Education Opinion

Who Should Be Schools’ Instructional Leaders? Accountable Leadership Depends on Principal

By Ted Elsberg — August 04, 1987 6 min read

In commenting on a recommendation by the Carnegie Forum that schools consider vesting authority in a committee of ''lead teachers,” Secretary of Education. William J. Bennett remarked: “Good grief, you can’t run a school by committee. All the evidence we have points to the importance of strong educational leadership.” That is really the heart of the question. Are we to have schools in which instructional leadership is a group activity, with accountability unclear and responsibility diffused, or will we maintain clear lines of accountability?

No one would argue with the concept that teachers should have considerable involvement in decision-making. Schools run more efficiently and effectively when teacher input is incorporated into the educational process. Instructional leadership, however, belongs in the hands of the principal as head of the school.

All the educational research of the past 20 years has pointed to the importance of the principal as the determining factor in the success of a school. That is why attempts to weaken the role of school principals as instructional leaders are so ironic. And that is why I oppose and will resist any plan that would turn principals into custodians and business managers by stripping them of responsibility for instruction, a responsibility they are most qualified to exercise.

Much of the impetus for the notion of running schools by committee has come from the report issued last year by the task force on the teaching profession convened by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. It is interesting to note the makeup of that task force. Not one school administrator was a member. Nor was a single classroom teacher. The panel did include a number of business executives, so it is worth noting that major corporations are invariably headed by a chief executive officer. We don’t find I.B.M. or General Motors or Chrysler with a committee at its helm. Yet, when business leaders make recommendations for our schools, it seems perfectly reasonable to them to propose a model they themselves reject with good reason.

Let’s look at some of the reactions to proposals to dilute the instructional authority of principals.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, the largest organization in the country representing teachers, said in April of last year, “We must have schools where principals can be instructional leaders.” An article in The New Republic, a magazine generally liberal in outlook, criticized the Carnegie report for ignoring the crucial role of principals: “It may take a committee to write an educational report, but an able principal alone can do much to instill an ethos of success in students and teachers.” And Mortimer J. Adler, the distinguished scholar and author of The Paideia Proposal, has observed: ''In every school, the principal should function as the principal teacher . . . . Since its reason for existence is teaching and learning, educational leadership must be provided by the principal.”

I agree with Mary Futrell, The New Republic, Mortimer Adler, and Secretary Bennett: I believe a school must have a strong principal who is also its instructional leader. If such leadership were shifted to a committee of teachers--elected, selected, or what have you--the result would be a weak and ineffective decision-making process.

A political axiom teaches that irresponsibility in the discharge of official duties increases in proportion to the number of people entrusted with the task. The greater the number responsible for a particular decision, the more likely it is that each will devote insufficient thought and energy to the task. Someone must assume the ultimate responsibility and accountability for the operation of the school, and the best person for the job is the educational leader-the principal. By virtue of his training, credentials, and experience, the principal is in the best position to assess the instructional options available and to choose for his school those which are most effective. Clearly, the most effective choices may not be the most popular or those selected by a committee of teachers. A majority vote does not ensure educational excellence by any means.

I recognize that instructional leadership should be a cooperative endeavor that involves the staff in policymaking, consistent with the principal’s ultimate responsibility for school effectiveness. A reasonable, organized plan should be developed to gather opinion at all levels to improve the quality of decisions made by school leaders. However, while principals can be expected to solicit opinions, consult with staff members, and delegate decision-making to some degree, why should teachers determine, by vote or otherwise, major policy decisions? Sound educational judgment simply does not result from group leadership.

Some may assume, unfortunately, that principals and teachers are adversaries in seeking ways to improve learning in our schools. Some believe that teachers can advance only if principals retreat. Some believe that teachers can gain only if principals lose their influence and authority. A more rational approach would call for a structure in which administrators invite the best thinking of those with whom they work in order to enhance the operation of the school. The idea that principals and teachers are adversaries should be discarded. We should stress our mutual concerns, which are far more significant than individual interests.

Principals and teachers are both waging the same battle for excellence in education. When teachers win, principals win, and when teachers lose, principals lose.

Instead of suggesting ways to erode the role of supervisors, we should devote our energy to professionalizing the role of both teachers and supervisors. We must provide teachers and supervisors with the salaries and working conditions they both deserve. We must get rid of the paperwork that inundates them. We must free them from monitoring the lunchroom and the schoolyard, and from bus duty and other non-instructional tasks. We must give them recognition and respect for the crucial job they perform: educating the youth of our country.

All of us would benefit, particularly the children, if teachers and supervisors were respected and treated as professionals. This will occur when they are afforded the support services, resources, and compensation we offer other professionals. This, however, is a far cry from revamping the leadership role in the public schools.

An important educational leader, Albert Shanker, has put forth further reasons for viewing such a revamping as counterproductive. In a 1979 letter to chapter chairmen of the United Federation of Teachers, the president of the American Federation of Teachers wrote: "[We must] discourage our members from performing supervisory functions which are inappropriate for them to do. Only the employer gains when he can induce a lower-paid teacher to do the job of a higher-paid supervisor. And of course the teacher who is supervised by another teacher resents it.”

Mr. Shanker’s words should be heard. The answer to the question that confronts us lies not in having teachers take on the role of the principal in whole or in part. The answer is to permit teachers and supervisors to carry out the responsibilities for which they are qualified and trained. The answer is to permit teachers and supervisors to do their jobs and to encourage them to work collaboratively.

It is the principal who, after consultation with his staff, must serve as the instructional leader and be ultimately accountable for the instructional decisions in his school.