Principals And Pendulums

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The message of the TV commercial claiming that its beer is both less filling and better tasting should be applied to school reform. That is, qualities assumed to be incompatible must be reconciled in order to help today's school principal successfully respond to the new emphasis on site-based management. The ability to provide educational leadership to the classrooms must be reinforced by competence in the conduct of the business operations of the school site.

Since the days of the one-room school, and until very recently, the pendulum reflecting the organization of our schools has been moving inexorably away from site-based authority toward centralized control. In "the little red schoolhouse,'' the teacher did it all--taught the children, kept order, bought the chalk, and stoked the stove. But as communities grew and classrooms were combined in buildings, the need for coordination was recognized in the appointment of administrators called "principals,'' so-called because they were perceived as being the principal or lead teachers in their schools. But for many the title was a misnomer.

In the early multi-classroom buildings, the teachers were still very much in charge of what was taught in the classroom. Principals helped them maintain discipline, bought the chalk, and saw to it that the furnace was stoked. Excellence in teaching was less a requirement than experience in managing something, and who more qualified in that regard than successful coaches or athletic directors? They had had practice in maintaining discipline, arranging schedules, buying equipment, and dealing with parents and the public. Teachers, most of them women, taught. But principals, most of them men, managed. Men were after all, in those days, recognized authority figures.

But the times kept changing and the schools with them. In America, bigger meant better--economies of scale, for instance. Schools were formed into districts, at first within communities. Then, later, particularly at the secondary level, many were organized by regions featuring large, so-called "comprehensive'' institutions. To manage these burgeoning enterprises bureaucracies were formed and, in the process, authority flowed inexorably away from the classroom toward centralized administration.

As schools grew in size, multiple classes at the same grade levels in the primary schools and in the same subjects at the secondary level required coordination, and decisions about what to teach moved from the classroom teacher to the heads of subject-matter departments and into the principal's office before finally being subjected to the authority of the district curriculum coordinator. But, for a while, as that last transfer was taking place, and as decisions about whom to employ and what chalk to buy were moving from the school principals' offices to the district superintendents', principals found themselves having the last word about what was being taught. This assumption of responsibility for academic matters at a time when oversight of the business operations of the educational enterprise was being passed on to the district put a premium on achievement in the classroom, and successful teachers replaced coaches as the preferred source of principals.

It was in this era that the concept of the principal as academic leader of the individual school community took hold, and it is the model to which many reformers within the academic community today would return. It was a period marked by the presence of great schools with great principals, the "golden age'' of the New York City public high schools, for instance, led by such teachers-become-principals as Abraham Lass at Abraham Lincoln, Morris Meister at the Bronx High School of Science, and Walter Wolff at William Cullen Bryant.

But the era did not last. Other pendulums were swinging and accelerating the shift toward centralization. The post-World War II baby boom invaded the schools, and the civil-rights movement started having an effect. Minority populations added new dimensions to the student mix, and able women found alternatives to teaching. Relevance and permissiveness replaced reward, which had in turn replaced punishment as the basic motivation for student learning. National average S.A.T. scores declined and the calls for reform hastened the further centralization of control over our schools. Today, the educational pendulum bids fair to swing even further with talk of the imposition from Washington of nationwide requirements about what shall be taught in the classrooms. And through it all, the principal is left with no clear mandate other than to schedule when those classrooms will be used and somehow maintain discipline among young people conditioned by a society become more violent.

In its brevity, this oversimplified interpretation of what has been happening until very recently in the nation's schools and to their principals over the years of this century naturally invites exceptions. Two among many come immediately to mind. In the 1930's, in the days of male-coaches-become-principals, there was Florence Townsend, who helped me with Virgil while I was working at a summer camp in New Hampshire. A gifted Latin teacher, she had become an outstanding principal in the New York City system. And, in the 1950's, there was Lloyd Michael of Evanston, Ill. He bucked the trend toward centralized administration by dividing his high school into four separate institutions operating on the same site. Thankfully, similar exceptions exist today in schools where talented and innovative principals are creating and fostering learning environments that inspire teachers and challenge students. They are the exceptions for which the moment must be seized to make the rule.

The moment exists because there is a growing belief that the pendulum may well have swung too far, that central administrations have not produced the educational reforms that everyone has been looking for, and that they can perhaps best be achieved through what has become known as school-based or site-based management--that is, by returning power to the principal.

Doing so, however, does not mean returning to the days of coaches-become-principals and looking for candidates in athletic departments. The pendulum has swung too far and the demands of providing academic leadership to the classrooms and applying management skills to the business operation of the school site have become far too complex to yield to the solution that eased the transition from the one-room to the multi-classroom schoolhouse.

On the business side, for instance, those demands are today given special urgency by the public pressure to downsize government. Over the years, society has been mortgaging the future to underwrite current gratification. Servicing the national debt has become a serious drain on the American pocketbook and, at long last, "economy'' has become a watchword in government. And because government includes the public schools, they are being asked "to do more with less.'' Eliminating layers of bureaucracy by returning authority to the schools will save money, but only if principals favored with the authority of site-based management have the ability to administer their sites wisely in financial as well as educational terms.

