A Wasted Reform Resource: The Assistant Principal

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School systems are routinely misusing a major human resource--the assistant principal. All too often, the training and motivation of these school leaders are wasted in the performance of non-management tasks that might be more appropriately assigned to clerical staff, security personnel, teachers, counselors, social workers, community agencies, or parent volunteers.

At a job interview, I was once told that the duties of the sole assistant principal in a high school of 900 students consisted of disciplining students, distributing textbooks, supervising the cafeteria at lunchtime, assigning lockers, and attending after-school student activities.

Such a list is not in sync with a job occupying the second most important spot in the organizational hierarchy of a school building. During the course of a day spent mired in mindless routine, there is little opportunity or incentive to engage in leadership activities, such as curriculum development, teacher supervision, classroom observation, staff development, creation of new instructional programs, dissemination of research, or evaluation activities.

The assistant-principal post is a management position, yet its duties are rarely equivalent to those of middle-level management in the corporate world. And recent research and rhetoric on school reform have paid little attention to this paradox.

While reformers discuss such costly and all-encompassing cures as systemwide restructuring, a simple realignment of this position might pay rich dividends for many schools. The assistant principal's job should be made more intellectually challenging. It should become one that contributes directly to school improvement and increased student achievement.

The graduate-level courses assistant principals must complete for certification focus on theories and research related to organizational management, human-resource utilization, instructional supervision, evaluation procedures, data interpretation, and program development. In practice, however, these are areas in which an assistant principal is rarely expected to participate.

Seldom, in fact, is anyone else at the building level intensely involved in these areas. The claims on a secondary-school principal's time are so numerous that it is unlikely he or she has the requisite amount of time and energy to devote to studying research, devising staff-development projects, reviewing student and school achievement data, and designing and coordinating new programs and projects aimed at boosting achievement levels.

These improvement-related planning and management tasks could be assigned to an assistant principal, who is now likely to be spending the day dealing with problem students, organizing the next pep rally, or finding chaperons for the school dance. Without administrative intervention and direction, school improvement and gains in student achievement may not happen.

When change does occur in schools, it usually is the result of new state laws or complaints from politically powerful groups such as parents or corporate employers. Schools are exceedingly reactive organizations. They seem motivated to change only when the criticism becomes so intense they are forced to act.

Perhaps, then, state legislatures need to take leadership in redefining the role of assistant principals. Since more legislatures are requiring schools to show gains in student achievement as a prerequisite for receiving state monies, maybe it is time to consider requiring a student-achievement director in each school.

Many states already have laws requiring that public schools have attendance officers. This is because state aid to districts is often based partly on either annual or daily student attendance. Assistant principals are typically designated as these attendance officers. But increasing attendance without simultaneously increasing achievement seems rather pointless.

Any moves to upgrade the responsibilities of the assistant principal will need to be matched, however, by revisions in the selection process used for the position. The current procedure is too often subject to the whims and personal biases of the selection committee, and of the superintendent or principal who appointed it.

Because a majority of selection-committee members tend to be non-administrators with limited knowledge of management, they usually have little basis for judging candidates other than how well the candidate appears to fit in with the current school regime. Committee members tend to look for candidates who will maintain the balance of power and will not threaten the established territories of the school's official and unofficial leaders.

Although boat-rockers are exactly what public schools need now, it is extremely difficult for such people to gain entry into administration because of the political nature of this process.

The selection committee's stereotypical views of both the assistant principal's role and the type of individual needed to fill it may also prevent members from choosing the candidates most likely to bring changes that will contribute to improved student achievement.

As it is currently structured, the assistant-principal position is built on a model of male behavior. There is an assumption on the part of faculty members, parents, students, and even other administrators that the principal has to break up fights, keep kids from smoking in the restrooms, punish class-cutters, and generally put the fear of God into students to preserve law and order in the classroom and earn a paycheck.

If the assistant principal doesn't prowl the hallways looking for rule-breakers, who will? Certainly, the responsibility for student attendance and discipline needs to be assigned to school personnel, but just because these tasks have always been assigned to assistant principals doesn't mean that is the way it always has to be. The tasks could be divided among other types of staff members who might actually be more appropriately trained to handle the social and emotional aspects of students' behavior.

Instead of looking for applicants who fit the current inefficient and unsatisfactory assistant-principal model, schools should be looking for people who ask questions, who have demonstrated creativity and organizational skills, who are willing to take risks, who are excited about change, and who are willing to take on controversy in order increase student achievement.

People with these characteristics would bring important and necessary changes to American schools. Many of them are already at work, but they are caught in the Catch-22 position of being assigned mindless, time-consuming tasks that may actually perpetuate rather than eliminate the problems of education.

Meanwhile, the important task of managing change to improve the prospects of learning happens haphazardly if at all.

The point of school reform is to examine the old ways of doing things and see if they can be done differently. Better use of assistant principals' time and talents is one way to bring change to schools with minimal cost and significant benefits--for the school, the school district, the assistant principal, and the students.

Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 23

Published in Print: September 26, 1990, as A Wasted Reform Resource: The Assistant Principal
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