Jane David and I wrote a book called Cutting through the Hype: (Harvard Education Press, 2010). One chapter is on principals. I have updated some references and language.
Effective manager? Savvy politician? Heroic leader? School CEO? Reformers press for principals who can not only play these roles but also raise test scores and do so quickly. These days principals can earn thousands of dollars in bonuses for boosting student achievement.
Principals are expected to maintain order, to be shrewd managers who squeeze a dollar out of every dime spent on the school, and astute politicians who can steer parents, teachers, and students in the same direction year after year. They are also expected to ensure that district curriculum standards are being taught, as well as lead instructional improvement that will translate into test score gains.
Being a principal is a tall order. As one New York City small high school principal put it: “You’re a teacher, you’re Judge Judy, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a pastor, you’re a therapist, you’re a nurse, you’re a social worker.” She took a breath and continued: “You’re a curriculum planner, you’re a data gatherer, you’re a budget scheduler, you’re a vision spreader.” Yet, at the end of the day, the pressures and rewards are for raising test scores and graduation rates, today’s measure of instructional leadership.
Where did the idea of instructional leadership originate?
Historically, the title principal comes from the phrase “principal teacher,” that is, a teacher who was designated by a mid-19th century school board to manage the non-classroom tasks of schooling a large number of students and turning in reports. Principals examined students personally to see what was learned, evaluated teachers, created curriculum, and took care of the business of schooling. So from the very beginning of the job over 150 years ago principals were expected to play both managerial and instructional roles.
Over the decades, however, district expectations for principals’ instructional role have grown without being either clarified, or without lessening managerial and political responsibilities. Over the past quarter-century, the literature on principals has shifted markedly from managing budgets, maintaining the building, hiring personnel, and staff decision-making to being primarily about instruction. And, within the past decade, directly being held accountable for student results on tests has been added to the instructional role. As instructional leaders, principals now must also pay far closer attention to activities they hope will help teachers produce higher student scores such as aligning the school curriculum to the state test.
Today’s reformers put forth different ideas of what instructional leaders should do to meet standards and increase achievement. Some argue that principals need to know what good instruction looks like, spend time in classrooms, analyze teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, and provide helpful feedback. Other reformers say principals need to motivate teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to learn from each other and from professional development. Still others say principals should focus on data, continually analyzing student test scores to pinpoint where teachers need help.
The list goes on. Some reformers argue that principals should exercise instructional leadership by hiring the right curriculum specialists or coaches to work with teachers on improving instruction. Finally, others suggest that the most efficient way to improve instruction and achievement is to get rid of the bad teachers and hire good ones, an option not always open to leaders of struggling schools. Most of these ideas are not mutually exclusively but together pose a Herculean task, landing on top of all the other responsibilities that refuse to simply disappear.
What problem is the principal as instructional leaders intended to solve?
The short answer is raise a school’s low academic performance. New Leaders for New Schools, a program that trains principals for urban schools [now renamed as New Leaders], captures the expectation that principals can end low academic performance through their instructional leadership:
Research shows – and our experience confirms – that strong school leaders have a powerful multiplier effect, dramatically improving the quality of teaching and raising student achievement in a school.
Such rhetoric and the sharp focus on the principal as an instructional leader in current policymaker talk have made principals into heroic figures who can turn around failing schools, reduce the persistent achievement gap single-handedly, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.
If the immediate problem is low academic performance, then the practical problem principals must solve is how to influence what teachers do daily since it is their impact on student learning that will determine gains and losses in academic achievement.
Does principal instructional leadership work?
The research we reviewed on stable gains in test scores across many different approaches to school improvement all clearly points to the principal as the catalyst for instructional improvement. But being a catalyst does not identify which specific actions influence what teachers do or translate into improvements in teaching and student achievement.
Researchers find that what matters most is the context or climate in which the actions occurs. For example, classroom visits, often called “walk-throughs,” are a popular vehicle for principals to observe what teachers are doing. Principals might walk into classrooms with a required checklist designed by the district and check off items, an approach likely to misfire. Or the principal might have a short list of expected classroom practices created or adopted in collaboration with teachers in the context of specific school goals for achievement. The latter signals a context characterized by collaboration and trust within which an action by the principal is more likely to be influential than in a context of mistrust and fear.
So research does not point to specific sure-fire actions that instructional leaders can take to change teacher behavior and student learning. Instead, what’s clear from studies of schools that do improve is that a cluster of factors account for the change.
Over the past forty years, factors associated with raising a school’s academic profile include: teachers’ consistent focus on academic standards and frequent assessment of student learning, a serious school-wide climate toward learning, district support, and parental participation. Recent research also points to the importance of mobilizing teachers and the community to move in the same direction, building trust among all the players, and especially creating working conditions that support teacher collaboration and professional development.
In short, a principal’s instructional leadership combines both direct actions such as observing and evaluating teachers, and indirect actions, such as creating school conditions that foster improvements in teaching and learning. [i] How principals do this varies from school to school–particularly between elementary and secondary schools, given their considerable differences in size, teacher knowledge, daily schedule, and in students’ plans for their future. Yes, keeping their eye on instruction can contribute to stronger instruction; and, yes, even higher test scores. But close monitoring of instruction can only contribute to, not ensure such improvement.
Moreover, learning to carry out this role as well as all the other duties of the job takes time and experience. Both of these are in short supply, especially in urban districts where principal turnover rates are high.
The solution … in our view
By itself, instructional leadership is little more than a slogan, an empty bumper sticker. In some schools principals follow all the recipes for instructional leadership: They review lesson plans, make brief visits in classrooms, check test scores, circulate journal articles that give teachers tips, and dozens of other instructional activities that experts advise. Yet they do not manage to create school-wide conditions that encourage teacher collaboration, high standards for student work, and a climate where learning flourishes for students and teachers. Creating these conditions is the essence of instructional leadership.
Principals who are effective instructional leaders do not follow a recipe. Like teachers, they diagnose their school’s conditions and figure out what actions are needed to create a school environment where teachers feel supported and where students, parents, and teachers strive to achieve common goals and have a stake in helping one another do their best. When all pull together, the chances of test score gains and other measures of academic achievement rise also.
[i] Of the many studies and books Cuban has examined, one in particular offers both a conceptual design and practical techniques to increase the leadership of principals in supervising and evaluating teachers, major functions of every school-site leader. See, Kim Marshall, Rethinking Teacher Supervision and Evaluation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). Also Marshall has coached individual and groups of principals since 2002 (see here).