Can Superhero Principals Alone Turn Schools Around? The Research Says No!

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently penned an op-ed on the importance of excellent principals.  Among his chief assertions is the notion that great principals are the key driver of school improvement: “…structural change and increasing teacher quality don’t get you very far without a strong principal.”

There’s just one problem.  We don’t have enough great principals, those principals don’t stick around long enough to yield the greatest results, and the most inexperienced principals are often placed in the areas of greatest need:

Research suggests that it takes five to seven years for a principal to have full impact on a school, but most principals burn out and leave in four years or less.

This is not surprising, given the fact that principals are teachers first, and there is a nationwide teacher shortage as many flock from the profession due to structural and financial issues that show little sign of abetting, the recent strikes notwithstanding.  Coupled with the pressures implicit in the instant accountability era, it should be of no shock that there is a dearth of excellent school leadership –even as we know that, along with great teaching, it is the factor that can make the most significant difference.

Brooks is partially correct when he begins his article by stating, “The solutions to the nation’s problems already exist somewhere out in the country; we just do a terrible job of circulating them.”  But the main problem isn’t necessarily that great ideas aren’t circulating – it’s that we don’t have enough quality people who want to spend their lives creatively applying those ideas in schools across the country.

It’s the people, stupid!

This is both a recruitment and a retention problem.  Even as many local and national organizations work to recruit more teachers and teacher leaders, too many leave the profession before they can maximize their difference as school or systems leaders.

A good place to start, apart from the myriad of policy prescriptions that are continually discussed and almost never acted on, might be a subtle change in tone about what it means to be an effective teacher or principal.  We need to strive toward a reality in which teachers and principals need not be viewed as superheroes to be effective in their positions, and we can assist the effort by not speaking of them in these terms.

This rhetoric of heroism and exceptionalism might attract a few more to the work in the short-term, but it’s not a sustainable way to study and foster leadership development.  Instead of having leaders depart when they feel they can no longer martyr themselves for their schools and communities, we need to work to develop collaborative leadership structures that don’t rely on the singular greatness of one individual and allow authentic leadership pipelines to emerge.

This type of rhetoric is also unintentionally giving policy makers and politicians an excuse to not do their part.  If it is universally accepted that great school leadership can single-handedly erase the opportunity and achievement gaps in schools, why should we focus on the difficult political questions of school funding formulas, housing policy, and community development?  By accepting the narrative that only a herculean principal can improve a school, we gloss over the fact that these same leaders oftentimes aren’t receiving the resources, training, mentorship, and latitude to ensure that results are replicable.

Additionally, this rhetoric causes many systems-level decision makers to willfully ignore the fact that progress may indeed come incrementally and that steady, consistent leadership can spark radical change if given time, resources, and proper staffing.

Too often we move from one quick fix to the next, only to be incredulous when change doesn’t instantly take root.  Systemic change requires systemic investment.  If we can come to grips with this, we are more likely to enact policies and practices on every level that will keep great teachers and leaders in their positions to see that growth to fruition.

The road to educational equity is a marathon- let’s stop treating it like a sprint.

What do you think?

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David November

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