Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

No More Principals!

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

No More Principals!

Article excerpt

Because he believes that professional administrators distort the operations of the schools they head, Mr. Sacken suggests a different approach: administrative tasks should be assumed on a rotating basis, and, after serving in an administrative capacity, the educator can return to the classroom or leave for a permanently adult-oriented life in the central office.

IN 1898, AFTER he had accepted an appointment at Stanford University, Ellwood Cubberly received an ultimatum from the university's president: he had three years to make his field "respectable." If he failed, both he and the department would be dropped.[1] Evidence of the rather remarkable success of Cubberly and his contemporaries at institutions such as Teachers College, Columbia University, arrived in my office last spring. From the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA) I received Principals for Our Changing Schools: Knowledge and Skill Base, a truly overwhelming vision of the modern principalship.[2] In its hundreds of pages, one finds 21 domains of essential knowledge and skills that stretch from the vagaries of leadership and philosophical and cultural values to interpersonal sensitivity and nonverbal expression -- really a soup-to-nuts compendium.

I had two strong reactions. First, if every principal is expected to fit the profile suggested by this book, we need to admit that the principal's job is impossible for all but a few exceptional individuals. Granted, these myriad, sometimes paradoxical images and expectations (authoritatively democratic, visionary but collegial) represent a wish list, but they have also become a rhetorical measuring stick. For years principals have guiltily confessed that administrivia consumes their working lives and denies them opportunities for instructional supervision or leadership. This has been an almost universal refrain among principals, yet over and over they have been criticized or exhorted to reconstitute their work lives and do the "right thing." I always assumed that, if they believed they could do that, they long ago would have. Thus, I decided, their inability to shift must mean that most principals are deficient, inadequate, and guilty of misplacing their priorities.

However, when the large majority of a work force does not meet basic job definitions, perhaps we should begin to question the definitions, not the workers. Moreover, as James March observed, the best an organization or sector of organizations should hope for in its managers is routine competence. Yet these standards perpetuate a vision, if you will excuse the term, of principals who are omniscient, omnipotent, responsible for all that happens, accountable to all, water-walkers of the highest order! Indeed, these standards codify the all-too-familiar pyramidal structure of modern organizations wherein those at the top possess the most authority, knowledge, influence, discretion, valor, and wisdom. This arrant romanticizing of leadership[3] has long been key to the legitimation of managerial power in schools, a central ingredient in Cubberly's respectability ethic. Just lifting the book of standards is evidence supporting those who argue that principals need a doctorate before assuming office -- no less lengthy a period of study could possibly cover all these domains.

My second strong reaction to this remarkable document is that a proper solution to the impossibility of recruiting, training, and retaining enough paragons of so many virtues is to abandon the search -- our chances of success rival those of Ponce de Leon. Indeed, these standards are so over-the-top that perhaps we will discover the courage to contend that Cubberly's extraordinary accomplishment -- the codification of what Raymond Callahan called a "cult of efficiency"[4] -- has produced an enduring injury to schools and the teaching staffs within them. I believe we should reverse course, abandon the administrative ethos at the site level, and look to another educational institution for the structure our public schools need. …

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