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The Principal and the Consultant

A recent Education Week article ("Consultants in high demand as ARRA's clock ticks") cautioned school and district leaders to choose their consultants with great care. While the commentary raised some excellent points about setting clear expectations and reading the fine print of contracts, it failed to remind district and building leaders that no consultant can ever supplant the principal's critical role as a school's lead learner and instructional leader.

Even though a "leave-it-to-the consultant" approach may be a recipe for failure, that's exactly what so many principals do. "I had every intention of joining our external literacy expert as she worked with our coaches," you can imagine a principal saying, "but I absolutely had to get that budget report to central office before the deadline." When I think back to my own days as a principal, I remember quite well all the challenges that kept me from attending professional development sessions. From the emergency phone call from an angry parent to the students who needed immediate mediation, something was always trying to pull me away from professional learning. Despite those challenges, my teachers will tell you I was present at practically all of those events.

The culture I set in my school emphasized that everyone learned for the benefit of our students. I also knew that my presence and active engagement in professional learning gave me the information and tools I needed to implement and sustain new ideas and strategies. And despite what I believe many principals tell themselves, I learned that everyone notices when the principal leaves the room. Even though the words may be unspoken, when a principal isn't present, everyone thinks, "I have important things I could be doing as well." The Learning Forward Innovation Configurations (ICs), which add clarity to our standards by providing descriptive actions, take my point a few steps further. Under the Leadership strand, the IC leadership rubric describes the highest level of a principal's engagement in professional learning this way:

The principal:


  • Participates in facilitated learning teams that problem solve and learn together;

  • Participates in extensive, ongoing learning activities that include hands-on, problem- based, and multiple practice opportunities; and

  • Allocates time to explore and practice specific behaviors and strategies and receive feedback on the implementation of new skills.

The principal assessment instrument developed by Vanderbilt University, the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education, also highlights a principal's role in planning, implementing, supporting, advocating, communicating, and monitoring a culture of learning and professional behavior.

Working together with a principal and her or his leadership team, an effective external consultant can be a powerful ally in this process. Without these external experts pushing our thinking, exposing us to critical research and best practices, and facilitating important discussions, many of our efforts to improve would hit unnecessary roadblocks. They become all the more effective when paired with principals who, despite all of the challenges they face every day, make professional learning a priority, demonstrate their commitment through their presence, and work tirelessly to create the conditions in their schools that will ultimately lead to effective teaching practice and improved student learning.

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development, Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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