Yet Again: Principals as Instructional Leaders

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.


Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders

25 responses to “Yet Again: Principals as Instructional Leaders

  1. Pingback: Yet Again: Principals as Instructional Leaders @larrycuban | A New Society, a new education! |

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  5. Bob Calder

    I wonder if analysis could be done to directly compare A and F school support staff efficiency. For instance you could count schedule change frequency in high schools to see if scheduling competence varies between A and F schools. Overseeing a staff that doesn’t do these things well might be a factor. Schools lose a ton of instructional time shuffling kids around and because the teaching staff expects it, they don’t start teaching until rosters are steady. There are undoubtedly other efficiencies. Discipline is another obvious one. Time spent arranging and rearranging the high security demanded by state testing protocols that includes meticulous record keeping, training, and enforcement of rules.

    When our high school got a new principal from a middle school who promptly put new people in charge of scheduling, we spent weeks sort of “circling the field” like airplanes that couldn’t land. This was repeated year after year. Twice a year because we had a block schedule. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a reason the seven period schedule works well for poor performing schools as it cuts the opportunity for scheduling incompetence in half.

    • larrycuban

      A provocative point, Bob, about the association between the managerial duty of scheduling interacting with staff expectations about teaching when rosters are finally set in late September or early October (when I was teaching) and student outcomes. Thanks.

  6. James Boutin

    I am continually amazed by the constraints put on administrators. I can hardly believe any of them stay in the job for more than a few years. At my small school (about 400 students), we only have one administrator. I can’t blame her for the very small amount of time she has to devote to instructional leadership. With no dean and only one counselor, she spends much of her time counseling students and dealing with the managerial duties you described above.

  7. Mike Copland

    As usual, Larry, you are provocative and smart on a number of fronts. I do take issue with a few things. First, I worry a bit about the nature of studies like the one cited that put observers in to shadow those in practice, and then categorize what they observed. There is evidence from Ken Leithwood’s and Karen Seashore’s (and colleagues) most recent body of Wallace-funded research, for example, that both high-performing and low-performing principals tend to spend time observing in classrooms. But what principals do with what they observe matters a lot, and high performers in that study did very different things than lower performers. Here’s a snippet from the compilation study that Wallace published in 2010 (pg. 88):
    “High-scoring principals frequently observed classroom instruction for short periods of time, making 20-60 observations a week, and most of the observations were spontaneous. Their visits enabled them to make formative observations that were clearly about learning and
    professional growth, coupled with direct and immediate feedback. High-scoring principals believed that every teacher, whether a first-year teacher or a veteran, can learn and grow. High-scoring principals described how they meet each teacher where they are, by finding something good in what they are doing, and then providing feedback in an
    area that needs growth.
    In contrast, low-scoring principals described a very different approach to
    observations. Their informal visits or observation in classrooms were usually not for instructional purposes. Even informal observations were often planned in advance so that teachers knew when the principal would be stopping by. The most damaging finding became clear in reports from teachers in buildings with low-scoring principals who said they received little or no feedback after informal observations. One of these teachers
    stated, ‘I haven‘t had any feedback or suggestions to date.'”

    Second, I want to riff a bit on your focus on management and culture. I definitely agree great principals work hard at management and climate issues. In fact, my sense is it is very difficult for a principal to establish credibility instructionally, without leading in these other areas. So, in my view management expertise and efforts to develop positive, trusting climate in a school are absolutely necessary emphases, but insufficient for moving practice. Need to have a strong instructional focus as well, in order to complete the picture. Further, the focus on culture-building necessarily revolves around the improvement of teaching. Otherwise,
    (and I’ll bet you agree with me here Larry) principals risk ending up with a school where all the adults love each other, and love to come to work, but don’t get the job done for kids. So, efforts to develop a culture of trust need to focus on the work of improving teaching — an important aspect of instructional leadership –not just on making everybody feel good about the place.

    Finally,I agree with you, Larry, that the notion of “principal-as-instructional-leader” as tossed around in lots of ed reform circles stigmatizes principals, and keeps us from getting smarter, clearer definitions. I’m
    firmly in favor of a more nuanced and complex definition of how leadership for instructional improvement happens, and its not all about the principal. Where the field needs to go (in my humble opinion) is toward more inclusive pictures of how instruction improves, that involves
    leadership from teachers who don’t need to leave the classroom to have influence with peers on instructional improvement issues.

