School & District Management

Principal Matters

By Bess Keller — November 11, 1998 16 min read
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A new generation of research focuses on the importance of principals, and what makes a good one.

A joke that’s been making the rounds lately among Texas teachers begins: “What does it take to be a high school principal?” The answer? “A graduate degree and a winning football team.”

It may be funny, but it’s no longer true. The days of principals resting on gridiron victories are gone--especially in Texas, where districts and schools are being held accountable as never before for academic results. Across the country, there’s not a hotter seat in all of education than the one in the principal’s office.

Nor a more studied one. One reason principals can’t get by on the old profile is that some 20 years of research strongly suggest that they make a big difference in shaping the education that goes on in a school. If a school is going to succeed academically, it needs someone whose potential can’t be summed up on a scoreboard.

That view has emerged largely from studies of school success. As scholars’ thinking about school effectiveness evolved, so did their understanding of the principal’s role.

Public interest in principals grew as concern spread over the state of the nation’s schools. Popularly, there were heroes--a Joe Clark or a Marva Collins battling lax standards and an unbending bureaucracy to turn around a failing school.

Building a Better Principal
Current thinking on principals has identified several characteristics that are important in providing sound leadership. A good principal:
  • Recognizes teaching and learning as the main business of a school;
  • Communicates the school’s mission clearly and consistently to staff members, parents, and students;
  • Fosters standards for teaching and learning that are high and attainable;
  • Provides clear goals and monitors the progress of students toward meeting them;
  • Spends time in classrooms and listening to teachers;
  • Promotes an atmosphere of trust and sharing;
  • Builds a good staff and makes professional development a top concern; and
  • Does not tolerate bad teachers.

Researchers didn’t look for heroes, but they did observe that good schools usually have good principals. Policymakers touted “the strong leader"--a term that quickly gave way among educators to “instructional leader” and, more recently, “facilitator.”

Through all of this, the tough question remained: How do effective principals do it? If principals play an important part in school improvement and student achievement, what are their secrets and what are the limits to their powers?

Complex Answers

Researchers have been piling up more complex answers to those questions. And bolstered by the experiences of reformers, the ideas have trickled out.

But the research hasn’t always brought about changes in the way principals do their jobs. Many principals know what to say about leading a school--though they may not know how to actually do it. In fact, researchers have repeatedly noted a mismatch between what principals profess and what they practice.

Since the 1970s, scholars have largely focused on the principal’s role in shaping teaching and learning. Findings from a number of lines of research, particularly the investigations of effective schools and successful school change, highlighted the importance of the principal’s leadership.

The late Ronald Edmonds, whose work on effective schools influenced a generation of educators, argued that strong leadership from the principal is the single most important factor in schools that work.

Others built on that premise, defining the needed leadership as “instructional.” Good principals pay attention to curriculum and teaching.

By 1996, more than 40 statistical studies in the United States and elsewhere had looked for the effects of the principal’s behavior on various aspects of schooling. About half the studies found that the principal made a significant difference, often indirectly.

That work was not lost on policymakers, who were happy to single out the principal as the key to a good school. More than a dozen states now test aspiring principals before licensing them, and at least 40 states require working principals to undergo formal evaluations. In the last 20 years, spending on professional development for principals has soared.

Researchers, though, sound a note of caution. Kenneth Leithwood, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, explains that the influence of students’ background is so strong it accounts for most of the variability of student achievement across schools.

Mr. Leithwood, who has conducted some of the largest studies of school change, estimates that as little as 10 percent or 20 percent of the variation is due to school effects, including the quality of the principal.

Leadership accounts for only about 3 percent of the variability, he estimates. A 1985 study put the figure at 2 to 8 percent. “But,” Mr. Leithwood adds pointedly, “there are very few elements that get more than that.”

Supporting Teachers

Karen J. Dudley shows no hesitation when asked her top priority. “Student achievement,” responds the principal of Gabriel Richard Elementary School in Detroit, a showcase school for the district.

The veteran administrator says she spends a lot of time studying test scores, finding the gaps in students’ learning, “making sure there’s alignment between the district’s core curriculum and ours, and seeing what teachers are actually teaching.”

During school hours, she adds, she spends a lot of her time in the halls and classrooms, talking with teachers, students, and parents--but especially with teachers.

More and more research suggests that such an aggressive, achievement-centered approach pays off.

A recent study of student performance among Maryland districts on that state’s assessment, for example, found that standout schools in every category--urban, suburban, and rural; high income, moderate income, and low income--had principals who are instructional leaders.

The research was led by Willis D. Hawley, the dean of the school of education at the University of Maryland. He and his colleagues found that principals of the better schools demanded high-quality teaching, they tracked student achievement, and they recruited good teachers. They also rounded up extra resources to meet their goals. Principals of the less successful schools functioned more as managers, and had low instructional expectations for teachers.

