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MSPnet Blog: “Standing by principals”

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posted February 2, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

Principals are important. They are gatekeepers, cheerleaders, instructional leads, disciplinarians, public relations officers, parent liaisons, upholders of standards, personnel officers…. As the list grows, so does my amazement, admiration, disbelief. How can anyone juggle all that?
Of course, over the years, the principal’s role has been construed a lot of different ways, with some of these functions emphasized or downplayed. The mind reels.  Recently, EdWeek had a special section entitled “Shaping strong school leaders,” and the introductory editorial asks whether the job is impossible.
The rest of the special insert then goes on to address different ways that the impossible can be accomplished:
• You can groom future leaders by training and apprenticeship; you can install “principal supervisors” within a district, essentially coaches for the principals. • You can provide lots of in-service (“Continuous learning key for principals”). • You can learn from Denver, which has a elaborated system for preparing principals, building up “assistant principal cohorts”, “succession planning,” and other elements. Very impressive, for a 3-year experiment (Wallace Foundation -funded), and perhaps the most interesting line in the overview of the Denver system tells us that “1 in 5 teachers serve in leadership roles.”  Maybe “distributed leadership” really works..under certain circumstances.

But working conditions are not good, and the vagaries of “reform” continue to exact costs that few include in their accounting.  In addition to the hundred matters that need attention to keep a school healthy, the accountability pressures (on students, teachers, and directly or indirectly, on principals) keep mounting, mutating, and failing to produce benefits that compensate for the costs exacted.  It’s never clear who is “accountable” for creating conditions of churn and burnout.  As Ellie Herman wrote in a blog post last year, “if great leaders are essential and the job of leading a school in an historically underserved high-poverty community is so draining and underfunded that it’s barely sustainable if done well, isn’t that actually our core problem?  When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?”

I spent some time looking at the MSP papers in the MSPnet library, and it seems to me that the bulk of the papers focusing on principals emphasize their role as supporters of instruction, a constructive and appropriately systemic approach.  It made me wonder:  In your projects, have you targeted principals in your change or sustainability model?  Did this require a radical change in the participating schools and districts, or did it build on something already in place and working?  In either case, if you belong to a “mature project”  (“project of a certain age”  “project that has achieved the age of reason”), how has the principal strand survived?  Good surprises?  Sad surprises?  Hopes and challenges?