A long practiced policy in K-12 education is to promote successful, dynamic principals to district-level leadership positions. The principal of the high performing high school, for example, becomes the academic superintendent in charge of supervising other high school principals. This step would seem to make sense – would not more principals, schools and student benefit from the knowledge and skills of this highly effective leader? Let’s spread the wisdom, the trade secrets, the best practices.
But what happens to the principal’s former school? What happens to the school’s culture and identity, and the relationships that this principal has established – often over many years – with staff, families and students? In some cases, there is a leader – an assistant principal or teacher– waiting in the wings, someone the exiting principal has mentored for this very transition. There are also often teacher leaders who drive the school’s success. Thus, the school hums along with no or few setbacks. But in other cases, the school changes significantly – the culture feels different, the collegiality diminishes, few teacher leaders emerge, and instructional focus wavers.
So is there another way to tap the skill and expertise of highly effective principals that does not necessitate elevating them to a district-level position? In the rapidly changing, technology-enabled word we live in – of course! Some approaches, for example, might include: (a) Documentation of leadership in action – video clips, interactive case studies, and online coaching sessions / chats / instructional rounds – that capture the effective principal in her/his element and are shared with their peers; (b) Leadership Labs – opening up the schools of the effective leader to facilitated visits by and in-time workshops for other principals. No doubt, there are many more ideas like this or others already underway in school districts across the country.
Is there another way to tap the skill and expertise of highly effective principals that does not necessitate elevating them to a district-level position? In the rapidly changing, technology-enabled word we live in – of course!
If elevated status and compensation are key motivators for principals assuming district-level positions, then districts should be creative in developing new leadership positions and benefits that acknowledge principals’ accomplishments and capitalize on their knowledge and skill, yet allow them to stay in place. For just as we want our best teachers with students, we want our best principals leading schools.
Jake Murray is the Senior Director at Aspire Institute. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services.
Photo courtesy of District 1, used under Flickr Creative Commons License