In two recent reports to the New Jersey legislature on the effectiveness of the state takeovers of two districts--Jersey City in 1989 and Paterson in 1991--the consulting firm Arthur Andersen highlighted the principal’s role, especially in relation to teaching and learning.

The studies found that the schools that meet state minimums on various tests are not necessarily the ones with the fewest poor children or the least student mobility. “We believe, based on our site-based observations,” the researchers concluded, “that this is attributable to the actions of the building principal.”

In a list of best practices at the higher achieving schools, the consultants found, the principal plays a key role--setting realistic student achievement goals and planning ways to meet them, evaluating and offering support to teachers, reaching out to parents, displaying a positive attitude, and leaving no child outside the school’s circle of concern.

“The greatest part of my day is spent supporting teachers–getting them what they need, responding quickly, being visible.”

Ann B. Clark,
Vance High School,
Charlotte, N.C.

As these studies show, investigators in recent years have come closer to pinpointing the ways in which principals make a difference.

Most earlier studies looked for a direct effect on desired school outcomes, and often failed to find a strong one. But as researchers viewed the principal’s role in more complex ways, the link between leadership and achievement became clearer. Investigators looked for ways in which principals affected achievement indirectly, through their efforts to influence teachers or others. Those efforts might involve personal actions, such as being visible in the school, or actions that shape school goals, policies, or organization.

In a 1996 paper reviewing the research on principals and school effectiveness, Philip Hallinger, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Ronald H. Heck, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, viewed the inclusion of mediating factors as a distinct advance.

Some of the studies they analyzed also took into account that some features of the school--the socioeconomic makeup of the student body, for instance--can affect the way the principal exercises leadership.

The same goes for personal characteristics of the principal, such as gender. Some of the differences in some settings appear to have an impact on achievement.

Sharing Power

Principals are important, but Ann B. Clark knows that the job of boosting student achievement is primarily in the hands of teachers.

“The greatest part of my day is spent supporting teachers--getting them what they need, responding quickly, being visible,” says the principal of Vance High School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district.

“I use every available opportunity to be a support for teachers,” adds the 40-year-old administrator and former National Principal of the Year. “I’m modeling for teachers what I expect them to do with students.”

At the Westminster Community School in Buffalo, N.Y., Yvonne Minor-Ragan takes much the same view.

“I spend the bulk of my time being an instructional leader,” she says. That means being “in the classrooms, listening to concerns from teachers, giving them tips, providing support.” Support, she adds, not just from the principal’s office, but from the instructional specialists on the staff.

Like Ms. Clark in North Carolina, Ms. Ragan promotes cooperation among teachers at her 580-student, K-8 school. And for a while now, she says, her own approach has been collaborative.

That was less so in 1994 when she arrived at Westminster, picked after a nationwide search for a principal who could turn around the lowest-performing school in the 47,500-student district.

“Because it was so bad in the beginning, I didn’t have time to collaborate,” the 52-year-old principal recalls. “The staff was so down and discouraged, nothing really mattered and it was important at that point for me to venture ideas, take risks, and troubleshoot.”

She required every staff member to join an improvement committee, and only after those were running well did she step back. “I can remember many times when it was hard for me not to make decisions,” she says. “But I sat on my hands because ... they had to begin to believe this was their school and what they said and did mattered.”

Role of Facilitator

In this, Ms. Ragan fulfills the role that has interested scholars for more than the last decade: the principal as facilitator, presiding over a school that is being weaned from the central office and is groping its way toward autonomy.

Such schools call for a new kind of leadership, one that puts a premium on both teaching expertise and on a collegial approach to solving problems.

“Principals are learning to lead not from the apex [of a hierarchy] but from the center of a network of deep relationships with teachers,” said Joseph Murphy, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and a widely cited expert on school leadership.

Some research suggests that power-sharing is an important ingredient in a principal’s effectiveness.

A study last year of Chicago elementary schools, for example, compared schools that were low-achieving in 1990 but had made impressive reading gains since then with schools that remained on the bottom during that same period. After controlling for students’ backgrounds, researchers found significant differences between the groups of schools.

The schools that showed improvement had more effective Local School Councils, the 11-member governing groups for each school that include the principal, six parents, two community members, and two teachers. Those schools also had teachers who were more involved in school decisions and principals who stressed teaching and learning and who made sure improvement plans were followed through.

“The study suggests that an instructional leader having a clear vision for the school and high expectations but open to the views of others ... is good for a school,” says Donald R. Moore, the study’s author and the executive director of Designs for Change. The local research and advocacy group helped write the 1988 reform law that created the local school councils.

Leadership’s Many Faces

Other experts, however, do not see a shifting of power relations to be a fulcrum for critical change. These scholars are less likely to value a principal’s ability to share power or work collaboratively.