On the educational or academic side, those same demands are complicated not only by the changes in society, in the student population, and in the teaching force already noted, but also by the advent of the computer, by the explosion of knowledge, by the growing support for the notion that connections among subjects traditionally treated separately in the classroom should be accommodated, and by the countervailing pressure for the imposition of national standards on a subject-by-subject basis.

All of these changes put a tremendous burden of leadership on the principal. Virtually lost sight of in the rhetoric of school reform is the reality that the only place where it counts is in the classroom. A school site to which management is being returned or transferred is a collection of classrooms, the locations where reform, if it succeeds, has to take place. In the oversight of them, the principal plays the pivotal role. The skills he or she needs to manage such an enterprise are not unlike those demonstrated recently by successful corporate leaders who have been able to reform and revitalize their companies by building consensus and creating shared visions of what needed to be done and then by freeing up people in the workplace to do their thing.

Successful school-based management will require similar strategies, encouraging the participation of teachers, parents, and the local community in creating the vision of what the school should become and how it should be reformed in order to fulfill that vision. Such strategies would involve teachers not only in determining how interdisciplinary studies can best be folded into the curriculum in the face of national subject-matter standards and how computers can most effectively be employed in the classroom, but also in deciding what financial strategies should be adopted at the site in order to do more with less--and then leaving the teacher free to "do'' his or her "own thing'' in the "workplace,'' the classroom.

Assumption of this role, which calls for getting everybody connected with a school site involved and then orchestrating the activities that have been delegated, entails risks and takes time. Because there is no path to a smooth transition or a quick fix, it is important that we get started--now.

In order to do so, as the beer commercial suggests, qualities of leadership assumed by many to be antithetical when it comes to school principals must be reconciled. We need a new conception of their role, one which will assure that they have opportunities to develop the managerial skills needed in administering a complex business operation to go along with the qualities of educational leadership demonstrated on their educational pathways to the principal's office. But it must go further than that. It must not just reconcile and combine the skills of business management with the qualities of academic leadership on the part of the principal, but also parlay the two into a new conception of school-based management wherein those different abilities are recognized as mutually reinforcing and the whole of the principal's role becomes larger than its two parts.

To begin with, principals must be proven, experienced educators who have demonstrated their commitment to academic quality and earned the respect of their peers in the process as teachers, department heads, or assistant principals. Where they say they need help in taking on the challenge of school-based management is on the business side of the enterprise. They produce wish lists that include such matters as time allocation, strategic planning, information systems, public relations, union relations, budgeting, facilities usage, security, running meetings, and keeping books. Because these are all matters which, on the surface at least, would seem to be more related to business than to education, some worry that preoccupation with them might distract principals from their educational responsibilities.

On this score, two points need to be made. First, it is not intended that principals buy chalk, stoke the furnace, take inventory, buy books, make schedules, and keep accounts any more than it is intended that they take attendance, monitor study halls, and grade papers. Rather, they should be familiar enough with those chores to be able to exercise effective oversight of them. On the other hand, in a broader sense, the application to the academic side of the house of some proven principles of business administration should help principals deal with the educational challenges posed by school-based management. Thus synergistically combined, the skills of academic and industrial leadership together hold real promise of fostering in the classrooms of America the kind of educational reform which the country has been so desperately seeking for so long.

A few principals have over the years been able to provide that style of leadership, but only in a sense by chance. What is needed now is a national effort to help many more do so by design. Fortunately, models for taking the first step in such a movement exist in the educational programs of the Executive Service Corps, organized groups of retired business executives in a number of metropolitan areas who voluntarily provide consulting services to nonprofit enterprises.

The corps's activities in behalf of school principals in particular include seminars and mentoring. The former provide opportunities to read, think, and reflect about a broad array of issues affecting education today--issues that include school restructuring, curriculum reform, team building, teacher development, and expectations for student achievement and learning. The long-term goal of on-site mentoring by impartial volunteers is to assist in enhancing school leadership by helping principals realize their visions of what their schools should be; the short-term objective, to counsel them as they go about solving their more immediate problems. At all times, the intent is to keep principals from getting bogged down in "administrivia'' so that they can devote more of their energies to helping teachers teach and students learn.

At the same time, opportunities exist within universities to enlist their business-faculty members and local business leaders in assisting their schools of education in training aspiring principals in the administrative aspects of school-based management without becoming distracted by the details of the task. Indeed, opportunities exist for involving entire university communities--students, faculties, staffs, and alumni--in school reform by helping principals, in the pipeline and on the job, through the medium of site-based management.

The pendulum is swinging back. The time is ripe. Carpe diem!

Vol. 13, Issue 39E, Pages 42, 52

Published in Print: July 13, 1994, as Principals And Pendulums
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