    Hope you are doing well. Say hi to Ed. Mike

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the extensive comment on the Stanford study of principals and the concept of principal as instructional leader. As you said, we agree on a lot of what is in the post. The differences seem to be over the studies done by Leithwood, Seashore, and others distinguishing between high-performing and low-performing principals (the outcome measure being standardized test scores). The implication is that how these high- and low-performing principals approached observations–brevity, frequency, content of feedback, and attitudes toward teachers–may have caused the differences in performance. Perhaps. We don’t know because, at best, these are correlations and the design of the Wallace-funded studies prevented the making of causal statements. And that is the fly in the honey jar. Distinguishing between high and low performing principals on the basis of student test scores could have been due to factors other than style and content of observation.

      Always good to hear from you, Mike.

  8. Mike Copland

    Larry, just like in your teaching — immediate, timely feedback. I love it!

    Just to clarify, the “high and low scores” for principals from the study I referenced above were actually scores associated with the top 20% and bottom 20% of principals on two factors (six items in each factor) on which they were scored by teachers in their schools.

    Items in Factor 1 were about setting a tone of continual professional growth in the school, where the work culture embraces inclusive decision making and the belief that we can always do better. The authors called this factor “Instructional Climate”

    Items in Factor 2 measured the frequency with which the principal and the teacher had regular, on-going dialogue about instructional practices; they asked about the principal being in the classroom, observing instruction, and providing specific feedback. The authors called this the “Instructional Actions” factor.

    The study did go on to examine student test data in higher-scoring and lower-scoring principals’ schools, but did not make any causal claims about student outcomes. In fact, those data were somewhat confounding.

    My point, which I now see could have been made more clearly, really was offered just to suggest that a practice like “observing in classrooms” is not a uniform activity. Different principals perform that function differently, and the Leithwood/Seashore study suggests that teachers see these differences. I was raising the question as to whether the researchers in the Miami-Dade study, in an effort to lump practices into “buckets,” may have missed some of the nuances that exist with practices of this sort. What on the surface may appear to be an instructional leadership activity, may in fact not be felt as such by teachers. While it may look like a duck and quack like a duck, it might not be a duck.

    • Bob Calder

      We have a system in which management acts are prescribed in great detail. Deviation therefore, is not centered in the act itself which cannot be avoided. It happens in inauthenticity. It is probably impossible to create a room full of great dancers by teaching them how to dance, step by step. So elaborate management structures that cost a lot to erect and maintain may be impotent in practice.

    • larrycuban

      I am glad you clarified the Leithwood/Seashore study, Mike. The Stanford study did not do that kind of factor analysis, as I recall. Moreover, researchers did the judging of instructional and managerial activities and put them into buckets, as you put it. So teacher perceptions of what principals were doing were not in the picture. A good point. Surely, we–as teachers do–can distinguish between kinds of instructional leadership behavior on the part of principals. So where does this leave us when it comes to making judgments about instructional leadership and student outcomes?

      • Mike Copland

        It is a great question, Larry. I think it leaves us in as-yet largely uncharted territory, and reliant on the best hunches we can glean from research to date. Establishing the causal chain is just darn difficult, given the complexities. And, I’d suggest, lack of clear causal connections between what leaders do to influence improvements in teaching and learning, and student learning is not a reason to stop working toward better definitions of the actions that principals take that seem to help teachers improve their practice. So, that’s what I rest on for now. Maybe someday, we’ll get to a point with the practice that it is more well-defined, and better connected to outcomes for kids. But, maybe not. Interesting to keep thinking about it, nonetheless.

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  10. Paul Hillyer

    A key to effective classroom visits is not just popping in and out. It is giving meaningful feedback to teachers to help them improve. You cannot influence the instruction in your building to any meaningful degree and help teachers improve unless you are in their rooms frequently coaching them to higher levels of performance. My bet is nationally a very small minority of principals do this frequently and do it well. However, it is the most important activity they can do if student learning is the goal.

    • larrycuban

      I agree that only a small minority of principals do the kind of coaching you suggest they should do. Experts on principals evaluating teachers (e.g., Kim Marshall) call for the frequent pop in visits with follow up, however.

  11. tmy_chronicles

    Hi Larry. I liked reading this post as it gives food for thought around the importance of school climate and culture and that principals are pivotal to creating and shaping both. I also like the statement regarding ” the DNA of principaling and how three roles–managing, instructing, and politicking–are essential to the daily work of principals.” I also wrote an article reflecting on my experiences working as a classroom management consultant and instructional coach in schools throughout NYC and NJ. It’s titled “The Principles of Effective Principals” ( Should you have the time, please check it out and share your reflections. Warm regards, tmy_chronicles

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and send along your experiences in working as a consultant to principals and instructional coach. What you wrote makes sense and is consistent with my experiences with principals as a superintendent and researcher.

  12. Charles Benedict


    Love your blog.

    Have you ever write about using student and staff surveys to evaluate tether and principals?


  13. Charles Benedict

    I meant…TEACHERS end principals!


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