Principals as Political Actors: Facing Reality

Telling principals that their daily work in schools includes political decisions usually prompts horizontal head-shaking and mumbled denials. Principals often view politics with a distaste reserved for eating a plateful of raw broccoli.

Most principals, even in 2009, see their roles as both managerial and instructional and are disgusted by decisions that smell of politicking. Where did this holding one’s nose over anything political come from? The answer is a century old. (PDF: separating schools from politics)

At the end of the 19th century big-city Republican and Democratic political machines handed out teacher, principal, and janitorial jobs to supporters. Textbook publishers bribed school board members to buy their products. Corruption in school management was the norm.
At the beginning of the 20th century, progressive reformers divorced party politics from the conduct of schooling. Governance reforms led school boards to dump party hacks from their ranks and recruit business leaders and civic-minded professionals to serve. Civil service regulations ended the buying and selling of school jobs. School administrators now had to go to college and get a state-issued license to be a principal or superintendent. The job of principal became professionalized. Most important, principals learned to avoid partisan politics.

Not only because of the progressive movement a century ago but also because the divorce between politics and schools became embedded in professional training of administrators, the power of that norm remains strong today. (education micropolitics PDF) It should come as no surprise that seldom do individual principals take public stands on the worth of educational reforms or other policies. Individual principals are expected to exercise their technical and organizational skills and influence in implementing policies that school boards, governors, state legislatures, and Congress–authorize. They are NOT expected to campaign publicly to get particular policies adopted.

Now, here is the rub. None of what I just said means that principals do not engage in politics. They do–inside and outside the organization–because they influence what teachers, students, and parents do and think. None of the politicking (or influence they exert), however, crosses the line to become partisan politics.

Nor do they like to talk about being “political.” Euphemisms like “public relations,” “massaging superiors,” “working with angry parents,” “collaborating with teachers”—as I have heard them over the years–are favored constructions in their vocabularies.

But it is politicking, however you call it. Consider that many principals mobilize teachers and parents to support a favored reform like 1:1 laptops, Success for All reading, or the district’s new math initiative. Principals have to make political choices when prized values conflict. As one principal said: “You have to make decisions between how much test prep you’re going to do versus how much instruction.” Principals also act politically when they build political coalitions among parents and teachers for their schools at budget time or put a positive spin on bad news during crises.

If principals are school-site managers ala William Ouchi, they work closely with teachers to budget, spend, and operate schools as they see fit within district policies. They allocate resources to instruction, negotiate compromises, and bargain with teachers, parents, and district officials. They act politically. Determining who gets what, when, and under what circumstances to achieve desired objectives is the classic formula for political behavior. And that is what principals do. Talk to that small band of “turnaround” principals. They know that exerting political influence inside and outside the school is crucial to their success in curing a chronically ill-performing school. They just don’t brag about it.

So the generic distaste for political behavior among most principals, understandable in the context of corrupt practices in early 20th century schooling, is, in the context of early 21st century when policymakers hold principals accountable for high test scores, well-run schools, and following district policies, completely out-of-sync with the realities of leading schools now. Listen to a principal of a small high school worrying about flow of district office initiatives to her school: “I can’t do fifteen initiatives at one time because they’re not gonna work, because people are gonna be confused.” So she picked and chose among them without fighting district officials. Or another principal who put the case for politics clearly without using the word once. “You really gotta reach out to people to communicate because you’d be surprised how willing people are to work with you. Sometimes [principals] just don’t do it. It is hard work; it’s a lot of meetings. It’s a lot of networking, it’s a lot of begging….”

In short, either denying the political dimension of principaling or avoiding such actions, as so many school leaders do, ignores the importance, nay, the necessity of principals acting politically to insure that students learn well and teachers teach effectively as they work to run schools smoothly even as conditions change right before their eyes.


Filed under school leaders

14 responses to “Principals as Political Actors: Facing Reality

  1. Good post, Larry. There is a book out, “What They Don’t Tell You In Schools Of Education About School Administration”, by Black and English, that takes as a central point that school administration is a political job, political in the broad sense. I expect you’re familiar with it. I read it some years ago and it was an eye opener to me.

    An important lesson I took away from this book, after some reflection, is that principals are not instructional leaders. Any principal who thinks he or she is, in my humble opinion, is likely to be a real pain to work under. Perhaps there are some exceptions. I certainly hope so. But in general running a school is quite a different job than teaching kids. I haven’t worked with many principals in my life, but I’ve known a few, both as a teacher and as a parent. I have formed the opinion that the best thing a principal can do about instruction is to protect the teacher’s freedom to teach as he or she sees fit. That is no small accomplishment, and it certainly is a political job, political in the sense that one must work with interest groups with differing goals, methods, and agendas.

    As a side note I also realized that being a politician, in the usual sense – a representative in some governing body, is also a respectable and important job. Different interest groups with conflicting agendas must manage to coexist, and hopefully do more than that. Politicians, at least the good ones, facilitate that. Of course partisanism comes with the territory, and can be a detraction from that. The negative connotations of “politician” are quite understandable, but should not take away from our appreciation of political work in general. Salesmen, also, have a political job. Managers have a political job. Indeed a great many jobs have a political component.

    The importance of all this, to my mind, is that accurate and deep understanding of what actually happens in education is very important. Education progress can’t happen without it. But the educational establishment is often more concerned with maintaining their ideology than with understanding the real world. The simple recognition of the political nature of school administration certainly seems like a step in the right direction to me.

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