The activist principal

When I asked a number of people to list the three most important things a school principal does, they only infrequently named things that directly involve the fundamental purpose of schools: learning. What things they did list at the top are surely important, including communication with staff (86%), providing safety (67%), and ensuring discipline (50%). A good argument can be made that a typical principal does promote learning by creating the conditions under which learning can occur. But there are many schools out there where principals are expertly covering all the non-classroom aspects of school functioning and yet student learning outcomes are mediocre. If we agree that our students deserve better learning opportunities, the principal who is charismatic and organizationally deft but who essentially just maintains a smooth status quo efficiency is failing. There is a clear consensus in this country that something fundamental needs to be done to improve classroom learning. This is the assumption behind the federal No Child Left Behind effort of the last 15 years and its successor under the Obama administration Race to the Top. Who else at a school site who is going to lead the process of improving teaching and learning if not the principal? We need nothing less than a new vision of the principalship, one that sees the principal as an instructional leader. And if a principal is to support learning for all students, for the most marginalized as well as the most privileged, that principal is going to have to lead instructional change with a social justice commitment that challenges learning inequities deeply embedded in the educational system. The job is both a big project of transforming unsuccessful practices in a complacent system and a small project of sharing an hour reading a storybook with one tentative child.

For a principal intent on becoming an instructional leader an obvious place to begin is in the classroom. This might seem obvious, but what I have observed in 25 years inside Bay Area schools is that most principals are everywhere but classrooms. When they are outside their office they are patrolling the hallways, cheering on teams in the gym, overseeing the lunchroom, or investigating the pipes. The traditional role of the principal is to exert a commanding presence like a morale-boosting field captain. The irony is that classrooms are the one space of the school considered private, the domain of the teacher. When the door is closed, don’t intrude. Respect teacher autonomy. The exception is when there is a visible problem like an out of control student or a chemical spill. But what if there is no outward problem? What if the problem is just that day after day a teacher is uninspired and pedagogically limited?

A principal who is an instructional leader should work with that struggling teacher and in fact all teachers, just as a coach works with all players of all skill levels on an athletic team. What might this look like? It might involve a certain instructional intimacy. Instead of doing the remote formalized 40 minute observational one off, the principal could spend multiple hours in a classroom getting to know the culture there, watching up close how students interact with the teacher and learning the teacher’s strategies and style of implementing them. Then the principal could help the teacher investigate a learning issue almost the way a researcher might do. As an example, the principal might train a lens on the act of asking questions. How students pose questions to each other is a key indicator of how they learn. What language do students use in their exchanges when trying to make sense of documents about climate change? The teacher herself might be the one to propose this observation, directing the principal to collect data on how the identified low performers formulate questions in comparison to the identified high performers. How do two student groups differ in the way they conceptualize a subject? After the lesson the teacher and principal discuss the data and what the teacher might change to deepen the learning for both high and low performers. It is a rigorous but collegial conversation.

Obviously a principal cannot do this type of in depth instructional coaching all the time with a whole faculty. What she can do is undertake a concerted professional development effort to train the faculty to observe and coach each other, something that is now routinely done in many innovative progressive schools. To accomplish this goal the principal needs to be able to challenge the prevailing school culture in which teachers fear being judged when other adults enter their classrooms. With huge workloads in their own classrooms, they will also need to be convinced that it is worthwhile to do such reciprocal coaching. A school in which teachers commonly visit each other’s classrooms is rare indeed. Behind the frenetic social bustle of the typical school is often a closed, atomized system where individual teachers guard their power closely and remain unaware of each other’s experience and beliefs. The job of an activist principal should be to establish an open, collaborative culture. The school should engage in a collective conversation about teaching and learning, one that includes parents and students.

A principal qualified to lead such a conversation needs to be a professional in the field and that means being familiar with the scholarly literature on instructional practice. It’s amazing to me how much valuable research has been done over the last several decades of which principals and entire teaching staffs have no knowledge. Here in the Bay Area UC Berkeley and Stanford are doing cutting edge educational research, but the percentage of schools connected to their work is relatively small. Research-literate principals don’t have to endure scholarly monographs. They can subscribe to journals like Educational Leadership and Kappan which discuss research for the general practitioner. A truly forward-thinking principal might even go beyond material strictly in the field of education and study organizational theory, the kind of scholarly work that savvy business administrators study. Schools have a lot to learn from well run businesses. I’d be impressed to come across a copy of Harvard Business Review on the desk of a principal.

It is unreasonable to think that a principal is going to approach the job with the scholarly rigor of a dissertation candidate, but the principal should insist that the school make instructional decisions through the systematic collection and interpretation of student data. It is routine these days for schools to discuss student scores on standardized tests, but a skilled principal goes deeper, enabling the school to scrutinize data in less obvious but revealing ways. What if each of the six teachers of an A, a C and a failing student contributed several representative pieces of work to a kind of academic portfolio for each student and in a whole faculty conversation, people publicly discussed the evidence of learning and failure to learn that they saw using the work pieces as artifacts? Instead of talking about learning in the abstract or studying the disembodied indications of standardized test data, teachers use the raw products of students to investigate. The principal would facilitate the whole school process. This isn’t far-fetched. Some schools are currently conducting such conversations.

The principal has to be more than an anecdotal observer of the school milieu. She has to be an anthropologist of her instructional habitat where everything that happens constitutes revealing data: the girl with her head down during the read aloud, two boys playfighting in the hall after the bell rings, the design of the slides in a student’s Power Point presentation.

Transforming an atomized school culture into one where teachers collaboratively examine student learning and their own teaching is extremely difficult because you have to confront the entrenched patterns of how schools traditionally operate. But what is even more challenging than changing how teachers work together is altering the deep patterns of school practice that work against historically marginalized students including students of color, second language English learners and students with disabilities. A principal committed to all students has to uproot systemic practices that contribute to marginalization, practices we often don’t realize are marginalizing because they mirror practices in the larger social structure that are traditionally accepted.

Many people get defensive when you say that your average suburban Bay Area school marginalizes certain students. This is 2015 after all when consciousness about racial issues especially has evolved from past prejudice, when discrimination in public institutions has been effectively eliminated. The activist principal sees below that surface. She observes, for example, the differential results of ability grouping, where students are placed in honors or general ed English classes. Why is it that African-American boys are disproportionately represented in the general ed classes? While many clear thinkers realize this is not the result of some conspicuously racist assignment process, but an insidious product of long-accumulated racial micro-injustices, the discerning principal goes further, and based on the published literature about restorative justice in educational reform, proposes practices that can begin to actually reverse the discriminatory outcomes. Ultimately such practices will help all students, not just those who are marginalized because injustice harms everyone in its midst. The whole community can be stronger.

Martin Luther King was not a school educator, but I ask myself what would MLK do if he were a principal today? We know he’d likely talk about the soul and dignity of each child, and the right of each child to deep self-discovery and the opportunity to go forth in the world confident and open. We can easily imagine what he might say. But what would he do? He wouldn’t I suspect, deal with getting graffiti off the walls or focus on state compliance issues. He wouldn’t likely be immersed in logistics and public relations. These reflect the priorities of the skilled status quo defender. King confronted the deep status quo. The activist principal fighting for all students will have to channel a King-like resolve. She will have to have courage, when questioning how do our teachers teach and how do our students learn, to push against the invisible wall.