Principal Leadership Styles

What should a principal be like?

Larry Cuban, emeritus at Stanford, takes this on.

Take Ralph, a veteran administrator who presides over a suburban elementary school. He is a friendly, forty-ish fellow who is fond of playing the guitar for sing-alongs with kindergartners. He trusts his teachers to do the right thing so he seldom visits classrooms. Neither children nor teachers, however, give him headaches. Parents do.

As he sees it, parents press their children to achieve, achieve, and achieve. He sees that pressure in the third-grade girl bursting in tears at a “B” on a report card or the fifth-grade boy throwing a tantrum at being asked to re-do homework. Parents constantly ask him to assign their children to particular teachers whose students perform well on state tests. If Ralph hesitates in responding to their requests, they are on the phone to the superintendent asking why Ralph is always dragging his feet.

Yet Ralph also knows that these are the same parents who raised $30,000 for the school to meet teacher requests for laptops and class trips. Ralph is trapped by the conflicting expectations of teachers, parents, and his bosses. His primary task is to keep parents satisfied, teachers protected, and children working. He manages as best as he can but he is caught in the middle.

A number of Chinese school administrators described facing challenges similar to Ralph.

A few principals, however, are like Edna who was appointed to a working-class black and Latino middle school. A Ralph-like principal had been there ten years letting teachers do what they pleased even as the school’s academic performance plummeted. The superintendent told her to raise those test scores. Edna knew that her largely white staff needed prodding and support if they were ever to share her belief that all students can learn.

In the first year she observed classrooms constantly, determining which teachers would stay and which would go. She made teachers responsible for what happened in hallways. She recruited parents and teachers to become part of a new school council to help her make school-wide decisions. She got students to volunteer to paint murals on hallway walls and pick up litter on school grounds.

Then she turned to academics. She asked teachers for a plan to improve academic instruction. The teachers’ plan was reviewed by parents, amended, and put into practice in year two. She scrounged funds to support teacher summer training.

Not until year four, was there a flutter in test scores. But what made the superintendent, parents, teachers, and students ardent supporters of Edna was that the school was becoming a community where children and adults had come together to work for the school rather than for themselves.

In year five, the superintendent appointed Edna to be his assistant superintendent and assigned another Ralph to the school.

This reminds me of Lorraine Monroe, who was a mentor of mine. She was Edna. She became famous. Her book is here. Here she is on 60 Minutes.

Unfortunately, once she left her own school, things slipped. Now at the school: only 30% of teachers say it’s orderly; only 53% say the principal is effective; and only 9% of kids are proficient.

The key to outlier schools that outperform: “Edna” types as leaders. I wonder what the Chinese equivalent is.