Extreme makeover: Redefining the job of the principal

Eva Myrick Chiang

Imagine reading this job advertisement:

WANTED: Credentialed professional with at least a master’s degree to run a school. Will work on average fourteen hours per day or more, six days per week, and be on call twenty-four hours a day most days of the year. Must handle pressure and stress well—oh, and the pay isn’t that great, either.

In many places across the United States, this is the type of workload we demand of our school leaders. Each and every one of our schools desperately needs a talented, competent leader, but what intelligent person would sign up for that job?

It’s time for us to have an extreme makeover in what we expect from our school principals. Traditionally, principals were seen as building managers and disciplinarians. They made sure that the lights were on and that everyone was following the rules. But the role has changed, and the needs of our students demand that we now have visionary instructional leaders running our schools.

This change of roles can be problematic for districts because, well, the lights still need to be turned on, payroll still has to be processed, and buildings still have maintenance issues. That is why we now have to shift our thinking about who is doing what in districts. We have to make the principal’s job more doable, more protected, and more supported so that the job appeals to our most talented professionals. We have to create the district conditions that support effective school leaders so that the role is one that people truly want to—and are able to—do effectively for a really long time.

Recently the George W. Bush Institute and New Leaders published a report on that very topic, as did the Fordham Institute. The bottom line is that districts need to make some changes if they want to provide an attractive environment in which to work. One thing districts can do is to make sure that they have defined the principal role in a way that makes the job feasible and that makes teaching and learning a priority.

Another thing that districts can do is truly support their principals. One key here is making sure managers of principals have a feasible caseload. That way, they are able to connect with each principal frequently and provide the supports necessary for success.

Several districts across the country, including Denver, Dallas, Montgomery County, and Hillsborough County, are attempting to lower the caseloads and change the primary job function of those who manage principals. Hillsborough has even renamed their principal mangers “instructional leadership directors.” This signals the shifting priority of instruction for both principals and the people who manage them.

Creating supportive district conditions will require considerable work. That includes from those of us in the policy arena. We need to do more to support districts as they make these changes. The Bush Institute, along with New Leaders, created a toolkit that will assist districts in assessing their strengths and needs in supporting effective leadership. In short, we all have a role to play in “making over” the principal job so that our students get the best and brightest leaders that our nation has to offer.

Eva Myrick Chiang is the program manager of the education-reform initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, a public-policy center in Dallas, Texas, with the mission of advancing freedom by expanding opportunities for individuals at home and across the globe. Her email is emyrick@bushcenter.org.

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