Without a strong leader, schools fail

All the talk is about teachers, but school leadership makes a huge difference, notes the Hechinger Report.

Of everything we’ve learned about the art and science of reforming a failing school in the past decade, school leadership is second only to teacher quality in terms of importance – and the more dire a school’s predicament, the greater the need for strong leadership. Because of this, the emphasis is now less on the lone dynamic teacher and more on the whole school environment.

“Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader,” said Kenneth Leithwood, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies leadership.

There are many training programs for school leaders, but “few do a first-rate job of preparing principals and superintendents for today’s challenges.”

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  1. I experienced this issue first hand. With a strong leader, the school I worked at in NYC was functional. It wasn’t great, but it was working and improving. Unfortunately our principal retired, and was then replaced by 3 people, each less effective than the first. The final person ended up driving out half of the teachers of the school, got caught changing marks on student’s exams, and was fired. She drove the school as fast as possible from being a semi-effective place for kids to being a horrible school.

    Effective leadership is especially important in schools on the cusp since many of them are populated with new and inexperienced teachers. You need someone in the boat who knows what direction to paddle.

  2. I agree – without a good leader, it’ll just flop around in the wind, often in control by the wayward students (who are often excellent leaders themselves, just on the wrong path).

    I also believe that Teachers need to be good leaders within their respective classrooms – it helps maintain the hierarchy and respect for leadership, service, and effort.

  3. Sir Chancelot says:

    As someone who has spent a lot of time around future administrators enrolled in principal/administrative leadership programs, I can attest that, with one exception, the people in these programs are:

    * Extremely earnest
    * Highly motivated
    * Extremely political, to the point of zealotry
    * Lacking in any sort of practical experience outside of herding children
    * Dumb as hammers
    * Actually ignorant about matters academic (which is different than being dumb)
    * Affirmatively uninterested in a well-rounded education

    The programs in which these people are enrolled do nothing to palliate the last three characteristics and quite a bit to accentuate the third.

    It’s not that “the pools of able, available principals and superintendents aren’t especially deep” (as the Hechinger Report says), it’s that there is no such pool. Able, available principals and superintendents, where they may be found, are floating in very deep pools filled with steaming filth and excrement. I think there’s something to what David Wees says, above: most of the administrators you’re going to fish out of that pool will kill your school if you plug them into the administrative chipset, as it were.

  4. Strong school leadership is vital for schools to be successful. The most important school leadership skills are soft skills. Successful school leaders have the ability to connect with people and create collaborative teams focused unremittingly on the business of the schoolhouse – learning.

  5. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers have the same “skill set”, particularly at the ES level and MS often seems to be more of the same.

  6. Allison says:

    But of course without leadership, the schools fail but they don’t go away.

    That’s the problem, and there’s no happy solution to that. Leadership in the private sector comes when those who aren’t good at it fail and lose their jobs or their businesses fold. Some of those leaders then learn from those mistakes, and others try their hand at something else. But how would someone learn from their mistakes as a school leader?

    And even if they do, unfortunately, that’s not really a model for education anyone wants to espouse, even when they say they want more choices. Finally being good at running a company on your sixth startup is okay, but “don’t worry, by your sixth school, you’ll get it right” isn’t what parents or students can afford to hear.

    We can’t create talented leadership if no one can learn from their mistakes. We can’t create talented leadership just by wishing that talented leaders would enter this field. We need schools to turn teaching and running of schools into real professions, where best practices are taught and handed down and where there are consequences for behaviors that don’t lead to excelllence. That’s a long way off from where we are now.

  7. With the shortage of open positions and the overflow of qualified teachers, it’s even more important for administrators to have a knack at picking the right people. Choosing the right teachers in the beginning makes it much easier to effectively lead them in the future.

  8. “We need schools to turn teaching and running of schools into real professions, where best practices are taught and handed down and where there are consequences for behaviors that don’t lead to excelllence. That’s a long way off from where we are now.”

    Well said, but let’s face facts. What you describe is not education. Education is not a profession and the types of people who have the potential to be leaders rarely enter education for that reason (and many others). And, the rare bird in the field who could be a leader will not do so because s/he knows that being a leader is not permitted. Also, many of those who could be leaders leave the field when they learn what it will be like to stay. They take their skills and go elsewhere, where they often become leaders. Until education becomes a true profession that rewards excellence and punishes failure, it’s going to stay as it is.

  9. Momof4,

    I would say that “reformers” are much more likely to be full of excrement than teachers.

  10. tim-10-ber says:

    What are the qualities you believe (or know) make an excellent principal? Not all teachers (probably most teachers) do not make good principals…so what is it that makes a principal effective? While preferable to have real classroom experience is it truly necessary to be an effective leader of a school? Very curious…

  11. I have an excellent principal. He is very clearly a leader without being a control freak. No, you can’t have him :).

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    These are not sufficient qualities for an excellent principal, nor may they be necessary. But they may be necessary qualities for one sufficient set of qualities:

    * LOYALTY: The principal backs up his or her teachers first, looks out for their interests, and does not immediately throw them under the parental bus. This isn’t to say that the principal stubbornly refuses to take action where it’s clear that a teacher has misbehaved or failed in some way, but it does mean that the principal’s “default” mode should be to stand up for the troops, extending them the benefit of the doubt.

    * COMPETENCE: The principal is well-read, educated, and has at least a passable college-level understanding of every subject taught in his or her school.

    * VISION: The principal has a distinct vision of what he or she wants the school as a whole to be, not merely a vision of what he or she wants his or her job to be.

    * TRUST: The principal delegates, giving people both responsibility *and* power to accomplish those things for which they are responsible. My understanding is that many principals are very big on delegating responsibility, but not so much on delegating power.

    * INTELLIGENCE: The principal needs to be observant, either directly or through proxies, and needs to know what’s going on in his or her teachers’ classrooms. He or she needs to know the general moods of the student body, and needs to be able to anticipate troubles as they arise, and not merely respond after the fact.

    * PRINCIPLE: The principal needs, above all, to be a creature of principle, and to hold little mercy for those of his teachers and administrators who actively undermine his or her vision of the school, who flout or undermine his or her authority, and who consistently and flagrantly fail in their duties. He or she cannot play favourites, and cannot be constantly engaging in exceptions.

    * ABILITY: The principal shouldn’t be a moron with children — some people are just “good with kids.” A principal should have that said about him or her on a fairly regular basis, and it should be true.

    * WISDOM: The principal should understand the scope of his or her job, and seek excellence within it and very little without.

    These may be somewhat generic, but common sense is common precisely because it is so true.

  13. I would add common sense to that list.