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Principals as Instructional Leaders

But can they do it all? And at what cost?
The Virginia Beach Landstown High School and Technology Academy administration confers with lead teachers on the five dozen professional development opportunities offered to its faculty this past February.
The Virginia Beach Landstown High School and Technology Academy administration confers with lead teachers on the five dozen professional development opportunities offered to its faculty this past February.

At some level, principals always have been instructional leaders—but never before has their role been more prominent.

First, the accountability movement—No Child Left Behind in particular—thrust principals into the spotlight on academic achievement. Then budget cuts peeled away capacity at both the district and school levels, thinning the ranks of assistant superintendents, curriculum specialists and assistant principals, who shouldered some or most of the load.

For Beverly Jarrett, principal at Far West High School in the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District, that has meant an upward creep from 10 hours per day, five days a week when she started five years ago, to 12 to 14 hours per day and one Saturday a month.

“You’re never in this place where you can relax. You’re always thinking about the next thing that needs to be done,” she says, recalling an early evening when she ran into a student on the street who said to Jarrett, “I’ve never seen you outside of school.” Says Jarrett with a wry chuckle, “They think I live there.”

Traditionally, principals have been more engaged in management functions, like making sure every student has a desk, the buses are on time and cafeterias are supervised, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “Often in the larger schools, an assistant principal was clearly designated as an instruction person, or a systemwide curriculum director, or a director of instruction. In the smaller districts, it was the assistant superintendent of instruction.”

But now, he adds, if a school doesn’t make adequate yearly progress under NCLB, the principal is held responsible. “With that focus of accountability directly on the principals, they have to step up and assume that [academic leadership] role,” Domenech says.

“The reality in most schools was that curriculum was what happened when the teacher went into the class and closed the door,” adds Dick Flannery, senior director of leadership programs and services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “There’s no question that principals’ substantive involvement in instructional leadership is a positive for schools.”

Principals who define themselves as instructional leaders typically have the most success, particularly in high-poverty areas, says Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at the Education Trust and co-author of Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools.

“Traditionally, principals were really not instructional leaders,” she says. “They tended to be building problem-solvers—putting out the little fires. Many aren’t prepared to do that [instructional leadership] job. They were gym teachers, and they had a good relationship with the superintendent. That’s not a good recipe for instructional leadership.”

In addition to greater accountability, principals have been thrust into the instructional leadership role due to budget cuts. “At one time, they had a curriculum director who was the go-to person when looking to implement the new math series or the new reading series,” says Rob Monson, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and principal of Parkston (S.D.) Elementary School. “Now, the principal has become the beacon that people look to when they say, ‘What do we do next?’ … We all wish we had assistants, we all wish we had specialists, but we don’t.”

Jarrett in Oakland says she doesn’t mind. “The instructional role is the most important role, and it’s the one I enjoy the most—more than all the other roles you have to play, from facilities manager, to social worker, to mental health therapist,” the sixth-year principal says. Katherine Konopasek, principal at Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary School in the Chicago Public Schools, says she’s always considered herself an instructional leader. “If you become a principal to get out of the classroom, you’ve made a serious mistake,” she says.

Training Helps Shift

Domenech feels that superintendents need to ensure principals have the proper training to take on that instructional leadership role. For example, if principals are not experts in reading but their schools are having problems with reading performance, he says they must “beef up” their knowledge of reading methodology, and techniques and programs.monson

Flannery believes that principal-preparation programs don’t do enough to ground principals in day-to-day realities and that their impact is dimmed by the time gap that sometimes occurs between training and practice. “The other issue is, if you look at the reality of today’s accountability in schools, how many people [teaching] in universities have worked in [K12] schools with accountability?” he says, adding that university programs recently have been trying to upgrade their relevance.

Budget cuts have also impacted training that involves out of state travel in many districts. “Budgets have been cut so much in so many states, we don’t have that opportunity,” Monson says.

Konopasek doesn’t believe Chicago Public Schools does enough to give principals such training, having shut down a professional development center and making plans to deliver training directly to schools. The district is in transition, she says. “But what to do this year?”

In the Oakland district, data coaches have helped principals get up to speed on and analyze the benchmark tests that students take three times during the year to measure their progress. “You find out exactly where students are, rather than making the assumption that if it’s been taught, they know it,” Jarrett says. “It’s a better way than looking at [state tests] at the end of the year.”

Principals in Oakland also have had the benefit of results-based budgeting for at least nine years, Jarrett says, giving them the ability to decide how to spend all monies outside of Title I and other categorical grants. These remaining state and local funds are given to principals as a lump sum that’s calculated based on the current year’s enrollment. This allows them to attend to their particular schools’ needs, which has led some principals (although not Jarrett herself) to bring in the data coaches.

