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Powerful Principals


Q. In my opinion, no one is more important in education than the school principal. What is being done to empower principals?


You're so right. Most people agree that school leaders need to be cultivated as carefully as their students. The more physically visible principals are to students, teachers and parents, the more stable the school environment.


The more active principals are in leading collaborations between teachers, and involving the whole community, the more effective the school is likely to be, and the better off academically and socially the students will be.


It takes a keen eye for balance, though. Sometimes principals are so busy with their own career development, continuing education and community outreach activities that they neglect their own teachers, students and school building. When you see a school building with low test scores that is too noisy, a playground that is out of control, a lot of suspensions and teacher trouble, dirty floors, untidy bathrooms, and vandalism and breakage on school grounds, those are hallmarks of poor management - red flags of a poor principal.


On the other hand, principals who don't network outside the school building and school system are shortchanging their staff and students in terms of forging helpful links with the outside world that can lead to greater academic success and innovation, not to mention additional funding.


Or the problem might not be with the principal, but with the people who supervise the principal - the district higher-ups. It could be that declining enrollment and an achievement gap between rich and poor, white and black, reflects school leadership that is not empowered by the central office bureaucracy.


Principals need power to act as a mini "chief executive officer" of the school, since they are the ones closest to the action, instead of just passing on policies and mandates from the ivory towers of the central office.


Here are some positive steps districts are taking to empower principals:


  • Performance bonuses for principals in schools with improved test scores and that have instituted curriculum and instruction that complies with state learning standards


  • Allowing principals more autonomy in hiring and firing, and school expenditures


  • Relief from desk work to allow more movement around the building, with coaching so that classroom visits and staff meetings are more constructive and productive


  • Community-based leadership development, such as the "Pittsburgh Emerging Leadership Academy," which matches school leaders to community mentors to help teach them how to reach for help outside the school building.


  • Professional development from teachers' colleges and private educational coaching firms so that principals are more skilled at everything from statistical analysis to conflict resolution



Homework: See the websites of the National Association of Elementary School Principals,, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals,


By Susan Darst Williams Other Staff 02 2009


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