School Leadership

New expectations place tough demands on principals

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Bronx Center for Science and Math Principal Edward Tom (Photo by Yuridia Peña/CSA)

Today’s school leaders must guide instruction, manage campuses and deal with parents and the community.

The job of being a principal is nothing if not an exercise in juggling dozens of duties and being in many places at the same time. More than a few people have suggested the job is essentially impossible.

Of course, many principals find that the job’s satisfactions outweigh the accompanying stress. Among the benefits: principals get to see students grow over time; they witness individual teachers come into their own; and they watch a school evolve into a place where the team accomplishes much more than any individual could alone.

While principals used to be seen chiefly as building managers and disciplinarians, today’s versions are expected to be up-to-date with current research – not to mention change-agents who can foster steady improvement, boost morale and oversee school safety, all while serving as a liaison between the school and its surrounding community.

The traditional role of manager hasn’t gone away; it’s just become a lot more complicated. With districts accountable for raising achievement like never before, the pressure falls on principals to connect teacher evaluations to student performance and possibly also staff compensation.

Many principals have become constant data-crunchers, with the burden of qualifying for federal aid hinging on their submission of regular reports. In some large urban districts, including New York City and Washington, D.C., principals have been given greater autonomy over budgeting and personnel decisions – they have a lot of latitude in how to spend money and whom to hire. But such increases in responsibility have led some principals to feel the need not only for more training but also for more authority.

Daria Rigney, a former New York City elementary school principal, counted teacher, coach, mediator, building manager, budget director, guidance counselor, grant writer, custodian, data-entry clerk and mother-figure as among the responsibilities she assumed on a daily basis.

Like Rigney, during the course of an hour, the average principal might have 50 to 60 human interactions, estimates Kent. D. Peterson, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And those interactions are marked by brevity, variety, fragmentation and ambiguity – meaning that the problem in need of a solution is often undefined. Just having these basic but important interactions is more than a day’s work. But failure to tackle challenges both small and large in a high-stakes environment, let alone in a failing school, can lead to the loss of the position altogether.

In failing schools in particular, many researchers agree that the principal’s most critical role is as the school’s instructional leader. Harvard professor Richard Elmore goes so far as to say that such leadership must overshadow all other responsibilities. But when Jefferson County, Ky., researchers followed principals during the course of their days, they found that, on average, principals spent less than a third of their time on instruction, with the bulk of their time devoted to the myriad tasks involved in running a school building – managing things like buses, budgets and behaviors.

In response, the district created a new position – the “school administration manager,” or SAM – to deal with non-learning issues so that principals could instead spend their time on tasks like increasing rigor, teaching sample lessons and coaching teachers to become better educators. With assistance from the Wallace Foundation, the innovation spread throughout, and eventually beyond, Kentucky. Now, there are SAM pilot programs running in California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, New York and Texas. But in an era of tight budgets and hiring freezes, greater pressure is once again being placed on principals to do more with fewer resources.

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