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How Important Are Principals?

My last post looked into efforts to recruit and retain top talent for the principal's office at this crossroads in educational history. I applaud the ongoing attempt, but at the same time I question whether the role that principals play in school success is as great as it is perceived.

I say that despite the results of a study conducted by the Educational Research Service at the request of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. It concluded that the principal is the "cornerstone of a school's success - and improvement."

Strong leadership is important, but is it as important as the commissioned study found? It's a logical question because the state education code, board of education policies and court rulings grant principals great power. If they avail themselves of this collective authority, they should be able to make a huge difference in the performance of their schools. This is the Great Man theory of history applied to education.

But teachers - not principals - primarily educate students. The No.1 responsibility of principals is to support teachers so that they can do their job. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In an earlier post, I cited the egregious example of Brooklyn Technical High School, one of three elite high schools in New York City. Despite the existence of the strong teachers union, the principal so poisoned the atmosphere that many stellar teachers demanded to be transferred to other schools.

Critics will be quick to respond that if schools were operated like businesses, this situation would not happen. Apparently, they never heard of harassment and nepotism in business, and the damage done by these practices.

But in case they are in denial, they need to read a study by three Harvard professors. Noam Wasserman, Bharat Anand, and Nitin Nohria examined 531 companies in 42 industries in order to isolate leadership effects from other determinants of corporate performance. They concluded that leadership makes a difference only sometimes ("Do CEOs Matter?" The Atlantic, June 2009).

Perhaps Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of management at Stanford, summed up the issue best in Fortune magazine in 2006: "Good leaders can make a small positive difference; bad leaders can make a huge negative difference." That's because of the existence of external forces that affect performance far more than the transformative potential of CEOs.

If that assessment applies to business, I maintain that it applies even more so to schools. Teachers want to teach their subject. If they feel undermined in any way by their principal as they attempt to deal with the wide range of individual differences among their students, their morale suffers. And when that happens, their students invariably are shortchanged.

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