The writing’s on the wall…and the ceiling, and the floor, and the desks, and the chalkboard: Leadership structures in schools are flawed

This week, MetLife released its Survey of the American teacher results, a poll done every year as a way for those in the schools to share their perspectives with policy makers and the American public.  Headlines quickly latched onto the finding that teacher satisfaction has dropped 23 percent since 2008.

Several writers responded, critiquing the findings and charging that MetLife had changed the questions’ wording, resulting in responses that may not truly represent an alarming drop in satisfaction.  But amidst all the clamor about the MetLife’s findings on teacher satisfaction, there’s been little discussion about what the survey said about principals— and there is reason to be concerned.

The survey gives us a lucid view of one crystal clear fact—the job description of the modern day American principal isn’t working.  It isn’t a result of principals not caring or seeing what happens in a school as someone else’s responsibility.  Principals overwhelmingly embrace responsibility, with 89 percent reporting they should be accountable for everything that happens to children in a school.

However, the number of responsibilities that we’ve given to principals is simply too much for any one human being to handle.  Seven in 10 principals report the job responsibilities of the position have changed in the last five years, and three-quarters of principals report the job has become too complex— a finding that was constant regardless of the demographics of the principal’s district.

In five years, job satisfaction for principals has dropped nine percentage points, and half of the principals surveyed reported feeling under great stress several days a week.  One-third of principals report they are likely to leave their job for another field.  It shouldn’t shock us then that MetLife found only 16% of teachers are even somewhat interested in becoming principals.

I visited the DC Public Schools website and found their current job description. This is what is expected of principals:

  • Lead all instructional development of staff, including setting an instructional vision, analyzing data, determining research based instructional practices in all disciplines taught in the school, and designing professional development to support all these practices.
  • Manage human resource issues through implementation of complex evaluation systems.
  • Manage budget issues.
  • Create an effective school culture that is safe and encourages learning.
  • Set long term goals for all departments based on intimate knowledge of research on instruction and data analysis of student test scores.
  • Meet with parents, community members, and stakeholders
  • Build meaningful, deep relationships with staff members.

You don’t have to have worked in schools to know this is a handsome wish list, about as realistic as asking for politicians to come to an agreement before sequestration.  It’s not going to happen.  We’re expecting principals to be all things to all the moving parts of a school: logistics, data, instructional research, teacher learning, and community building.

Principals can’t do all that’s asked of them— and they don’t.  They’re having to make priorities and, by necessity, neglect certain aspects of the job to accomplish other ones.  As I noted in my last blog, “Are schools replicating the mistakes of American car companies?,” research shows that principals often sacrifice instructional leadership when they prioritize their duties, with instruction being the area that principals spend the least amount of time on.  Paradoxically, research has also shown instructional leadership to be one of the non-negotiables in school improvement.

The answer to the quandary can’t simply be to keep demanding principals do more than they can, and it can’t be to simply turn the other way when instructional leadership is forsaken.  The answer lies in rethinking the leadership structure of our schools. Instead of asking one person to be an expert, visionary, and motivator for every dimension of school life, let’s think about ways to distribute leadership.

In “Building a New Structure for School Leadership,” Richard Elmore argues that large-scale improvement requires a system where deference and respect for expertise is honored by layers of leadership populated by people with intimate knowledge of the area they’re charged with.  I agree.  While it’s important that all levels of leadership have a common purpose— increasing student learning— one cannot be both equally adept at social studies instructional practices, community building, and budgeting.  Why can’t there be multiple leaders managing areas they are experts in?

Specifically, when it comes to that all important area of instructional leadership, we need to think about giving the leadership reigns over to the experts in those areas: teachers.  After all, teaching is very complex work and being an instructional leader takes a great deal of experience, as well as, exposure to the range of research being done in a field.

As an English teacher, I can tell you it has taken years to read through mounds of research on teaching teenagers how to read and write well, and it’s a task that still requires a copious amount of my time.  The idea that I could be an expert in science instruction grossly underestimates the complexity of instruction, as well as, the nuances of learning in each particular discipline.  Further, the idea that I could be an instructional leader in math, science, social studies, and foreign language, and be on top of budgeting, human resources work, and community building is laughable.

The good news is that teachers are very interested in taking on these instructional leadership roles in the building.  Half of the teachers surveyed are interested in hybrid roles that allow them to take on leadership roles and continue teaching.  Why not give teachers these roles? It might just be a step towards improving both teacher and principal satisfaction and ultimately, student learning.

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