The Job of a School Principal Has Changed a Lot. Here's How We Help Them Do It.

Jan 9, 2018 12:00:00 AM


At a National Association of Secondary School Principals event, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told the school leaders gathered in the room that she wanted to free them from “the brunt of the regulatory burden” and allow them to “[focus] on the people, not the paperwork.” She's got it partially right. It is crucial to position principals to be as effective as possible in their roles—roles that are changing dramatically as the educational enterprise itself evolves. To be sure, [pullquote position="right"]school leaders must first and foremost be instructional leaders[/pullquote]—those who have been successful teachers and who understand the daily lives of teachers and staff, as well as the varying needs of learners. That said, thoughtful building leadership for today’s schools requires skills and knowledge well beyond the essential instructional foundation. Even without regulatory burdens, they must exercise kinds of leadership that go well beyond those required by schools in the last century.

4 Skills That Are Required of Every School Leader

Today’s principals also need to be well-versed in new learning technologies and to know which ones fit their particular school and which ones don’t, which ones are worth stretching a budget for and which ones will be outmoded in a year. With nearly 20 percent of the nation’s public schools (according to the National Center for Education Statistics) now offering online classes, more and more school leaders will face the question of whether and how to provide, staff, and tailor such programming. Another example: Today’s principals also need to be well-informed about and sensitive to the array of social supports and services to which their students, from the most disadvantaged to the most privileged, may be connected, and understand how to balance them all. Some of the federal, state and local systems they negotiate are intimately connected to students’ well-being and cannot or should not be removed, but must nonetheless be skillfully navigated. Leaders in today’s schools must also be increasingly adept at balancing professional-development (PD) budgets and needs. With a universe of PD of all kinds available, and limited resources, how does one best support less experienced teachers, reward more experienced ones, and maximize the benefits of any one teacher’s professional development for her or his colleagues? [pullquote]More and more, principals are also called upon to provide data-driven models[/pullquote] that describe their schools, to analyze their own work within larger data sets, to encourage teachers to bring data to bear on classroom instruction—in short, to marshal data in more sophisticated ways than ever. This is not a role for which many master’s or even doctoral programs in education prepare future school leaders, and yet, for reasons of student assessment and external funding, it has become a critical one. These are just four examples of the evolving skills required of school leaders today. Perhaps the most urgent need of all is for principals to see the “system of systems” nature of education today. It is simultaneously shaped by these four factors and many others, constantly changing, requiring ongoing development of new skills and resources, and changes in any one area have far-reaching effects on many other areas.

It's Like Being a CEO

The ability to lead while working with this whole array of instructional, technological, administrative, social, fiscal and policy-driven variables is much more like the organizational leadership required of a CEO than like the role of the principals who led schools a generation ago—one reason why an MBA, rather than an M.Ed., may be an appealing credential for education leaders of the future. Simply by working more effectively with data-driven expectations and interventions, for instance, some of the candidates in the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s MBA program for education leaders have seen quick, marked improvements in student achievement. The ambition to free principals from paperwork is a laudable and well-intended one, a little like the old fable about freeing the world of thorns and gravel so that it’s easier to walk barefoot. Yet the challenges—regulatory and otherwise—are likely to become even more complex. We need to strengthen school leaders' personal and professional resources. As we anticipate the ways these skills will evolve, we can empower the skilled educators whom we ask to lead.

Stephanie J. Hull

Stephanie J. Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. She began her academic career as an assistant professor in the Department of French and Italian at Dartmouth College, subsequently becoming assistant dean of the college. After six years at Dartmouth, Hull went on to serve as the assistant to the president and secretary of the sollege at Mount Holyoke College, then as head of the Brearley School, a girls’ K–12 college preparatory school in New York City, where she led a highly successful capital campaign and long-range planning process and oversaw the introduction of a number of new initiatives. She earned her bachelor’s degree in French literature at Wellesley College and her master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard University in the department of romance languages and literatures.

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