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What Does an Effective Principal Do?

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This week Michelle and Jack discuss the issue of principal quality, focusing particularly on the issue of instructional leadership.

Schneider: Reformers talk frequently about the importance of principal quality. And obviously school leaders matter tremendously. But I'm curious about whether you think it's possible to strengthen principal quality without changing the nature of the position.

Rhee: I think we have to define the job and then figure out how we get people with the right skills and experiences. 

Schneider: So define the job. What do you think a good principal does?

Rhee: In a nutshell a good principal creates an environment in which students, their families, and school staff are invested in attaining significant academic gains for kids. This means they put in place the supports and resources necessary to accomplish this, knowing that the needs of individual kids and teachers are bound to be very different. They do so knowing that our job as educators is to effectively prepare children to be productive and positive members of society.

Schneider: How are you defining "significant academic gains"? Teach For America uses the phrase, and when they do, they're defining it as 1.5 times the expected annual growth on standardized tests. And I have serious reservations about a principal being relentlessly focused on test scores. In fact, research indicates that when scores are established as a priority inside a building, instruction will narrow and stress levels will rise.

Obviously a focus on student growth is important. And scores can be a part of that. But principals also need to be knowledgeable enough about instruction to understand what's really going on inside classrooms. And they need to have a broad enough sense of a school's purpose that they don't lose sight of other goals while in pursuit of academic gains. You note that children should be prepared to be productive and positive members of society. Yet as we know, a whole lot goes into helping young people develop into happy and successful people.

Rhee: I think a principal needs to be relentlessly focused on academic growth for kids. Test scores are one way to measure that growth, but there are certainly other methods that can and must be utilized as well. 

I want to push on your note about stress levels, though. While I certainly don't think we want kids to be little stress balls, I do think that we need to ensure kids are being challenged and understand that not everything will be easy. And that's fine. They need to know how to tackle things that aren't easy, think through the problem, come up with a game plan, try and fail, and try again. That process will inevitably involve some stress, but I consider that part of helping children become healthy and productive adults. So I want to make sure you're not saying that we need to avoid stress altogether.

Schneider: Kids should be challenged. They can even fail, as long as there are opportunities to learn from those mistakes and improve. But they shouldn't feel like their performance on tests will determine the fates of their teachers or of their school. And teachers shouldn't have to stand in front of the classroom with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. It's a principal's job to convey the message that test scores are merely one kind of indicator, and a limited one at that.

Rhee: I agree. We need to reset the culture in schools and districts about what the tests are and mean. Yes, they're important. But they are one of many important things (to your point above) and they are certainly not the end all be all.

Schneider: You also suggest that successful principals put in place "supports and resources" that promote school-wide learning. And I actually think that's an important observation—the need for a principal to be the lead learner in the building, who helps foster a culture of professional growth. But that's far easier said than done. I have yet to really hear a reform proposal that offers a blueprint for developing that capacity among principals.

Rhee: I think we first need to help principals develop skills around people management and culture creation. Oftentimes we think that if people are great teachers, they'll be great principals, but that isn't always the case. And I don't think we do enough to define and develop good leadership skills in people before putting them into principal positions, which is critical.

One thing I think is very important is that principals be good instructional leaders. Meaning they can go into a classroom and really help a teacher dissect their practice to determine what's working and not and offer real, concrete suggestions for how to improve. I also believe, however, that the principal doesn't need to have all the answers or be expected to do all of the professional development. A great principal fosters a spirit of collaboration among the staff and encourages teachers to become leaders in this regard.

Schneider: In terms of principals being instructional leaders, I want to push on a few specific points. First, you seem to be saying that not all principals need to have been effective teachers. Now, I agree that not all effective teachers will make good principals; but I don't think someone with management skills alone can be a good principal—primarily because he or she won't be a very credible or knowledgeable instructional leader.

Second, as much as I believe in principals as instructional leaders, I think the common conception of what that looks like is a principal frenetically dropping in on teachers throughout the day. In fact, research indicates that frequent observation may not lead to better teaching or higher levels of student achievement. The best instructional leaders are focused on building trust, fostering an academic ethos, promoting collaboration, and ensuring that content is aligned.

Finally, I'm skeptical about how realistic it is to ask principals to be instructional leaders on top of what they do already. Remember, reformers also want principals to be CEOs—overseeing all aspects of operations. And principals have a significant political responsibility—interacting with the community, forging partnerships, engaging in public relations activities. So where is all of this time going to come from?

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