Education Opinion

Restructuring the Principalship

By Mike Schmoker — March 27, 1991 10 min read
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The education community, in its frenetic search for the new and the innovative, is sometimes guilty of overlooking the obvious. And its attention span can be short.

Over the past decade, plenty has been written and said about the critical role of the principal in school improvement. The late Ron Edmonds and the effective schools movement made this terribly apparent to us, providing as the centerpiece of what became a quiet revolution the concept of a “strong instructional leader.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., the oft-quoted former assistant secretary of education, once said, when asked to name the single most important reform we could institute, that it would be to “hire the best principals ... and give them wide authority and responsibility.”

And for those to whom “wide authority” sounds out of sync with the move toward site-based governance, there is the psychiatrist and social analyst William Glasser, whose recent book The Quality School celebrates management on a totally non-coercive model. For him, “The school principal is the crucial element in educational reform.”

Evidently we aren’t convinced, or we’ve run out of energy for a battle eminently worth fighting: the battle for better management, of which the school principalship-- even at sites where shared decisionmaking prevails-- remains the linchpin.

The principal’s roles and duties in this era of rapid reform changes still represent that unfortunate dichotomy of what we know we should do and what we do. They are as retrograde as anything we would want to restructure in education. According to one study, the principal still exists primarily as a “building manager” --someone who is “simply not encouraged to reflect on instructional matters,” but instead attends to “buses, buildings, and budgets.” This view has not changed significantly in the last decade.

Yet anyone whose work affords them the time to read and reflect on educational matters knows how important that reflection is, how intrusive it would be if the more urgent nuts-and-bolts business of “running a school” consumed all time and energy. This is precisely the situation that, with few exceptions, faces most principals. And because it runs counter to some basic tenets of good management, it is a situation we should know will preclude any real improvement in our schools.

Good management-meaning management that promotes high-quality work and productivity, ongoing improvement, and employee satisfaction-has to be active, reflective, and close to the action. Its influence has to be felt. The management wizard Tom Peters, in his bestselling In Search of Excellence, suggests that managers ought to spend about two-thirds of their time with those they manage: talking, listening to, following up, sharing ideas with groups and individuals as a matter of routine.

Yet we persist in overwhelming principals with far too many non-academic concerns that distract them from their most important duties, while saddling them with supervisory ratios that favor the worst kind of management-if it can be called management at all.

Even allowing for the differences that exist between the profit-making world of business and the nonprofit learning enterprise, we must ask ourselves if principals can afford not to spend time “walking the shop floor,” observing, talking with, and examining the work of their employees and the results of that work. Can they be sufficiently aware and have a real influence on what goes on in a school through less direct means?

There is abundant evidence to indicate that they can’t, that the typically harried principal in too many cases lacks a meaningful grasp of the academic concerns that matter most. A recent and damning case in point for me were last summer’s results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading. NAEP found that for all the proliferation of reading and writing initiatives that followed the publication of A Nation at Risk, surprisingly little-indeed, shockingly little-reading and writing is being done in American classrooms. Students, as a rule, aren’t analyzing or writing about even the minimal amount of reading they’re doing. They’re doing almost anything but actual reading and writing.

I served on an English faculty that, as a department, devoted perhaps one day to letting students write their own short stories-with no time or opportunity for rewriting. This was followed by almost two weeks given over to “publishing” the work by making an elaborate cover and binding for it. These activities, in tum, were followed by a three-week mythology unit that consisted of students’ watching Hercules movies, making and wearing their own togas and garlands, and then making a fruit-salad version of the gods’ “ambrosia.”

The students wrote about two brief paragraphs during this time, filled out a few worksheets, were lectured to, but read nothing. Is this the way to promote literacy? But, more to the point, could anyone in a position to influence instruction have thought that it did? If these kinds of abuses of academic common sense could occur-and they manifestly continue to-what else might be happening in our schools?

For all the sound and fury, the conventions, the new reading and writing programs, it took a nationally-conducted survey to tell us what we wish principals could have known-and thus prevented: the abysmal level to which language-arts instruction was sinking, despite an outward semblance of improvement.

Would anyone argue that the least we should expect from management is a high level of awareness? Whether the management is top-down or site-based or participatory in the extreme, shouldn’t it be well-acquainted with the process or the results of teachers’ efforts?

