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One for the Team: a New Model

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With an iron fist and heart of gold, the great leader takes over a struggling school, confronts dysfunctional staff and non-performing students, fires up everyone's motivation, and, larger than life, enacts a sweeping transformation that turns the school around for a perfect Hollywood ending. She's a star, a hero, the tough, gutsy principal who made this A+ American educational dream come true.

Hers is an easy story to tell—a cinematically appealing picture. But it comes up short in an era where the job of school leadership has grown increasingly multi-faceted and demanding. "The notion of heroic principalship today is unsustainable. One person cannot do it all," says UW professor Bradley Portin, director of the Education Program at the UW Bothell campus and an adjunct faculty member of the College of Education.

Twenty years ago, when Portin was a principal, the job concentrated more on managing and running a school than on leading learning improvement. Principals might observe the occasional class and do the annual teacher evaluation, but their presence and daily participation in classroom work were fairly limited.

Today, principals are expected to dig out from behind their desks, and hit the classrooms, the playground, the hallways, the staff rooms, the public meeting halls, talking up the business of teaching and learning, observing and modeling instructional practice, reviewing continuous streams of data, and getting buy-in for reforms that touch on difficult issues like differential resourcing to help high-needs students.

"A principal now needs to be very adaptable, very creative, very smart in things like how to use data, how systems work, and how to bring people together around powerful ends, powerful goals," says Portin, whose research focuses on how school leadership roles are changing to meet new educational imperatives.

Portin worked with other researchers from the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy on a strand of the Wallace Foundation-funded Study of Leadership for Learning Improvement that examined how school leaders build and sustain a sharp focus on improved teaching and learning goals. The team investigated fifteen schools in four districts in New York, Massachusetts, California, and Georgia. Schools had low-income, ethnically and linguistically diverse student populations, and all were making progress in demanding circumstances.

The researchers looked carefully inside the schools to see what was going on, and drew up detailed profiles of each, based on repeated visits, observations, and archival sources. They discovered that leadership in these schools was largely shared. The principals were not super heroes. There were no single- handed, single-minded "Lean on Me" stars lighting up the big screen. These were everyday leaders who created leaders and surrounded themselves with leaders—
cadres of instructional leaders who helped the school sustain high expectations for the learning success of every student in every classroom.

"The big surprise for me was how much of the work was distributed among a whole new group of teachers exercising instructional leadership," says Portin. "This is the new work of the principal: to be the leader of instructional leadership teams." That doesn't mean the old work goes away. Principals in the study describe their job in urban schools as a marathon. Leaking roofs and schoolyard bullies still have to be dealt with, compliance regulations addressed. Impoverished children who show up at school hungry still have to be fed. There are negotiations with personnel, discussions with parent groups, interactions with the central office and community, and, always, there is the pressure of accountability and standardized testing.

Everyone's getting a report card these days: the students, the schools, and, in some systems, the principals—and if the trend line is not going up on the scorecard, the principal's grade may be a "D" or an "F," with an assist out the door.

New budget realities require even more dexterity from principals. Facing debilitating cutbacks, many principals are turning into entrepreneurs, seeking business sponsorships, writing grant proposals, drawing in volunteers, heading fundraising efforts. A 2007 survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that 94 percent of school administrators were relying on fundraisers to supplement district, state, and federal monies.

"We'll do anything to get that extra reading support for kids," says Kelly Aramaki, principal at Seattle's dual-language John Stanford International School and a graduate of the Danforth Educational Leadership Program, the College of Education's principal preparation program. "Today, we as principals have to be more resource-savvy, with tightening budgets, economic downturns, and students who have more and more academic and social needs."

Aramaki has help. When crises and demands pull him away from the important work of instructional improvement, he knows it will continue on without him, thanks to the distributed leadership in his school. "When issues or administrative needs come up that require my attention, I at least know that my teacher leaders are still championing the work. I know that they are keeping the focus on student learning."

Research increasingly links shared leadership with stronger school cultures and improved learning. Leadership teams, consisting of the principal and able teachers, help with school-wide decision-making, strategies for continued learning improvement, alignment of curriculum and assessment measures, and teacher induction. They often do the bulk of the professional development work in a school, working one-on-one with teachers, with small groups, or talking instructional strategies with the entire faculty. But building in-school capacity for leadership is its own challenge. Principals must recognize leadership potential and nurture that capacity with coaching, mentoring, professional development. "You have to get to know the teachers, know what they bring to the equation, then create an opportunity for them to try their wings," says Portin, who has done extensive work in the state of Delaware with policy-makers, districts, and universities on engaging teachers in instructional leadership work, drawing on his Wallace-funded research.

Development of productive in-school systems takes time, resources, and, for principals, decision-making autonomy, the research shows. Without authority, the principals may be in the impossible position of being held accountable for everything, without the authority to do anything. How can they build leadership teams if they don't have control over funds to train potential leaders?

When districts do empower principals, it's critical that school leaders' responsibilities are clearly articulated and delineated, the UW study suggests. Interviews with principals indicate that's frequently not the case. "The question is not whether a system is high-district or loose-district control, the question is what principals have discretion to make decisions about at the school level," says Portin. "What they need is autonomy in the kinds of administrative structures that tie one's hands for productive action." 
Those tied hands are a major source of principal frustration. Surveys throughout the country show school leaders feel they're spending too much time paper-chasing and not enough vision-building. Many also say they have not been adequately prepared for the hard work of rethinking how a school functions, for addressing resource conflicts, for meeting a diversity of student needs, and for building leadership capacity in their schools.

In a 2003 study of 150 educators by Portin and other UW researchers, principals said that their preparation for the principalship was poorly aligned with the demands of the job. "There was nothing in my training that prepared me for this job," reported one high-school principal.

That's beginning to change as programs refocus on new, workable organizational structures that include shared responsibility. Today, many principal preparation programs offer master's and doctoral degrees in instructional leadership. Influenced by the leadership research of Portin and colleagues, the UW Bothell campus this September is launching a program that looks at supporting classroom practice from the vantage point of a teacher leader. The researchers' cutting-edge work is also incorporated into the College of Education's Danforth Educational Leadership Program and the Center for Educational Leadership, an outreach arm of the college that partners with school districts to provide professional development.

The most effective programs operate on what Portin calls a "learning continuum," providing opportunities for substantive internships, mentoring principals early in their careers and linking them to professional support throughout their careers. A critical component of all programs is the opportunity for a new generation of principals to learn what it means to share leadership, to move beyond "I'm the one, I'll make it happen."

That may not fit the cinematic model of the great hero. But it does fit the complicated demands of school leadership in the 21st century. And it addresses the problem of what happens when the hero rides off into the sunset.

"You can get a really powerful principal who can transform a school," says Portin, "but if you haven't built capacity, if you haven't built a leadership team, what happens when that principal leaves? The school returns to its failed state."

For more information:
Portin, B. S., Knapp, M. S., Dareff, S., Feldman, S., Russell, F., Samuelson, C., Yeh, T. L. (2009). Leadership for learning improvement in urban schools. Seattle, Wash.: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

Portin, B. S. (2009). Cross national professional learning for school leaders. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 12(3), 239-252. Portin, B. S. (2004). The role that principals play. Educational Leadership, 61(4), 14-18.

November 2010  |  Return to issue home

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