Principals as Instructional Leaders: Rhetoric and Reality (Part 2)

Past and current research on principals reveal that school-site leaders perform managerial, instructional, and political roles in and out of their schools. Of these multiple (and often conflicting) roles, however, the instructional leader role has been spotlighted as a “must” for these men and women because, as the theory (and rhetoric) goes, it is crucial to improving teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Yet studies of principal behavior in schools makes clear that spending time in classrooms to observe, monitor, and evaluate classroom lessons do not necessarily lead to better teaching or higher student achievement on standardized tests. Where there is a correlation between principals’ influence on teachers and student performance, it occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teaches about those five-minute visits.The reality of daily principal actions conflicts with the theory.

Much of the rhetoric of instructional leadership flowing from true believers in the theory rings hollow when researchers actually go into schools and shadow principals, observing what they do day-after-day in a school a week or more at a time. Such time-and-motion studies have been done ever since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” in the early 20th century. When such studies were done, they showed that the bulk of the a principal’s time was spent on managing the building, teachers, students, and parents. That was then.

Now, a few published studies make the same point: what principals do is largely manage people and buildings spending most of their time outside of the classroom, not inside watching teachers teach.

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 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.

Another study of first- year urban principals prepared by New Leaders,  a program imbued with beliefs in instructional leadership, revealed that new principals, a large fraction of whom left the post after two years, had little impact on student achievement even while observing and monitoring teacher lessons (see RAND_TR1191)

A few studies, of course, will not banish a theory lacking convincing evidence, temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader,  or alter principal preparation programs.  Current rhetoric and ideology highlighting instructional leadership trump research studies, past and present, again and again.

Some donor-funded efforts try combining the results of the above studies and earlier research about principals managing the instructional program with their direct involvement in teachers’ classroom practices. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation’s recent publication The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.    In their well-intentioned effort, however, they give life to a failed theory and pump oxygen into the prevailing rhetoric.

The rose-colored view that principals of schools, big and small, urban and suburban, elementary and secondary, can throw fairy dust over teacher lessons and improve student academic performance continues to dominate professional associations of principals and university preparation programs.


Filed under school leaders

19 responses to “Principals as Instructional Leaders: Rhetoric and Reality (Part 2)

  1. Michael Cowley

    Issues of time come in to play. Time management: many people, items and agendas in one school day. The Principal able to enter a room and coach appreciatively is a rarity. Leaders who become frazzled each day due to work loads burn out, influential no more. Then there is time past: teachers teach in a dynamic socio-techno environment, it is often different from the years the Principals taught. An evidenced based climate with clear accountability to set student learning experiences with student zones of proximal learning is theoretically ideal and in practice challenging. It is of no surprise that the Principal who influences student results more is the one who utilises time to create curriculum teams to assist teachers organise, maintain and communicate learning agendas as well as keeping the school plant functional. Principal visits to a classroom can support academic relationships if they value the people and their work. Their observations are best filtered to corporate professional leaning. Principal influence on student performance is related to understanding how to support teachers to do the smallest details better. Timely accomplishment of this requires a trust that develops professionally with transparency and builds with collaborative construction of an ongoing shared vision and action. And there is that time element again: initially it takes time to function collaboratively, but it begins to untangle some of the stresses as everyone begins to ‘get it’ and many peers begin to coach.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Michael, for taking the time to comment. You put the frame of “time management” around the multiple roles that principals must perform. For what it is worth, I agree.

  2. Lyn Goodnight

    While I can’t possibly argue with the studies, I wonder if we could perhaps strike a balance between the managerial role and the leadership role. In my own high school (back in olden times) we were fortunate to have a principal who managed the day-to-day affaris of the school, but still took time to learn each student’s name and something about us. He didn’t come into the classrooms, but he did meet with the teachers during their free hours on occasion, coaching and offering help those who needed a better understanding of some point of teaching. Students respected him because he was a visible presence in the school, always in the halls during class changes, occasionally sitting at a lunch table with a group of students in a relaxed and friendly way. He took the time to find out what we needed. When he retired, he was replaced by a principal who spent all his time in the office, knew no one’s name if they weren’t on the basketball team, and demonstrated complete disinterest in the tensions between races that were building around him. (This was the early 70’s, and racial conflicts were frequent). When we had an all-out riot, with police in the halls and students going to the hospital, the principal we came to call Coward Howard was quite literally hiding under his desk. When the time for leadership came, he was no leader, and he was never effective as a principal in a school where no one respected him.

    All that story leads to this: the role of principal cannot be all-or-nothing. A principal doesn’t have to spend time in classrooms, but he or she should be familiar with the students and set an example of what a good leader should be. I firmly believe that there is a connection between the level of care and mutual respect that a principal (or a teacher) demonstrates, and the response of students to those adults. In these times when students are disconnected from education and over-connected in cyberspace, the human interaction they experience with the significant adults in their lives can have a positive impact. It may not show in standardized tests, but it will be important nonetheless.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment on the importance of principal relationships with students. That relationship is crucial to the political, managerial, and instructional roles that school-site leaders have to perform daily.

