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February 19, 2015

A matter of principal

After a conversation with CPE’s senior policy analyst Jim Hull last week in which Jim helped explain to issues of accountability, the conversation segued onto the topic of school principals and the powerful role they play in public education. Apparently, Jim is not the only one who believes that principals are key players in student success.

In a recent piece by Real Clear Education, graduate training programs designed for principals should foster a more practical skillset. The report goes on to suggest that incorporating disciplines such as business administration, could provide principals with the training for activities that are actually practiced on the job. A caveat however, the report also makes it very clear that they are not advocating for schools to be run like automated businesses either. That being said, there are still numerous leadership skills taught within an MBA program that fall directly within (or should) the purview of a principal, such as budgeting, data analysis, talent and quality management, organizational change, and leadership.

One thing is clear; good principals are essential for school success. As mirrored in a report by CPE, The Principal Perspective, high-quality principal leadership can facilitate numerous beneficial school outcomes, such as increasing student achievement, reducing both student and teacher absences, and reducing the turnover of high-quality teachers. Additionally, principals can be the linchpins in school turnaround. When a new principal is introduced into a school challenged by low student achievement, one of the first tasks an effective leader would undertake would be to assess the quality of the teachers, in an attempt to replace the lowest-quality teachers and retain the highest-quality teachers. These recruitment skills could be fostered through training in talent management, whereas retainment skills are taught through quality management, both skillsets that are central in an MBA program. Furthermore, our report found that principals were most effective at the earlier grades (i.e., elementary school), with an effect that diminishes across middle and high school. A plausible rationale for this decreasing effect is that as the structure of the school expands, it becomes more difficult to organize and govern. One way to address this downfall however, could be to incorporate leadership into principal training so that principals are better prepared to handle larger systems producing just as strong effects as elementary leaders.

In summary, the pieces by Real Clear Education and CPE share a common theme: principals matter. Although individual principals are not making broad changes at the state or federal level, they are poised to have (and sustain) incredible impact locally. It is because of their unique position that they play such an important role in increasing school outcomes. Thus, ensuring that principals are provided with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in effective school leadership certainly seems like a good principle.

February 20, 2013

Are schools replicating the mistakes of American car companies?

Yesterday I caught the Charlie Rose show, and while the topic wasn’t education, a comment a guest made got me thinking about whether we have a fatal flaw in our leadership structure in the public schools.  Rose had invited Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist with Sequoia Capital, onto the show.  The conversation meandered in many directions, but they paused for a moment to talk about leadership in major corporations.  As they pondered the nature of who should be in charge of companies, Moritz argued that no company can rely solely on “business” people; instead, you must have product people involved in leadership.  He noted that this was one of the fatal flaws of American automakers, contributing to their decline.  As the companies grew, they added more and more business people, and neglected to have product people in leadership, pushing the company towards a better car, towards innovation.

As I heard Moritz speak, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the same might be happening now in education.  Are we stacking our leadership teams with only business people and no product people?  In schools, the “product” is learning, so product people are experts in curriculum and instruction—the process of creating learning in students.  However, research shows time and time again, that most principals in schools spend very little time on the product, student learning.

In his report, “Building a New Structure for School Leadership,” Richard Elmore notes that multiple studies have shown that instruction is an area principals spend the least amount of time on.  In our own report about the function of principals in schools, we found that while principals are told to focus on student achievement, they still must perform a bevy of administrative duties, leading many principals believing that focusing on student achievement simply isn’t doable as the job currently stands.  Some might argue that such a lack of instructional leadership has little to no impact as long as teachers are experts in the product of learning and excel at teaching; however, this too contradicts research.

Just like in companies, leadership in schools does matter.  In fact, the impact of the principal on student achievement is only topped by the impact of the teacher in the classroom.  Research has shown that in schools with highly effective principals: students perform on average 10 percentage points higher than if in a school lead by an average principal, student absences are lower,  and graduation rates are 3 percent higher.

Interestingly, highly effective principals are set apart by one quality: instructional leadership.  In other words, principals make a distinct impact on student learning by being product (i.e. learning) experts, not business (i.e. administration and organization) experts.  Unfortunately, today we’re left with many schools lead by those with little time to focus on the product, student learning.  In the world of automotives, that left us with far too many years of the Ford Taurus.  In education, it’s left us with far too many years of underperforming students.

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