School & District Management

Tackling an Impossible Job

By Jeff Archer — September 27, 2004 13 min read
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Kelly Griffith’s job description is most notable for what it doesn’t include. The principal at Easton Elementary School in Easton, Md., doesn’t handle maintenance. She doesn’t help arrange field trips. She doesn’t oversee her building’s cafeteria workers. Nor does she supervise the buses before and after school.

Instead, she spends her time in classrooms, observing educators and showing them new methods of instruction. She analyzes test scores. She plans professional-development activities for her teachers aimed at boosting student achievement.

Griffith can focus on teaching and learning because school leaders in her district made a conscious effort to let principals do so. Two years ago, the 4,500-student Talbot County system put “school managers” in its buildings to free principals of administrative duties and let them concentrate on raising student performance.

“It really has given me more of a hands-on approach to being an instructional leader,” says Griffith, who’s been a principal for 13 years. Before her building got a school manager, she says, “you were putting your fingers in the holes in the dike.”

After years of hearing that a principal’s main job should be to raise the quality of instruction, districts and states are experimenting with ways to make that ideal a reality. New policies are emerging to give principals more of the time, training, and tools to become leaders of school improvement, rather than managers of operations.

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Like Talbot County, some school systems are lightening the load for principals, particularly when it comes to noninstructional matters. Others are grounding the preparation of new administrators more in the real work of improving school performance, as in Massachusetts, where state policymakers have empowered districts to run their own licensing programs for principals.

There’s also renewed talk of giving building leaders more decisionmaking authority. An agreement with the teachers’ union in Memphis, Tenn., for example, will give principals in low-performing schools more flexibility on personnel issues. And across the country, evaluation systems and professional-development efforts for administrators are placing a greater premium on raising student achievement.

“There really is a growing consensus about what the center of education administration is supposed to be about,” says Joseph F. Murphy, an expert on educational leadership at Vanderbilt University. “Ten years ago, even seven years ago, I wouldn’t have said that.”

To be sure, such changes are hardly the norm. Surveys suggest that many of the nation’s 84,000 public school principals remain largely caught up in the “administrivia” of the job, lacking the authority and wherewithal to carry out significant changes in their schools.

But the press to re-engineer the work of principals has never been stronger. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school leaders are judged on their ability to raise test scores for all groups of students. Some of the law’s stiffest sanctions for low-performing schools kick in this year.

Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based policy group that runs a training program for principals, says the federal law underscores a sea change in the expectations for administrators. No longer is it enough for school leaders to keep things running smoothly.

“For the first time in the history of American education, with the advent of the accountability movement, bad things happen to school leaders who don’t improve student performance, and good things happen to those who do,” he says.

Principals don’t teach students, but they do affect student achievement. Kenneth Leithwood, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Toronto who co-wrote a new review of research on leadership effectiveness, says leadership characteristics are the second- strongest predictor of a school’s effect on student results. Only classroom factors, such as teacher quality, are stronger.

“It’s not that those in leadership roles are having a dramatic direct influence,” says Leithwood. “But those things that do have a direct influence are quite substantially affected by what people in leadership do.”

Another recent research summary by Mid- Continent Research for Education and Learning shows how good principals leave their mark. Based in Aurora, Colo., McREL analyzed 70 studies and identified the most critical parts of a principal’s job. Among them: fostering shared beliefs, monitoring the effectiveness of school practices, and involving teachers in implementing policy.

The bad news is that many principals have little opportunity to perform those functions. Their days are consumed with student discipline, parent complaints, maintenance problems, and paperwork. A 1998 poll by the National Association of Elementary School Principals showed that 72 percent of building leaders nationwide agreed that “fragmentation of my time” was a major concern.

Such frustrations are why the Talbot County system, located on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, created its “school manager” position in 2002. Eight of its nine schools now have such managers, who handle virtually all of their buildings’ noninstructional administrative tasks. They order supplies and repairs, supervise the food service and custodial workers, and track staff attendance.