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  4. Cal

    There’s a commenter, LaborLawyer, who has observed on several other blogs about administrators that principals are much more akin to second-line managers than first line. He is exactly right. Teachers don’t have first line managers, which is one reason why evaluations are such a bone of contention. Education reformers don’t really understand this (I suspect because most of them are policy wonks and don’t really understand the difference between first and second line management).

    And of course, you know, Larry, that I think the idea of principals as instructional leaders is problematic anyway.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cal, for your comments. Without pressing the point too far about first- and second-line managers, the latter are district office folks who manage principals, the curriculum, human resources, etc. First-line managers are, indeed, principals which is precisely why teacher evaluations can be thorny, a contribution, or somewhere in-between.

  5. I love this topic because I have worked for so many Principals and seen such a wide variation in approaches. A Principal does set the tone of the school but he or she has little control over the academic output and I see no value in visiting a classroom other than to see what is happening and perhaps to get to know the students and staff better. In reality, the Principal is a piece of the structure not the guiding force of it. The best Principals are great people managers; if the teachers and students feel that they are listened to and respected then you have a happy school. Happy schools are productive. Of course, this is something that is hard to
    package and the selection process for administrators doesn’t always get it right. Many of the upwardly mobile types who take the Principal’s course know how to say the correct edubabble but in reality may have been mediocre teachers themselves. Their value as instructional leaders is often very suspect. Teachers are the real instructional leaders and when you have collaboration with each other, you see good things happening. I also feel that the encouragement or condemnation of peers is far more powerful than a teacher performance review.

  6. deannaburney

    Reading Larry Cuban’s recent post on school reform and classroom practice titled “Principals as Instructional Leaders: Rhetoric and Reality (Part 2)” encourages me to suggest adding another role to the many roles, managerial, instructional, and political included, that successful school-site leaders assume—leading adult learning—to improve student achievement.

    Early on during my first principalship, I read Seymour Sarason’s 1993 book, The Predictable Failure of School Reform. In Chapter 8, “For Whom Do Schools Exist?,” Sarason wisely contends that if school district leaders and principals want schools to be places of inquiry, intellect, and integrity, they must create and sustain these conditions—analysis and questioning, understanding and intelligence, openness and reliability—for the adults in schools so that they in turn can design and cultivate a similar learning environment for the students entrusted to their care and development.

    To do so requires that school district leaders and principals have an explicit understanding of adult development—what it is, how it is enabled, and how it is constrained. Focusing on adult learning within their schools as much as they focus on student learning will enable principals and district leaders to understand how adults learn, how to support them in their current ways of knowing, and how to stretch them with appropriate supports to grow. Further, successful school-site leaders understand that adult learning operates from the premise that teachers, indeed all adults in schools, are co-producers of learning; they enrich each other and collaborate to achieve greater insights.

    Faculty in schools where adult learning as individuals, as members of a team, and as members of an organization is viewed as essential to the enhancement of students’ academic achievement develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice and knowledge base. Adult learning in these three ways builds internal accountability and collective ownership for student performance; “makes practice public,” embedding opportunities for adult learning in everyday teaching and learning situations; and creates bridges for linking critical knowledge across generations of faculty.

    Principals and teachers in schools where continuous adult learning is considered crucial to greater student achievement employ collaborative problem-solving approaches to teaching and learning. They seize opportunities to exercise and practice innovative teaching strategies, sharing their ideas, techniques, and outcomes with their peers in authentic situations. In the interest of improving organizational performance overall, they expose themselves to constructive critique and feedback, which helps them conceptualize the link between effort and performance, and allows them to acquire the norms and behaviors common to dynamic, resourceful professional learning environments.

    High levels of student learning are possible when the organizational culture, routines, and practices in schools and school districts emphasize adult development as much as they do student learning.

    • larrycuban

      Ah, Deanna, thanks so much for making the point of schools as places for both child and adult learning.It is an organizational task that many principals, using that framework, see as part of the instructional role writ large. Appreciate the comment.

  7. I think this might tie in well with the UChicago UEI findings published in _Organizing_Schools_for_Improvement_, namely that principals play a role in school organization and have the ability to develop the “pillars” identified by UEI for a successful school. Note that direct instructional coaching is not as important as an environment which supports teachers with development and opportunities for reflection, something that teachers may not be able to push for themselves, but the principal, as the school’s primary administrator, can. Coming into a classroom all the time isn’t necessary. Providing the means for teachers to help each other is.

  8. EB

    Teachers who have had good preparation and who have experienced colleagues do not need their principals to coach them. If coaching were an important role for principals we would not prefer PE teachers as principals, but we in fact often do. And that is not a bad thing, if the PE teachers know how to form and support a team.

  9. Dallas Teacher


    This was posted on a Dallas teacher blog where for teachers struggling with a new Broad Academy. Aware of your sense of humor, I immediately thought of you when I saw the picture. Thanks so much for all you do to keep teachers informed!

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