“This restructuring escapade!” exclaims Richard F. Elmore, a professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. The role of a principal, according to Mr. Elmore, is mainly “to improve instruction by managing a flow of professional development to specific teachers in specific classrooms around specific goals.”

Mr. Elmore has spent five years studying a nationally acclaimed staff development program in District 2, one of 32 community districts in the New York City school system. A principal’s approach or style, he argues, matters far less than the central project of helping teachers do their jobs better.

Still other researchers emphasize the many different ways in which principals can lead effectively.

The training principals receive often does not prepare them to be the type of leader that the research says is needed, says Mr. Sergiovanni.

“There’s a different set of skills for turning a school around than for keeping a school high performing,” notes Daniel L. Duke, a professor at the University of Virginia who has helped start four programs for training principals.

Mr. Duke also argues for recognition of exceptions."There are principals who defy all norms or expectations, and they run a good school,” he says, recalling one school leader in Oregon. A general in the Army Reserve, the man “was autocratic and dictatorial in an era when leaders are urged to be facilitators and share decisionmaking,” Mr. Duke said. “But the teachers felt he could make all the tough decisions and they were free to teach, and they trusted him.” That was apparently enough.

Thomas J. Sergiovanni, a professor of education and administration at Trinity University in San Antonio, points to the importance of context: “What makes a good principal in one setting doesn’t in another.”

The Vision Thing

If there is one broad area of agreement among researchers, consultants, those who teach prospective principals, and the principals themselves, it is that schools must have a clear idea of what they are about.

Leaders “must understand the mission of the school, promote it, use an educational agenda, and keep it in front of people,” Mr. Murphy said. And that has to be built on a foundation of knowing about teaching and learning.

Good principals, says Karen Seashore Louis, spend a lot of time on what she calls “structuring the story of the school.” In the late 1980s, Ms. Louis, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and the late Matthew Miles, studied why some urban high schools were better than others.

“Teachers work very much in isolation,” she explains. “It’s hard for them to make sense of the changing nature of the environment.” So the principal provides a common definition of what the teachers are doing, one that both unites and moves them forward.

This is what other researchers have called having a vision for the school, but Ms. Louis dislikes the word with its implication that a principal is somehow “a visionary.”

Besides, she warns, whether or not a principal can rally a school, “we found most principals know enough about appropriate behaviors for leaders, they will talk [about] vision. That doesn’t mean it’s shared with or well communicated with the faculty.”

A related idea put forward by the University of Virginia’s Mr. Duke is that principals succeed when they know what not to do.

The job of the principal, particularly a high school principal, is “undoable” in the sense that all the work never gets done. So, Mr. Duke says, the principal who thrives must have “a clear sense of which activities produce the most student gain.”

In her initial study of high schools and in subsequent research, Ms. Louis also found that good principals spent time not so much on the formal decisionmaking apparatus of a reform agenda, but simply listening to teachers.

One thing teachers care a lot about, her surveys and interviews with educators revealed, is a principal’s willingness to confront bad teachers. Making that effort and risking that unpleasantness pay off not only with students but also with teachers.

Monitoring teachers’ behavior is not enough, Ms. Louis concludes. The principal must make significant changes in the expectations people have of each other--and ushering ineffective teachers out the door sends a strong message.

Reality Falls Short

As a clearer and more detailed picture of an effective principal emerges, why is it that study after study shows that many principals fall so short of the ideal?

The National Association of Elementary School Principals surveyed K-8 principals this year and found, for example, that they gave low priority to staff development. On the other hand, they called staff supervision and contact their highest priority.

California principals surveyed this year by EdSource, a nonprofit California research organization, reported that they wish they could spend almost twice as much time as they currently do on instruction and curriculum. Only about a quarter of their time goes to teaching and school improvement, they said.

Simply put, much of what the leadership research shows makes for an effective principal is not what principals are trained or rewarded for, says Vanderbilt’s Joseph Murphy, who chairs the university department that prepares school administrators.

Running a school smoothly often wins approval from the central office and is certainly easier that overhauling teaching and learning, experts say.

And the training principals receive often does not prepare them to be the type of leader that the research says is needed, says Mr. Sergiovanni.

New Schools, New Leaders

He questions the sharp dividing line between administrators and teachers, arguing that the principals “with walkie-talkies surrounded by cadres of assistants” are obsolete. The whole notion of leadership should be reshaped at schools that don’t look much like most of those that exist now, he contends.

Such a school would be small, with faculty members who have jointly made a commitment to certain standards of learning and behavior and “who accept responsibility for embodying those ideas in their practice.”

In Mr. Sergiovanni’s vision, spelled out in a series of books over the last 12 years, the preparation of principals would not differ significantly from that of teachers. Furthermore, leadership becomes available to everybody in the school. Indeed, everybody in the school has an obligation to exercise it.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 1998 edition of Education Week as Principal Matters


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