The constant chatter that principals should be innovative and tough-minded instructional leaders, on-top-of-everything CEOs, and smooth political tacticians reminds me of a photo* sent to me by a fellow blogger in Turkey.
I have written numerous times on the DNA of principaling and how three roles–managing, instructing, and politicking–are essential to the daily work of principals. Researchers have observed elementary and secondary principals over the past century and documented time and again that most of their daily activities (at least half) are spent in administrative tasks. Managing a building, staff, children and youth, parents, central office officials, external agencies and companies doing business with the school consumes big chunks of time. And that is just to keep the place working and on course for teachers to teach and students to learn.
Principals reading the last paragraph would probably nod in agreement and could add activities that I omitted.
Of course, facts have little to do with ideology and the latest reform. For the past few decades, but especially since the federal law, No Child Left Behind, was passed, reform-minded academics and principal associations have advocated that the instructional leader is the primary role that principals have to perform if schools are to do well academically–especially in urban districts where poor performance is pervasive. The key to registering higher test scores, promoters of instructional leadership claim, is for the principal to lead teachers in designing the instructional program, coach teachers, do drop-in visits daily to classrooms, teach an occasional lesson, and evaluate how well (or poorly) teachers do over the 180 days of instruction. But as the photo of the rocket strapped to the Basset Hound says: “not everything new and shiny works.”
A recent report ( Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under NCLB pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction results that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.
The researchers shadowed these elementary and secondary principals and categorized their activities minute-by-minute through self-reports, interviews, and daily logs kept by the principals.
In the academic language of the study:
The authors find that time spent on Organization Management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, such as student test score gains and positive teacher and parent assessments of the instructional climate, whereas Day-to-Day Instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments. This paper suggests that a single-minded focus on principals as instructional leaders operationalized through direct contact with teachers may be detrimental if it forsakes the important role of principals as organizational leaders (p. iv)
Two things jump out of this study for me. First, the results of shadowing principals in 2008 mirror patterns in principal work that researchers have found since the 1920s although the methodologies of time-and-motion studies have changed. Second, there is an association–a correlation, by no means a cause-effect relationship–between principals who spend more time managing the organization and climate of the school than those principals who spend time in direct contact with teachers in classrooms.
One study, of course, will not lower the volume or temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader. But that study does bring into perspective that putting goggles and a rocket on a Basset Hound won’t make it fly any more than hyping the role of instructional leadership will make principals better at their jobs.
*Tony Gurr a blogger who is an educational consultant in Ankara, Turkey, sent me a range of graphics that included this photo. No source was provided.