Principals don’t teach students, but they do affect student achievement.

Griffith, the principal at Easton Elementary, says the change has been a godsend. Her school serves 610 pupils in grades 2-5 on a campus that includes a separate school for prekindergarten through 1st grade. The benefits of the managerial position were clear last year, when a new roof at the school kept leaking—a problem that, in the old days, Griffith would have had to resolve herself.

Not only is Griffith able to spend more time modeling instruction for her teachers, but she also can cover their classes herself so the teachers can observe colleagues elsewhere in the building. Districtwide, the number of teacher observations by principals has tripled since the schools got their managers, district officials say.

“I’m in the classrooms every day,” says Griffith.

Other districts have tried similar steps to make principals’ jobs more doable. For the past four years, the 4,900- student Mansfield, Mass., public schools have had two principals at each elementary school. In California, the 97,000-student Long Beach Unified uses pairs of “co-principals” at its six regular high schools.

The tactic isn’t without challenges. Talbot County lost two of its school managers the first year of the system, when leaders discovered that the intense multi-tasking demanded of the position requires a special temperament. Also, district leaders say, some principals were so used to acting as managers that they found it hard to shed their administrative roles.

“There are some principals that would not benefit from having a school manager,” says Griffith. “They are very comfortable being a school manager themselves.”

Indeed, many of today’s principals feel ill-prepared for the role of instructional leader. They do know instruction: More than 99 percent of them are former teachers. But a common complaint is that traditional administrator-preparation programs don’t focus on how to carry out the kind of organizational change that’s needed to significantly improve a school’s performance.

Frederick M. Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, has surveyed the course content of university-based preparation programs, and he’s been struck, he says, by their emphasis on “what principals are allowed.” They stress the mechanics of school law, finance, and teacher evaluation, but not how to restructure academic programs, he says.

“They’re being trained to nibble around the edges,” he contends.

Hess’ answer is to infuse the profession with new blood. He argues that states should pare back licensure rules to allow leaders from fields other than teaching to serve as principals, as Florida and Michigan have done. Other experts counter that some exposure to teaching, while not sufficient, is nonetheless critical for anyone charged with improving instruction.

Regardless, there’s little disagreement in the field that administrator preparation in the United States needs an overhaul. Says Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy: “The quality of leadership and management training in our schools of education is, on the whole, terrible.”

Some districts are taking matters into their own hands. Last year, the 60,000-student Boston public schools launched an initiative that trains principal-candidates in one-year “residencies,” during which participants work as administrators under the tutelage of practicing school leaders in the city. The program graduated its first class of 10 “Boston principal fellows” this summer.

One of them is Oscar Santos, who spent his residency at Irving Middle School, which serves a diverse student enrollment in the southwest part of the city. While there, he helped disaggregate student test scores for staff members working on the school’s improvement plan. He also organized a Saturday mathematics camp to offer extra help for struggling students.

“I was fully involved in the change process,” says Santos, 32, who has since become the headmaster—as principals in Boston are called—at a district high school.

‘A lot of what a principal is, is what their school board wants them to be.’

A key objective of the fellowship program is to produce principals who understand Boston’s own brand of school improvement. Fellows take part in seminars that teach such skills as how to use the district’s data-management system. With funding from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation and a federal grant, Boston pays full salaries to the trainees during the year.

Other district-led principal-training programs have sprung up recently in Los Angeles and Springfield, Mass. New Leaders for New Schools, a 3-year-old nonprofit group that trains aspiring principals through a one-year residency, has contracts with the school districts in Chicago, the District of Columbia, Memphis, and its headquarters of New York City.

Meanwhile, some states are prodding universities to change how they train school leaders. Louisiana’s administrator-preparation programs have until next July to redesign themselves or face closure. State officials there have required that the programs strengthen candidates’ field experience by forming closer ties with districts. A similar push is under way in Iowa.

