As standards-based reform has directed attention to schools as the unit of organizational accountability with the most influence on teaching and learning, principals have become the education leaders most responsible for managing learning conditions. The movement to reform and improve schools demands that principals be visionaries focused on improving teaching and learning to ensure their students’ success; they must be leaders capable of promoting their vision throughout the school community and knowledgeable of the specific practices that will bring it to reality. However, principals report little in their preparation or ongoing professional development to equip them for their multifaceted leadership role.
What do principals need to know about instruction and learning, and what must they be able to do to transform their schools into high-performing learning communities? This paper provides an overview of the principals’ research-based recommendations for successful leadership that will enable all schools to become high-performing learning communities.
Schools committed to improvement must reculture by creating an environment receptive to new operating procedures and new ways of thinking. New systems of teamwork, communication, and collaboration must be established. Employees must develop continuous improvement skills. Principals must create a common culture of professional values, mutual interdependence, and high expectations for student learning based on methods for exercising differential treatment of teachers with regard to the school’s level of progress in reform. They must replicate desired classroom practices in administrative actions and in collegial interactions. Principals must talk about practice in a nonthreatening, critical, and supportive way. In addition, they must help their staff to internalize the expectations of standards-based instruction, develop positive professional face-to-face relationships, and facilitate collaboration. They must develop collective accountability for the quality of their own and their colleagues’ instructional practice and the level of student performance. It is the principal’s responsibility to foster agreement among teachers, parents, and students about school goals and how to achieve them.
The theory and practice of distributed leadership as shaped by Richard Elmore (2000) suggest this type of leadership collaboration can provide the guidance and direction needed to lead in today’s schools. Distributed leadership recognizes that people typically specialize or develop particular competencies that are related to their interests, aptitudes, prior knowledge, skills, and specialized roles. Additionally, competency varies considerably among people in similar roles; some professionals are simply better at doing some things than others. Partnering these persons in a complementary manner brings new capabilities and efficiency to an organization.
Adopting the premise of Elmore’s work, distributed leadership should entail:
a) the principal’s dissemination of decision making, supervisory roles, and other duties to able stakeholders in the school community, and
b) collaboration with peers outside the school for guidance. The application of this leadership model to the principalship would improve schools by connecting principals with new ideas and each other in a consultative, mentoring network.
Distributing leadership within the school community to local school councils – including parents, students, and other external stakeholders – assistant principals, counselors, curriculum specialists, teachers, and teacher teams develops ownership and responsibility and appears to increase the effectiveness of the work. This kind of leadership, often informal, is not within the purview of one individual, but rather a collective leadership. Schools successful at implementing new curriculum, for example, have been found to have a variety of individuals – principals, teachers, office staff, and external advisors – performing overlapping roles, bringing their complementary skills and knowledge to the work.
Distributed leadership in schools also suggests that principals consult peers for support and coaching in successful school practices. New principals need the consistent support of knowledgeable mentors to shape instructional practice and exercise visionary school – community leadership. New and experienced principals often need assistance in dealing with new structures critical for contemporary school leadership, including data-driven decision making that transforms low performing schools into high performing communities; aligning standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment; building school leadership team capacity; and connecting schools, families, and the community.
Strategies such as in-district principal peer groups, monthly support sessions, and retreats are forums for review and assistance in development and implementation of school improvement plans. Cross district cohorts and regional networks offer similar opportunities for growth and allow for inter-district and school visitations so that principals can gain a broader understanding of promising practices in school leadership.
Instructional improvement is necessary for creating high-performing learning communities. In order to achieve effective instruction, principals must:
– understand that teaching requires a body of skills and knowledge that can be developed.
– institute a systemic change in teaching and learning sustained over time.
– know how to create an environment of collective learning in which teachers’ knowledge and skills are continually enhanced for improved student learning.
– model skills and engage teachers in analysis and collective understanding of effective educational practices.
– establish effective modes of shared monitoring of curriculum and instruction.
– establish and moderate settings for teachers to address ongoing acquisition of new content and instructional skills with opportunities for practicing valued behaviors within the school organizational setting.
Standards-based reform has placed new and broadened demands on principals. Education has changed so dramatically in recent decades that a redefinition of the knowledge and skills needed for effective school leadership has occurred. Today’s principals must be instructional leaders who are knowledgeable of best practices for teaching and learning and can work to ensure that these practices are evident in their classrooms and the school culture.
The preservice preparation and inservice experiences of most principals have not prepared them to lead in this new paradigm. Current professional development programs have also failed to strengthen principals’ procedural knowledge and understanding of instructional leadership and how to share leadership in their schools for true reform. Widespread implementation of this professional development design is essential to creating and retaining visionary principals.