Time to focus on principals, the linchpin of school improvement

Back in the day, when I was an education reporter and trying to figure out where to find the school stories that would illuminate something revealing or surprising, I was given a great piece of advice by a veteran principal: “Study their budgets and look at how they spending their discretionary dollars. It will tell you a lot about what they value.”

Did they spend money on secretaries and security officers? Or did they buy extra teachers and counselors? Extra books for classroom libraries or iPads for teachers? Does the school find community partners to provide extra services for students, or are do they try to meet these needs in house?

And then once you have a feel for that, take a walk through the school with a principal and watch what happens. Do students greet the principal warmly? Does the principal know students’ names? What happens when the principal walks into the classroom–does everyone stop what they’re doing and gawk, or do they proceed with the lesson without missing a beat? Does the front office staff politely welcome parents who stop in, or are they treated as intruders?

Teachers are so important to individual students, but there are no great schools without great principals. Any principal can talk a good game at central office or during a PTO meeting, but it’s really hard to fake a thriving school culture when your kids don’t know you and your staff don’t trust you.

Transformative school leaders are about the closest thing we have to a magic bullet in education, and it’s amazing how often we lose sight of this as school reform debates devolve into battles over school governance, accountability measures and curricula reforms. I was reminded of this when I read an excellent commentary in the New York Times called, “Want to Fix Schools? Go to the Principal’s Office.” In short:

Virtually every public school in the country has someone in charge who’s called the principal. Yet principals have a strangely low profile in the passionate debates about education. The focus instead falls on just about everything else: curriculum (Common Core and standardized tests), school types (traditional versus charter versus private) and teachers (how to mold and keep good ones, how to get rid of bad ones). You hear far more talk about holding teachers accountable than about principals.

But principals can make a real difference. Overlooking them is a mistake — and fortunately, they’re starting to get more attention. The federal education law passed in 2015, to replace No Child Left Behind, puts a new emphasis on the development of principals. So have some innovative cities and states, including Denver, New Orleans and Massachusetts.

The story actually focused on Chicago, a place where principals get a lot of attention and are rightly seen as the linchpin of school improvement, in large part because of the groundbreaking research at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research. The Consortium developed a school survey that proved predictive about a school’s chances of improving academically, based on student and teacher perceptions of trust, safety, leadership, and challenging classwork. Chicago principals who wanted to get better at their jobs used this data to map a new path, and many of them made common sense changes that moved the needle in remarkable ways.

Those tools are now available to all school districts nationwide, including all districts in Illinois. Some school districts have resisted the survey and the scrutiny, in part because principals in many high-scoring suburbs aren’t accustomed to so much self-reflection and accountability.

Chicago Public Schools gets a lot of grief for its financial and bureaucratic dysfunction, and rightly so. But they are doing a lot right when it comes to principal leadership, which the New York Times was wise to highlight. I hope principals in those less scrutinized districts are paying attention.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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