You can’t fight what you can’t see. And even Tracy Kidder, in his bestseller Among Schoolchildren, noticed that “teachers work in curiously insular circumstances.” We educators have probably become blind to what even the most uninformed in the general public might find a glaring deficiency in our schools: the fact that, in many, no one is actively evaluating teacher performance; the principal, as often as not, isn’t expected to make a real difference in the quality of instruction. My hunch is that the average person would never guess that instructional supervision comes down to a comfortable, if usually meaningless regimen of two or three annual evaluations per year.

Why is this the case? Wilma Smith and Richard Andrews, in Instructional Leadership, their 1989 study of what principals do, point out that a principal’s academic priorities suffer under “fragmented expectations and diverse roles.” It is this that accounts, they say, for the fact that “the average classroom is an island unto itself: rarely intruded upon by a school administrator for evaluative or improvement purposes.”

This is worse than startling. There is deep cynicism implicit in our neglect, not only of those employees we know need help, but of the majority of good teachers for whom isolation is no compliment. It is more often for them an indication that their performance and their contribution is not worth acknowledging--or developing. This may account for those research findings that suggest good teachers do their best work during their first seven years. Ignored, under-appreciated, and alone, they begin to lose that vision and motivation needed to forge a career.

For most people, recognition, interaction, and feedback are essential spurs to innovation and improvement. All our talk in education about professional trust and autonomy will sound pretty thin until we provide school management that can assure these essentials to classroom teachers.

We are seeing a new emphasis today on collegiality and teacher empowerment, which has exciting potential. This may in fact relieve the instructional leader from having to be the one all-knowing instructional expert in every subject area. But the trend toward site-based governance and the inevitable flowering of the outcomes- based paradigm will require real management and consensus-building skills.

The belief that the principal’s importance in this new era will be diminished is a myth. Ask principals what these innovations have meant to their schedules. Every successful case of site-based governance, of successful implementation of site-based leadership and outcome-based education usually attests to the absolute necessity for strong, active leadership. The chief responsibility for sustaining a sense of vision and a desire for constant improvement will be the principal’s, and will demand considerable time and intellectual energy.

The demand for responsibility and accountability that these movements are a response to will require not less, but more work from everyone involved. A spirited and informed leadership will be required. Every principal will have to devote considerably more time to measurement, assessment, and constructive evaluation. They will have to find far more time for communicating, both with individuals and with group , so that they can build consensus around the best research and information available as well as the often disparate contributions of faculties in ferment.

I would put my money on management that wisely relies on teacher participation and empowerment without being silly enough to think that leadership, in this paradigm-busting era, is a part-time job.

Still, the public perception that schools are “top-heavy” in administration persists, and it may be the chief obstacle to change. An articulate spokesman for an anti-tax group, an attorney, was famous for talking during a recent tax-override referendum in my city about “administrative excesses” in the schools. When I told him how busy building administrators are kept, that they supervise between 30 and 40 employees, he simply told me he had “never seen a school administrator who was overworked.” People buy this rhetoric, and are slow to discriminate between real excesses and the desperate need for more, not less, management.

Simply put, more thought and energy-- which translates into time, and probably into money--will be required of today’s principals than ever before. And the chief impediment facing them is the traditional belief that they can and should “do it all.” It is time for us to find ways to free up some hours in principals’ overburdened days, to reevaluate all the duties we’ve assumed they “must” attend to, and to more carefully consider their central significance as catalysts for change and improvement. Currently, they have the least amount of time for what’s most important.

What education needs is an unrelenting, rather than glancing, examination of the principalship--one that will result in what may seem a contradiction: more leadership from the bottom as well as the top. Because up until now, schooling has been characterized less by poor management than by a near-absence of it.

We can no longer afford to be bashful about our need for more “administrators.” We either need additional people or different arrangements that will protect the principal from at least some of those tasks that distract him or her from the academic matters that should take priority.

We already know that where active, academically-oriented management prevails, schools succeed: the teacher’s perception of the principal as an instructional leader is a chief determinant in academic growth--especially among low-achieving students. Should this surprise us?

If districts, communities, and the site-based teams that are springing up across the country are serious about doing more, a lot more, for students, then better management is an issue we need to return to, parents, teachers, and public alike. Without it, we will continue to talk, just talk, about ideas and improvement and innovations.

Educational improvement is about more than good ideas. It is about energizing people to see those ideas through to their successful implementation. That is a management concern, and until we attend to it, we will continue to be the fractious and inert institution, the “elephantine blob,” our detractors see us as.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 1991 edition of Education Week

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