With all the recent public discussion over charter schools, school choice, etc. that have been brought into the spotlight by Betsy DeVos’ appointment, I’ve been trying to catch up on some recent news in education policy.
This week, a New York Times article entitled “Want to Fix Schools? Go to the Principal’s office” caught my eye. The article reminds us that principals have, for the large part, been left out of the national debate on what should be done to improve education, which is silly, because every other institution focuses on efficiency and innovation at all levels of leadership.
This reminder seems well deserved. I don’t hear too much about what different principals are doing to make sure teachers are working well – I hear more about what the state is doing to assess them based on pre and post-testing scores. I never really saw my own principals except for the rare assembly speech, and as I did not need disciplinary meetings I don’t think I ever met with/spoke to them personally. The closest connection I had with any of them was when I finished second grade and received a book mark signed on the back: “Congratulations! -Daniel E. Lewis.” I still remember that all these years later, so you can see how special and rare that interaction was. I got a bookmark signed by the ever-so-mysterious principal.
I understand that students are supposed to have the closest connection with their teachers, and then those teachers connect with the principal and he or she delegates responsibilities and reviews performances. The principal must be an important part of making sure that teachers have the resources they need to do their job, and the community support to assist kids in all aspects of learning and development. As stated in the article, one argument for focusing educational policy on the development of proficient principals is that it is simply easier – there are fewer principals than teachers. The local school boards and governments can deal with the principals, and the principals can, in turn, deal with individual teachers. It seems that public discussion of educational policy is missing this very important middle-man tier.
Ignoring the importance of a principal to the functioning of a school is counteractive to productive school reform. In debating education policy, we should remember that strong leaders need training, attention, and platforms to discuss with each other ways in which their schools have prospered or floundered, and what might have caused these disparities that a different leadership style might have been able to combat.
This is not a new concept, that cohesion and coordination is critical to improving institutions – I have often heard the healthcare-related complaint that people are passed from one specialist to the next, and each one has to rediscover the patient’s history and symptoms, and often doesn’t know what the previous specialist uncovered. There needs to be a highly functional overarching form of communication that saves time and improves treatment quality. The same can be said of the educational system. A principal is an important overarching coordinator, who can make sure that teachers receiving incoming students from the grade below understand exactly what experiences those students have already had and what special needs are present, so that each teacher or counselor need not rediscover the symptoms and causes for each student, wasting time and decreasing the quality of treatment.
I have not seen much policy debate about how best to train and choose principals based on their ability to create an efficient and cohesive school system that coordinates efforts to ensure that different counselors and teachers understand their respective roles so as to improve the wholesomeness of learning and development strategies. This lack of discussion of improving training and research related to the best personal traits and intellectual capacities of, and policies implemented by principals who are improving the wellbeing of their school system seems counterintuitive and short-sighted.