Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What should a principal do?

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!


Mom2two said...

I have had pretty good luck with my son's principal. My son is in a public elementary school and his principal has fought the system to help my son get the educational program he needs. The principal saw the school system barriers of not screening my son for the gifted programs until the end of 2nd grade and got someone to see the light and test him at the end of 1st grade. I believe that it really takes a passionate person, who cares about his job and the children he serves to make a good principal. My son's principal has been at our school for close to 18years I think and I do find that experience is important as well.

meganosully said...

I have been an educator, administrator, student or student of education for my entire life, and have made education my passion and profession. I believe that good teachers make a difference, and that good principals make a difference. What makes the most difference, though, and what life-long lovers of learning know in their hearts, is the belief that high standardized test scores mean good education. If we can't think about learning in more dynamic terms and acknowledge the value in skills outside of math and reading in academic contexts, then shame on us for even beginning to ask who else might be to blame for a poor education system. Parents of gifted children must recognize that schools should excite the imagination, engender compassion and empathy, promote the development of choice-making skills, and nurture the building of confidence that isn't based on comparison to what score the kid next door got on his test. There are many things that need to change in order to foster these things. Thinking about the broader goals of our educational system would be a good place to begin. Who cares if our kids can score well on math and reading tests if they have no passion, self-direction, curiosity, or world knowledge, or even worse, if they hate learning and other people altogether? Let's rethink our educational goals before we evaluate how any players fit into our backwards system. Are we sure we are asking the right questions when we try to determine how well they're doing? Why not evaluate our own priorities first?