Teaching the Teachers

Chenoweth believes that principals need to guide teachers away from thinking of themselves as “masters of their classroom” and toward a more collaborative style to work together on the common goals laid out through accountability measures. “It’s impossible for every teacher to provide everything—to have all content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge,” she says. “Only by collaborating and pooling expertise is there even a chance of [providing everything students need].” To start that process, teachers look at test scores and other data and compare how well their kids performed—but not for the purposes of competition. “Your kids learned fractions a lot better than mine. What are you doing?” one teacher might ask another. Adds Chenoweth, “For teachers to have those conversations in a professional and not defensive way—that takes leadership.”

It also takes leadership for a principal to question a teacher whose methods of teaching don’t result in the students understanding and knowing the subject. The principal has to ask, “Did you think about doing it this way? Maybe that would help,” Chenoweth says, adding: “That [requires] a principal steeped in what it looks like to be a classroom leader.”jarrett

In many cases, a teacher may be reaching some students but not others. Teachers should think, “It’s worked with Johnny but not Fred. Now what am I going to do about Fred?” Principals play a valuable role in pushing teachers to ask this question and in either providing answers or pointing them to colleagues who can help them.

About a decade ago, administrators at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., made a decision to develop itself as a professional learning community, which involves empowering teachers to become instructional leaders, says Principal Jay Pearson. “Singlehandedly, the principal cannot possibly know all those [subject-matter] standards, all those benchmarks,” he says. “My job is to establish a culture whereby you’ve got teacher-leaders stepping up.”

Pearson explains that the professional learning community is not so much a formal structure as the establishment of a culture. Teachers collaborate around questions like, “What do we want kids to know? How do we get there? And what are we going to do if they don’t?” he says. “It’s shared ownership of student results.” For example, all of the algebra 2 teachers in a school look at how all 200 students performed, then at their own 50 students.

“It’s going away from what was once a very isolated existence,” he adds. When one teacher’s students haven’t done as well, the other teachers ask, ‘What can we do collectively to help teacher A?’” That requires the principal to establish trust so that he or she can “lay data on the table and not be defensive.” It also requires that time be set aside during the contractual school day, he says. Assistant superintendents in Fairfax County Public Schools do a nice job training principals to know what to delegate, Pearson says. “My bosses built the knowledge within me,” he says. “In many ways, it’s a significant paradigm shift in how schools operate.”

Denise Garison, principal at Jack Britt High School in the Fayetteville (N.C.) Public Schools, agrees there’s a balance to be struck and says that her departmental chairs still play a major role in instruction. “It’s not all about one person’s opinion,” she says. “With standardized tests, we share [with colleagues]: ‘This is what works for me. Do you want to try it?’”

Managing Time

Principals can’t just decide to offload their other responsibilities. Chenoweth recommends a combination of delegating and careful time management. “Don’t do administrative things when kids are in the building,” she says. “[District leaders] need to stop doing stupid stuff, like [asking principals to] turn in the same report in three different formats. It drives them nuts.” But she says, “be very careful to hire and supervise the building and office staff so they’re not solving every problem. They devolve a lot of responsibility onto other people who are expected to solve problems and not come to them and say, ‘Now what do we do?’”stevenson

Principal Konopasek in Chicago says she’s faced a tough time crunch in the past couple of years. She has seen a new mayor (Rahm Emanuel), a new schools’ CEO (Jean-Claude Brizard), implementation of the Common Core State Standards in K8 all at once (which prompted Konopasek to send 35 teachers to a K-12 Alliance workshop), implementation of response-to-intervention (which the school is paying for out of “poverty funds,” says Konopasek), and upcoming negotiations on a teachers contract resulting in a new compensation system (with details yet to come) and a longer school day. On top of all that, she said she has been without a licensed building engineer for six months.

All of that combined has resulted in many 11-hour days plus Saturdays and some Sundays in the office. “I’m doing it just to keep up,” Konopasek says. She supports many of the changes taking place, but admits, “You can get to the point where there are too many changes. … You can’t suffer a hurricane every day. You get soaking wet to the bone.”

To keep the time crunch manageable, Brian Matney, principal at Landstown High School and Technology Academy in the Virginia Beach City Public Schools, recommends “not falling prey to the tyranny of the urgent.” As much as he tries to stay focused on instruction, he believes time is his greatest challenge. “It’s a matter of, I have to walk into the building, I have to keep my eye on the main thing,” he says. “The biggest challenge we have is not letting the time we commit to [instruction] be taken up by other things that, while important, are not as important.”

Matney sees his role as making sure he’s aware of what’s happening in the classrooms and what methodologies teachers are using. “I want to know where the best teaching is occurring and to showcase those prototypes to their peers,” he says.

Matney sees himself and his peers as being most comfortable in a foundational role. “Principals are architects, not plumbers,” Matney concludes. “There are going to be some plumbing duties, and I’m happy to do them. … But we thrive on being the architect.”

Ed Finkel is a contributing writer to District Administration.