Elsewhere, there’s been less progress. The Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based policy group, recently surveyed 126 higher education institutions that prepare administrators, and it found them lacking in offering practical experience. Fewer than one-quarter have participants lead activities aimed at improving instruction. Shadowing experienced principals is more often the norm.

“What colleges tell us is that when the state requires something different, they will do differently,” says Betty Fry, who directs an SREB project that advises universities on the redesign of their educational leadership programs. “But as long as they’re able to get principals licensed and get them jobs, there’s not much real compelling reason for them to do differently.”

Funding for the project comes from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation.

Preservice training programs can’t take all the blame for the way many principals go about their work. For most of the past century, building administrators have been hired, rewarded, and promoted based on considerations other than their ability to raise the level of instruction in their schools.

“A lot of what a principal is, is what their school board wants them to be,” says Carole Kennedy, a principal-in-residence at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a private group based in Arlington, Va., that offers a process for recognizing highly skilled teachers. “If they’re satisfied with management, that’s what they’ll get.”

Gradually, though, principals are being held more accountable for students’ learning. In a national survey last year by Public Agenda, a New York City-based polling group, 29 percent of principals said they were much more likely than in the past to be reassigned because of student performance. And almost twice as many, 57 percent, said they were evaluated based on “their ability to judge and improve teacher quality.”

As one example of what states are doing to alter principals’ behavior, Delaware is now pilot-testing what state policymakers say will become a mandatory, statewide evaluation system for school administrators. While requiring principals to show that they’ve mastered the state’s standards for educational leadership, the plan also demands evidence of improved student performance.

Kennedy cites the 140,000- student San Diego school system as a district that has largely transformed its expectations for school-level administrators. There, specialists in instruction from the central office regularly take principals on “walk- throughs” in their own buildings to show them how to identify effective teaching.

“If you don’t know how to analyze instruction in pretty sophisticated ways, then I don’t believe you can plan for change in a school,” says Ann Van Sickle, who directs the district’s Leadership Academy, which provides training to aspiring and current principals.

Of course, principals can’t change their schools if they’re not allowed to, and many building leaders say they’re not. A 2001 Public Agenda poll showed that only 30 percent of the nation’s principals agreed that “the system helps you get things done.” In contrast, 48 percent said they had to “work around” the system to accomplish their goals.

That climate represents a major barrier to school improvement, contends William G. Ouchi, the author of Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need. He favors strategies used in Seattle, Houston, and Edmonton, Alberta, all of which have shifted much decisionmaking authority over budget and personnel issues to the school level.

‘If you don’t know how to analyze instruction in pretty sophisticated ways, then I don’t believe you can plan for change in a school’.

“Every school has a different mixture of children with different kinds of educational needs,” says Ouchi, who is a professor of management at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If you impose on every school the same formula for the number of 8th grade science teachers or 3rd grade reading teachers, then you’re necessarily giving them something different from what they need.”

Memphis offers another model for giving school leaders more authority. In hiring New Leaders for New Schools to train 60 new principals over the next three years, the district struck a deal with the local teachers’ union that will give graduates of the program greater latitude in their staffing decisions if they agree to lead one of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

“If you have a strong instructional leader at the school-site level, you want to give them as much flexibility as possible, as long as they get results,” says Carol R. Johnson, the superintendent of the 118,000-student district.

Johnson says she learned the importance of doing so in her former job as the chief of the 50,000-student Minneapolis school district. While there, she let Patrick Henry High School use money designated for two assistant-principal positions to release five teachers from the classroom so they could work with other educators at the school to improve their instruction.

The school was, and continues to be, one of the best-performing in the city. The lesson underscores another point many experts make about instructional leadership: Fostering improvements in teaching and learning often requires that principals elevate others in their buildings to leadership positions.

“It’s about principals,” says Johnson, “but it’s also about empowering the school site so that teachers and others own the results and the decisions around the changes.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2004 edition of Education Week as Tackling an Impossible Job


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