Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Effective Principals in Action: Learning Should Be at the Center of a School Leader's Job, with Good Principals Shaping the Course of the School from Inside the Classroom and outside the Office

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Effective Principals in Action: Learning Should Be at the Center of a School Leader's Job, with Good Principals Shaping the Course of the School from Inside the Classroom and outside the Office

Article excerpt

Walk into a great school and you'll see the imprint of a great principal.

Here's what you might notice: A colorful banner in the entrance that sums up a vision for the school that all children can succeed. The prominent chart on a wall near the office details student attendance by grade, class, and, in the case of students who haven't missed a day, by name -- one small indicator of how the principal uses data. Throughout the hallways, you'll get hints of the principal's efforts to focus the whole school community on learning: here a bulletin board keeping track of how many books the children have read so far this year in their spare time, there a bulletin board where the parent-teacher group offers tips to parents on homework completion. And then, there's what you'll hear through open classroom doors: engaging lessons, a sign of the first-rate instruction that has emerged from talented teachers working under the guidance of a school leader who observes and coaches them so they get even better.

This is not your 1960's school, and it's not your 1960's principal. Once, principals focused mostly on the "Bs" -- buses, boilers, and books -- managing the staff, creating rules and procedures, making sure the school was operating smoothly (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). Lip service may have been paid to the principal's role in boosting instruction -- "principal" was originally meant to describe the "principal teacher" -- but principals were largely removed from the world of the classroom.

Now, educators and policy makers increasingly accept that learning should be at the center of a school leader's job and that a good principal participates in the life of the school, more often than not shaping its course from inside the classroom and outside the office. Yes, good principals are good administrators. But most important, they are instructional leaders, providing staff with guidance and a sense of mission and students with the motivation to succeed.

Evolving role: Principal as instructional leader

The ways schools were managed began to shift in the 1970s, as influential studies showed that effective schools are characterized by a learning-oriented culture. Still, the idea that principals should focus sharply on teaching and learning did not emerge prominently until later, when educators and policy makers became persuaded that school leadership matters to student achievement. Their views were borne out in 2010, in Learning from Leadership (Louis et al., 2010), the largest study to date looking at the effect of leadership on student achievement. The report, written by researchers at the Universities of Minnesota and Toronto, confirmed that next to classroom instruction, leadership is the most important school-related influence on student learning. "To date," the report says, "we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership" (p. 9).

What makes leadership crucial? While most school variables, considered separately, have small effects on learning, good leadership can pull the pieces together. "To obtain large effects, educators need to create synergy across the relevant variables," the report says. "Among all the parents, teachers, and policy makers who work hard to improve education, educators in leadership positions are uniquely well-positioned to ensure the necessary synergy" (p. 9).

In a dozen years of working with states, districts, researchers, and others, the Wallace Foundation (which supported the Minnesota-Toronto study) has tried to identify what makes that synergy possible. A report published in 2012 by Wallace, The School Principal as Leader, pinpointed five key practices of effective principals. This article delves into each practice, offering snapshots of dynamic principals, many from districts where Wallace has supported projects, and demonstrating the power and promise of strong school leadership. …

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