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School & District Management Commentary

The Principalship: Less May Be More

By J. Casey Hurley — May 23, 2001 8 min read
Evidently, we have embarked on another round of exhorting principals to do more, be more, and expect to be held accountable for more.

When 11 initiatives aimed at improving school leadership were outlined in these pages at the beginning of 2000, I, like many others, welcomed the news. (“Policy Focus Converges on Leadership,” Jan. 12, 2000.) Among those who would be addressing the issue were state legislatures, governors, business leaders, foundations, universities, professional organizations, school districts, and the Interstate School Leaders’ Licensure Consortium. But when I began, a year later, to read the reports coming from the task forces formed to study the issue, my enthusiasm waned.

For example, in the preface to its interim report, “Leadership for Student Learning: Reinventing the Principalship,” the School Leadership for the 21st Century Initiative says the following:

Being an effective building manager used to be good enough. ... And principals still need to do all those things But now they must do more.

Less than a page later, the report bemoans the fact that the pool of qualified principal candidates is shrinking:

Principals increasingly say the job is simply not “doable.” They are retiring younger and younger. At the same time, school districts report a shortage of qualified candidates for the job.

Similarly, the National Staff Development Council’s report, “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn,” proposes this:

Not only must school leaders perform what Richard Elmore calls the “ritualistic tasks of organizing, budgeting, managing, and dealing with disruptions inside and outside the system,” today’s instructional leaders must be able to coach, teach, and develop the teachers in their schools. They must be steeped in curriculum, instruction, and assessment in order to supervise a continuous improvement process that measures progress in raising student performance. They must build learning communities within their schools and engage the broader school community in creating and achieving a compelling vision for their schools.

Evidently, we have embarked on another round of exhorting principals to do more, be more, and expect to be held accountable for more. But to the extent that these reports call for principals to become instructional leaders without also making policy recommendations that narrow the post’s job description, they are a disservice to principals and to the prospects of better school leadership. It’s time we stopped insisting that principals be both superleaders and supermanagers.

The tone of the reports, in fact, should lead all of us to ask an important question: Why are policymakers continuing to define the principal’s role in such a way that few people want the job, and even fewer can be effective in it? Do they really think it is possible for principals to do more?

Much of what is written by the experts in our field serves neither principals nor the prospects for improved school leadership.

We must break with our history of imploring principals to become “Superleader” and move in the opposite direction. A prerequisite for improved school leadership is that policymakers define the principal’s role more narrowly, not more broadly. And while we are effecting this change, we also should make a strong effort to reduce the expectations that have grown up around the principal’s role—expectations from teachers, coaches, advisers, parents, superintendents, and school board members.

To bolster this argument, I offer the following brief, unorthodox review of recent efforts to improve school leadership—not the standard history, but one that would be picked up only from talking with principals themselves. Since most school principals are too busy for such exercises, I argue on their behalf.

In the early 1980s, we studied effective schools. One of the findings of these studies was that an effective principal is a key ingredient. This led scholars to ask, “What makes an effective principal?” The answer gave us the “effective principals” literature, which lionized a few principals whose beliefs and behaviors were then presented as models to be used by superintendents to hire and evaluate theirs, and by professors who needed to revise graduate programs in educational administration.

This latest emphasis on improving school leadership returns us to a concentration on the principal’s role that we have not witnessed since those years in the 1980s. As Susan Traiman, the director of education initiatives at the Business Roundtable, has been quoted as saying, “Virtually everyone I talk to is focused on leadership at the school level in terms of the principal, and at the district level in terms of the superintendent.”

To show what this means in practical terms, let us look at three programs affecting American public schools. Taken alone, each has significantly expanded the principal’s role. Taken together, they represent the patchwork of managerial responsibilities that have come to dominate principals’ work.

While we have been expanding programming, have we also reduced the principal’s role in other areas?

Since 1974, for example, special education programming has become a large part of public school life. These programs serve approximately 10 percent of public school students, and their governing regulations require the principal’s involvement in several processes, including the diagnosis and programming of exceptional students. Likewise, the establishment of girls’ sports teams following the enactment of Title IX has doubled athletic programming in middle and high schools. And finally, the explosion of school safety concerns in recent years has meant that principals must develop and enforce new sets of school security policies.

Successful implementation of each of these programs has required that principals hire and supervise more people, make and enforce new policies, and provide support for the programs and all the auxiliary activities, such as special parent groups, fund-raising drives, and others.

While we have been expanding programming, have we also reduced the principal’s role in other areas? Have we adequately increased the resources principals will need to provide the leadership and support expected? In my experience, and that of my principal colleagues, the answer is no. And now, in the face of ever-expanding responsibilities, policymakers are once again expecting principals to do more.

The point may seem obvious, but it will be difficult to convince those in charge to change direction. If history is any guide, we may find, in fact, that the greatest obstacles lie inside the field of educational administration, not outside.

Much of what is written by the experts in our field serves neither principals nor the prospects for improved school leadership. Even though we know how demanding principals’ work is, we continue to ignore this fact and suggest that principals must possess an ever- expanding range of skills and knowledge and take responsibility for practically everything in the school.

What is more, many administrators take pride in their ability to confront an enormous range of challenges and spend long hours working in their schools. I have known some whose pride borders on a martyr complex. This does little to foster realistic school leadership policies and expectations.

It’s time we stopped insisting that principals be both superleaders and supermanagers.

Beyond that, our own professional organizations have promoted the “principals must do more” approach for many years. At a conference eight years ago, during the period of the “effective principal” models, I asked an executive of one of the national organizations representing school principals what his organization was doing to improve principals’ working conditions. He responded that the effective-principal findings had given us a road map of what it takes to be effective, and that his organization stood for preparing principals to be like those in the literature.

Finally, professors of educational administration have not adequately described the contradiction in today’s principal- preparation programs. Most aspiring administrators are practicing teachers. They know that parents and teachers expect principals to maintain and stabilize schools, not to lead them. When these teachers attend graduate classes at night, they compare what they are taught about “leading” to their own principals’ work, which is dominated by “managing.”

Those of us who teach educational leadership experience this conflict each semester. Our graduate students consistently ask us to teach them to skillfully prepare budgets, schedule buses, keep the school building attractive, and stay out of the local newspaper. Improving preservice and in-service programs for principals will not improve school leadership until we first eliminate the managerial responsibilities and expectations principals face daily in their schools.

Convincing policymakers to question the assumption that principals can do more, be more, and lead more will be difficult, partly because our profession resists the notion of retreating from new challenges. Nevertheless, the best hope for improving school leadership will be for all educators to insist that states increase the resources devoted to leading schools and define the principals’ role more narrowly. Only then will more aspiring school leaders seek the principalship. And only then will the principal’s role be a perfect fit for those who possess leadership potential and are too wise to believe they can be Superleader.

If we don’t change our assumptions, the current focus on the principalship will become another lost opportunity.

J. Casey Hurley is a professor of educational administration at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C., a campus of the University of North Carolina.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as The Principalship: Less May Be More


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