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Principals as Saviors

One of the persistent themes permeating the reform movement is the importance of inspired principals to assure that students receive a quality education. The claim has great intuitive appeal to taxpayers whose patience is running out over the slow progress of school turnarounds.

But they may want to rethink their beliefs in light of the remark made in the Boston Globe by the charismatic Stephen Zrike, who overhauled Blackstone Elementary School in the South End, before departing to take a better position in the Chicago public school system ("An untimely turn in a school turnaround," Jan. 6, 2011).

To his credit, Zrike said that he rejected the notion that a principal possesses the ability to save a school. He felt the real heroes are classroom teachers. I believe that the test of whether he is right can best be found by observing what transpires after the principal leaves. It's not that what transpires on the principal's watch is not a valid indicator. It most certainly is. But if the results are tied solely to the principal's presence, students will be shortchanged. That's because those principals who best serve students are the kind that foster a leadership mentality in teachers. If they are successful in doing so, when they depart they leave a positive legacy behind.

This view is not limited to education. The Wall Street Journal published the results of a seven-year study of hundreds of companies around the world. Although leadership counts, benefits are greatest when the rank-and-file are invited to participate in decisions ("Leading From Below," Mar. 3, 2007). The same conclusion was drawn in 2003 by J. Richard Hackman in Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances.
He wrote about the power of collaboration in getting the best out of employees ("Do CEOs Matter? The Atlantic, June 2009).

But as long as so many business leaders believe in Carlyle's Great Man theory of history, they will continue to insist that all -powerful principals are the key to school reform. Like Superman, they are seen as possessing unique wherewithal. I think far too much emphasis is placed on their importance. The ones who deserve the lion's share of credit are teachers. But try convincing those at the top that their success is largely the result of those beneath them.

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