them for such mainstays of higher-education income as certification and development credits. To protect their dwindling enrollments--and in a crisis of confidence about what they have to offer practicing school administrators--some universities have diluted program content, eased requirements, dumped research, inflated grades, and lowered expectations. Not all diploma mills operate from the anonymity of post-office boxes.

Why have administrators’ needs for training received such inadequate attention? Policymakers know about organization charts; why have they skipped over principals?

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.

An alternative interpretation is that legislators are bypassing an increasingly vestigial role. What is the logical consequence of the idea of the principal as principal teacher? Principals should lead or get out of the way. Schools in need of improvement, though, are presided over by administrators who find their purposes only in what the teachers are willing to do. Such principals take their model from a king visited by Antoine de Saint Exupery’s Little Prince. That king was careful to order the citizens of Asteroid 325 to do only those things that they already wanted to do.

Such leadership by default sacrifices school improvement to the comity of the adult organization. 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--and what, using their newly developed academies, they will refine.

The literature about effective principals may urge them into classrooms, but unless principals are confident that they can survive there, they are not going to venture beyond the front-office counter. Inservice programs, then, ought to concentrate on instruction-centered topics that make a difference for children.

There have, in fact, been some encouraging moves in this direction. The increase in curriculum topics offered by the American Association of School Administrators’ academy for school executives responds to a need for instructional expertise, as does the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ recently formed commission on professional standards for the principalship.

One of the areas in which instructional leadership is especially needed is the gathering revolution in electronic learning. American public schools are not especially conversant or comfortable with this development. But legislators are determined that someone, somehow, get the schools into the future and vice versa.

Only one group has the purview, the responsibility, and the resources to lead the schools into this new era. That group is administrators, not teachers.

In addition to placing far more emphasis on the guts of instructional leadership, new programs for administrators must reach more than just the well-heeled volunteers. Mississippi, for example, required all its superintendents to attend effective-schools training sessions; the participants had to demonstrate mastery of the components that they would subsequently need to take back to their districts.

Performance reviews are standard practice for teachers; why not for all administrators? Since 1981, only three states have made evaluations, test performance, or other assessment procedures a condition of continued school leadership. And though merit-pay proposals for teachers are now in vogue, only one state--South Carolina--has an incentive-pay program that includes administrators.

Most state education codes anoint principals the “responsible head of the school,” but districts typically spend 5 percent of their operating budgets on maintaining their central offices and less than 6 percent on administering all their school buildings.

Except for inservice training, principals have been untouched by the recent wave of reforms. Perhaps school administrators have been unwilling to call down fire on their own heads. But if administrators matter, the states should recognize that importance by upgrading administrators’ certification requirements, adding professional examinations, installing performance evaluations, encouraging risk taking, recognizing initiative, and instituting rewards for improvements in student outcomes. Maybe then we would get serious about the leadership of the schools.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, is fond of observing that we could fit America’s 100,000 school principals into the Rose Bowl. Maybe we should.

A version of this article appeared in the December 18, 1985 edition of Education Week as Principals, Leadership, and Reform