Report Probes Nuances Of Principals’ Jobs

By Catherine Gewertz — September 10, 2003 4 min read
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Principals must be many things to many people, but above all, they must be master diagnosticians: able to take a school’s pulse, determine what it needs, and deliver, a report contends.

Making Sense of Leading Schools: A Study of the School Principalship” is available from the Center on Reinventing Public Education .

To aid the national dialogue about how to supply enough qualified school leaders, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle spent two years composing a portrait of what the principal’s job entails and analyzing whether current training offers adequate preparation.

In a report set for release this week, the researchers conclude that training must be revised to better reflect what principals really do, and they caution against rigid conceptions of what a principal should be.

Running a school can’t be reduced to one formula, or even a set of formulas, because each school has a unique combination of needs, said Paul T. Hill, the director of the university’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, which produced the study.

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See the accompanying chart, “Dancing to Their Own Tunes.”

“The principal’s job is being the leader of a productive organization that has to live with rules, has limited funds and a great number of obligations, and has a set of talents which are never the same in two schools,” Mr. Hill said. “You can go in with a single, unwavering view of what a principal’s role is, and you might well miss the point in a given school.”

But even while schools’ leadership needs vary, they generally fall into seven areas, the study found: instructional (curriculum and professional development); cultural (a school’s traditions and tone); managerial (operations, such as facilities and transportation); human resources (such as hiring); strategic (a school’s mission and vision); external development (marketing, fund raising, partnerships) and micropolitical (facilitating the interaction of the other six areas).

Distributing Leadership

Principals must make sure leadership is provided in all seven areas, but need not do it all themselves, the authors say. They outline several styles of leadership, from the one-man band, or a principal who attempts to lead in all seven areas, to the orchestra leader, who coordinates leadership functions among many staff members. In the middle is the jazz band leader, who designates certain staff members to “play solos"—to lead—in given areas.

Marc S. Tucker, the president of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, praised the report for advocating a broader distribution of the principal’s duties. But he took issue with it for giving little attention to the pressures on principals to improve student performance. They are inadequately prepared for that undertaking, he said.

“Developing the skill and knowledge in how to do that is what this game is about,” said Mr. Tucker, who co-edited a book last year on the challenges facing principals. “It’s about preparing turnaround artists.”

A school’s leadership needs and the way leadership is distributed are influenced by many factors, but especially by a school’s governance structure, the report says. The study, supported by a grant from the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, examined 21 schools in four states, including regular public schools as well as private, charter, and magnet schools.

Private and charter schools’ freedom from district structures allows their principals more latitude to distribute leadership, while principals of regular public schools tend to be more constrained by such factors as tradition, union contracts, and bureaucracy, the study found.

Private and charter schools may have a greater need than public schools, for instance, for fund-raising and marketing skills. The human-resource skills necessary in a regular public school—knowing how to work the district hiring system, for instance—might be quite different from those needed in private or charter schools, the report notes.

One of the tricks to successful school leadership is matching a principal’s strengths to a school’s needs. Too often, the report says, districts err by treating principals as interchangeable entities who can perform as well at one school as at another.

But before any such match can work, the authors argue, principals need to know how to diagnose problems and produce or oversee solutions in the seven areas of leadership. In interviewing the principals, the report’s authors heard repeatedly that little or nothing in their training had prepared them for the reality of their jobs.

They wished most frequently that they had been better trained in cultural sensitivity, conflict resolution, diagnosis and problem-solving, organizational theory, and business and financial administration, and had had mentoring that extended into their first years on the job.

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