Are principals necessary?
The inspiration for this post came from Deven Black, an urban special education teacher and union leader who challenged one of my earlier posts in an excellent comment. He said, "Instead of butting heads with each other or engaging in name-calling and blame-gaming, we should be working together to make sure all students are getting the best possible education, even if it does not involve schools at all." (emphasis mine) I tend to agree with teachers and disagree with unions, so Mr. Black put me in a bit of a quandary.
That quandary got me thinking about replacing the word "schools" with "teachers", "principals"...and so this post.
There was a time when no school had an administrator. In the days of "boarding round" the teacher would show up for a term, live in the home of each student for a fixed period (perhaps two weeks) and then rotate until every student's family had played host. When teachers were lousy, they lost housing privileges and went home early. When they were excellent, the families might hold on to them longer or perhaps provide an apartment or permanent boarding room.
There was no principal and often no school board. Then things changed.
The institutionalization of public education began early in the 20th Century and was well established by the 1920's. It slowly grew into the system we now know over the last 130 years or so.
In the modern school system, principals are essential. They take care of all sorts of little tasks like budgeting, record-keeping, data analysis, hiring,
firing (wait—most principals really can’t fire.), setting the alarm system, choosing carpet colors, supervising, managing student behavior and literally dozens of other task sets that keep the school operational.
So it seems obvious that we need them no?
A very few systems do exist where lead teachers, collective principals, or teams of educators take on the administrative function. So too, the home-school movement has shown us a small-scale way to combine instructional and management responsibilities in one person.
Many of the decisions I make could be made by a grocery store manager. When do we open the doors? How many classes should we offer? Which sports teams get how much money this year. Should we buy that Tuba off Craig’s list or pay rack rate from the music store? (This is no slam on grocery store managers or principals, just an observation that their responsibilities to make logistical decisions are very similar.)
Increasingly, the principal is custodian-in-chief of testing processes, materials, reports, and analysis. An accountant could do that part of my job better than me.
School discipline? Hire a former probation officer.
Teacher recruitment? There are dozens of headhunter firms looking for work.
Communications? Find a social media “expert” to make blogs, RSS feeds, Twitter accounts and let the info flow.
Special Education? Please. Any special education teacher knows more than most principals what works best for their kids. Local knowledge trumps generalist authority any day.
See? That principal is getting less essential all the time.
If we are honest about evaluating the institution, we have to re-conceive it as it might be. What if the position of principal had never evolved out of the days of boarding ‘round. What if all the deans, assistants, office aids, copy-room workers, etc. were gone?
What if teachers were the principals of their own world? How many of the “essential” tasks performed by principals would fade away? In a school where teachers had to answer directly to parents, would the level of responsiveness change? Would unions even be necessary? Would teachers reflexively file grievances against themselves?
I know that in our current model principals are tremendously important. The best can inspire teachers and move schools forward. The worst shed teachers like my golden lab sheds hair. They let the school stagnate and worse. But I don’t agree that the principal influence must necessarily be concentrated in one person.
The duty to inspire and lead could be shared by others in the school. Leadership for personnel, curriculum, assessment and the like could be a collaborative venture. Just because that isn’t our convention doesn’t mean it couldn’t be.
What do you think? After a reasonable "implementation dip" while the tasks were redistributed, would a post-principal school be an improvement?