Principals As Instructional Leaders: Hype and Reality

Six years ago, I published a post on the highly popular slogan of principal as instructional leader. Following up on this blog’s post of Chicago Mayor’s Rahm Emmanuel’s publicized reversal of his initial school reform beliefs and what he ultimately learned about the importance of Chicago’s principals in turning around schools’ low academic performance, I re-visited this earlier post.  I was surprised that few, if any, observational studies of principal behavior linked to student achievement have been published since 2013. The one I did find is included below.

The strong belief held by practitioners and researchers that of the three essential roles principals perform (instructional, managerial, and political), they “must” be first and foremost, instructional leaders continues its dominance in the literature in spite of weak evidence.

 

 

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 recent studies (https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/grissom%20loeb%20%26%20master%20instructional%20time%20use_0.pdf

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under research, school leaders

5 responses to “Principals As Instructional Leaders: Hype and Reality

  1. speduktr

    Sometimes I wonder what happened to common sense. In what world does having someone leaning over your shoulder, who may know little to nothing of your subject or your students, telling you how to do your job better make sense? The wisest principals I knew allowed their staff to do their jobs and managed the moving parts of the entire system making the tasks of everyone easier. The last few decades of micromanagement have not led to good outcomes.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    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.

    The larger question is what counts as academic performance and what is meant by “improvement.” Test scores overshadow everything else. The observation schedules from Marzano and Danielson have been sold as if essential for monitoring and improving teacher behavior–absent any firm evidence that these one-size-fits-all instuments of intimidation have any validity for every grade, subject, and students in scheduled classes.

    None of the principals in schools where I taught had a clue about education in the visual arts, the subject I was hired to teach. Class visits were rare and these were perfunctory checks to verify there was a semblence of order and student engagement. The most useful “coaching” was from the county art supervisor and other art teachers who met monthly for two hours with an announced agenda and topics, these set by the supervior in consultation with teachers. I can rcall that Elliott Eisner was one of the few voices heard when California cut almost all art supervisory jobs. Now principals are being subjected to evaluations on a huge array of “performance” measures–some of these beyond their personal control or indeed, the control even of a larger community. Cases in point: the unconscionable rates of poverty in this nation.

  3. Over 30+ years of teaching I have had a lot of principals, good and bad. The good ones always asked “What do you need to teach better?” The bad ones always told “Where is what you need to do to teach better.”

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