Outstanding principals are made, not born. So how do we create more of them?

Aloha! Public and media discussion of school reform frequently focuses on teachers rather than on principals. And yet, without principals and other public-school leaders nurturing a climate of success, it’s hard to imagine how either children or teachers would excel.

We at Performance Fact have seen, over and over, how student learning flows from the quality and effectiveness of adult practices. Indeed, research by the Wallace Foundation and others underlines the link between strong school leadership and student success.

Unfortunately, progress in many school systems is thwarted by the persistence of myths such as:

  • Excellent teachers usually make excellent principals.
  • When thrown into a difficult situation, a competent principal will learn enough on the job to turn the school around in a couple of years.
  • For principals, expertise in budgeting and discipline is more important than instructional skills.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Wallace Foundation president Will Miller describes how the principal’s role has changed over the last generation. He contends that expanding the leadership and instructional capacity of principals is vital if schools — particularly those serving low-income students — are to succeed.

Grooming principals with intentionality

Most principals start out as teachers, and many hold master’s degrees in educational administration. But does that path provide enough of the right kind of preparation?

Miller cites an influential 2005 study by Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, that characterizes many university principal training programs as “inadequate to poor,” emphasizing “general management, school laws and administrative requirements, with little emphasis on how to improve teaching and student learning.”

Contrast that with the standards set forth by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC), which encourages that principals be trained and mentored to:

  • Create and steward a shared vision of learning, supported by the entire school community.
  • Advocate a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth.
  • Manage the organization, operations and resources for safety, efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Collaborate with families and the community regarding diverse interests and needs.
  • Act with integrity, fairness and ethics.
  • Understand, respond to and influence the larger political, social, economic, legal and cultural contexts.

Given this chasm between what principals are expected to achieve and what they’ve been trained to achieve, is it any wonder that so many schools are struggling?

“It’s hard to think of another profession where so little attention is paid to leadership,” Miller writes.

He observes: “New principals are often thrown into these tough jobs to sink or swim with little assistance from their districts, prompting many to quit before they can turn things around. On average, principals nationwide stay at a school about three to four years.”

What do effective principals do well?

But successful examples exist. Miller’s article tells of principals who:

  • Visit classrooms throughout the day, observing teachers, offering feedback and presenting lessons.
  • Use data to persuade teachers to take responsibility for student performance.
  • Create a positive culture by redirecting disruptive students and reducing the need for suspensions.

Driving broad-based changes

To effect meaningful improvement in student outcomes across the nation, Miller suggests, “We need a bigger pool of outstanding principal candidates; we need to get them into the schools with the greatest challenges; and we need to support them on the job.”

Miller encourages more taxpayer funding for programs that develop principals. Currently, he writes, “(O)nly 4 percent of federal dollars for improving educator performance is spent cultivating principals.”

He also proposes beefing up the licensing requirements for principals and raising the standards for university-based principal training programs.

Miller concludes: “Great teachers are essential but not enough. They need to be led and developed by great principals.”

What do you think? If you’re a principal, what have you experienced? Has your training prepared you to lead your entire school to success? Where do you need more support? Let us hear from you!

— Mutiu O. Fagbayi

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Leadership-in-Action : Nurturing excellence in principals

Developing a pipeline of outstanding principals — in fact, exceptional leaders of all kinds — requires an intentional focus on both instructional and leadership skills. Because our nation’s public schools are potent institutions of social change, developing those who lead those schools could not be more important.

Performance Fact works to build the capacity of leaders and to equip them to lead any school or school system to success. Our Leadership-in-Action™ encourages a generative approach, in which leaders motivate and empower others to become leaders as well.

Nationwide, we need to get better at developing and supporting effective principals.

Though extensive research shows an “empirical link between school leadership and improved student achievement,” too few principals are given the training and ongoing supports they need to build their own skills and the skills of those around them. With an average tenure of only three to four years, according to the Wallace Foundation, principals rarely stay long enough in one position to create, much less sustain, meaningful change in a school system.

Simply promoting the best teachers is a weak strategy. Top teachers may do their best work in the classroom; principals, on the other hand, need to develop and execute a much broader skill set. And poorly developed teachers-turned-principals often struggle with the dynamics of their new role: Teachers don’t talk back to other teachers, but everyone talks back to the principal.

Performance Fact’s Leadership-in-Action™ strives to build confidence and competence, empowering leaders to act courageously and with accountability. Principals we’ve worked with tell of transforming their schools — by developing and executing a plan with fidelity, using the tools to track and analyze data, and creating a shared vision and cohesive system of implementation that every teacher and staff member buys into.

We facilitate the leader’s lifelong journal of learning and development. We help them to build a culture of collaboration and continuous learning, and focus them on strong results for students through ongoing improvement of teaching, leadership and organizational practices. Leadership-in-Action™ also provides targeted coaching and nurtures learning communities.

As a principal, what methods have served you well? What practices have allowed you to support your teachers? Tell us more!

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