Books: Excerpts

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In the preface to Thinking About Our Kids: An Agenda for America's Education, Harold Howe 2nd says that "the best way to learn something is by doing it.'' The book is a critique, drawn from a distinguished lifetime's work in the field, of how education policy has become more report-driven than focused firmly on the child and the social conditions that may impede his right to a comprehensive education. The following excerpt reiterates Mr. Howe's "learning by doing'' sentiment as regards the school's natural leader, the principal:

Like everything else I am advocating for the schools, these suggestions for getting teachers to work together to change their classroom practice must be built on the willingness of teachers to take part. The school principal can do more than anyone else to promote that willingness. This suggests that what can be accomplished in a school depends on the human relationships that the principal forges with teachers--and this suggestion raises a bevy of questions. How do we prepare and select school principals? How are their responsibilities best defined? How can they be helped to become more effective? Is there any such thing as truly effective training in school leadership?

Although graduate schools of education, such as the one I work in at Harvard, can offer courses to arm both practitioners and potential principals with useful information andideas, their capacity to inculcate the many sensitivities a principal must have to succeed in improving what happens in classrooms is limited. And there are so many cross-currents today about requirements for the principalship that it is difficult for a school of education to know where to start. Some see the principal's role as a management position and urge preparation similar to that offered in business schools. This concept has been carried so far that there are strong advocates for recruiting school principals from management jobs in the business world.

I believe strongly that the odds are against success for any person in the principalship who has not been a successful teacher. I do not believe that effective school principals can be trained in university classrooms; instead, they have to be grown in schools. These beliefs are based on the assumption that the central role of the principal is primarily one of helping teachers to find ways to make classrooms work better. When that is the task to be accomplished, the subtleties of relationships with teachers, students, and parents become the keys to success.

None of these views of mine should be taken as opposing experimentation with school leadership. There are schools where experienced teachers take turns being principal, other schools that divide up the principal's role in various ways. Why not, for example, have an academic principal and a lower-paid manager to oversee the building, the lunchroom, and the business aspects of the school?

Originally the word "principal'' was used simply to designate the teacher in the school who was in charge. In small schools the "principal-teacher'' was also a full-time teacher. In today's larger and more complex schools, the principal usually no longer teaches in the traditional sense, although there are interesting examples of returning to the old principal-teacher arrangement. Unless the person in the principal's job becomes a teacher and a helper of teachers rather than a manager for students, parents, and teachers, the school won't work as well as it might. A truly effective teacher is one who believes every pupil can learn, who has in-depth knowledge of what is to be learned, who is resourceful about finding learning strategies that work for students who have difficulties, who is acutely aware of the need for home support of school learning and gives time and effort to arranging it, and who knows the difference between active and passive learning and reaches always for the former. Principals who are genuinely committed to these purposes will spread them throughout their schools, and they will do this with confidence because they learned how in their own experience as teachers.

Thinking About Our Kids: An Agenda for American Education, by Harold Howe 2nd. Copyright 1993 by the author. Reprinted by permission of The Free Press, a division of Macmillan Inc.

Vol. 13, Issue 17

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