Hats off to Today's Much-Beleaguered School Principals

Article excerpt

Your age doesn't matter, nor where you were raised. It's a memory we all share. Unless you somehow missed going to a school, somewhere in the back of your mind is a perception of the school principal.

To those who visited the office more often than others, the memory may be a little stronger. But regardless of one's personal contact with the person in charge, most probably still think of the principal as an authority figure who runs the school like a captain of the ship.

He - and most of them were men until recent years - makes the rules, maintains order and is the ultimate arbiter in all matters of disagreement. Everyone - staff, students and parents - knows nothing is final without his or her say so.

Perceptions aside, it's been a long time since principals could run a school like their personal kingdom, if it was ever possible. Strong, top-down central school organizations, state and federal laws and regulations, union contracts and changing societal expectations have been altering the role of the principal for some time.

Indeed, there is no role more challenging in education today and probably very few jobs that could be considered tougher in any field. So much is expected of a principal, while the total control we perceive he or she wields no longer exists, if it ever did.

The principal's chair became a hot seat in the latter half of the 20th century as American education experienced numerous attempts at restructuring and increased public concern about its quality. Although the country's complex educational system places responsibility at the state level with local control maintained by boards of education and their superintendents, the school principal has been at the epicenter of much of the reform efforts.

In fact, for almost two decades now, educational research has suggested the best hope for improvement of schools can be found in the principal's office. As a result, principals were called upon to lead the way in the effective schools movement of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as site-based reform efforts of the 1990s.

Needless to say, change has been modest and slow in coming. But speaking for the 50 principals who work in Elgin Area School District U-46, the lack of complete success cannot be placed at their doorstep. To the contrary, our principals have worked as hard as anyone to help make schools more effective.

But like principals everywhere, U-46 school leaders first have to take care of the day-to-day routine, which is substantial, before finding time to restructure the way their schools work. We expect them to ensure discipline, keep tight reins on the budget and make sure that employee contracts are observed and maintained. …