The New York Times had an interesting article the other day on the principals who've graduated from the New York City Leadership Academy, the city's new boot camp for school leaders. Under Chancellor Joel Klein, the city has been trying to change the job of principal from a position that one takes after climbing up the teaching ranks, to one that attracts top Ivy League grads, trains them in school leadership, and then gives them much autonomy in exchange for accountability.
The article claims the results have been mixed. Since the new breed of principals is sometimes earning more, and supervising smaller schools, the principal payroll has climbed in the city, and in general, paying more for administration is not seen as a reform best practice. Teacher turnover is up at schools with Leadership Academy principals, though this could be seen as good or bad. If new principals are getting rid of deadwood teachers, great. If they're driving out good ones, that's a problem. It's hard to know. More troublesome, schools with Leadership Academy principals have not improved on the city's report cards as much as many people hoped they might. There's some speculation that this is because these principals are very new on the job and people, in general, get better at their jobs over time. But this stumbles into one of the major HR philosophy dilemmas you see in the corporate world as well. Sometimes it's great to hire untested but brilliant people who will shake things up. And sometimes that philosophy produces Enron.
From my time studying education, and corporate management, here's my opinion. The key non-parental factor in education is teacher quality. So the best principals would be the people who are the best leaders of teachers. This means being able to find and hire excellent teachers, coach them to become even better, and make sure they have the tools to succeed.
In terms of gifted education, principals can also play a key role by setting school tone. Leaders articulate a vision and inspire everyone to follow it. So for gifted education, a good principal would make it clear that the school will challenge all children to achieve their potential, and support teachers as they do whatever is necessary to achieve that. I'd love to hear from parents who have worked with principals who feel that way!