School principals and the rhetoric of ‘instructional leadership’

Today in the education world principals are supposed to be, above just about everything else, “instructional leaders.” What does that means, and is it accurate? Here’s a piece that looks at this issue, by Larry Cuban, a high school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His new book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This post appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

Past and current research on principals reveal that school-site leaders perform managerial, instructional, and political roles in and out of their schools. Of these multiple (and often conflicting) roles, however, the instructional leader role has been spotlighted as a “must” for these men and women because, as the theory (and rhetoric) goes, it is crucial to improving teacher performance and student academic achievement.

Yet studies of principal behavior in schools makes clear that spending time in classrooms to observe, monitor, and evaluate classroom lessons do not necessarily lead to better teaching or higher student achievement on standardized tests. Where there is a correlation between principals’ influence on teachers and student performance, it occurs when principals create and sustain an academic ethos in the school, organize instruction across the school, and align school lessons to district standards and standardized test items. There is hardly any positive association between principals walking in and out of classrooms a half-dozen times a day and conferring briefly with teaches about those five-minute visits.The reality of daily principal actions conflicts with the theory.

Much of the rhetoric of instructional leadership flowing from true believers in the theory rings hollow when researchers actually go into schools and shadow principals, observing what they do day-after-day in a school a week or more at a time. Such time-and-motion studies have been done ever since the days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and “scientific management” in the early 20th century. When such studies were done, they showed that the bulk of the a principal’s time was spent on managing the building, teachers, students, and parents. That was then.

Now, a few published studies make the same point: What principals do is largely manage people and buildings spending most of their time outside of the classroom, not inside watching teachers teach.

A recent report (Shadow Study Miami-Dade Principals) of what 65 principals did each day during one week in 2008 in Miami-Dade county (FLA) shows that even under No Child Left Behind pressures for academic achievement and the widely accepted (and constantly spouted) ideology of instructional leadership, Miami-Dade principals spend most of their day in managerial tasks that influence the climate of the school but may or may not affect daily instruction. What’s more, those principals who spend the most time on organizing and managing the instructional program have test scores and teacher and parental satisfaction results  that are higher than those principals who spend time coaching teachers and popping into classroom lessons.

The researchers shadowed elementary and secondary principals and categorized their activities minute-by-minute through self-reports, interviews, and daily logs kept by the principals.

In the academic language of the study:

The authors find that time spent on Organization Management activities is associated with positive school outcomes, such as student test score gains and positive teacher and parent assessments of the instructional climate, whereas Day-to-Day Instruction activities are marginally or not at all related to improvements in student performance and often have a negative relationship with teacher and parent assessments. This paper suggests that a single-minded focus on principals as instructional leaders operationalized through direct contact with teachers may be detrimental if it forsakes the important role of principals as organizational leaders (p. iv)

Two things jump out of this study for me. First, the results of shadowing principals in 2008 mirror patterns in principal work that researchers have found since the 1920s although the methodologies of time-and-motion studies have changed.

Second, there is an association–a correlation, by no means a cause-effect relationship–between principals who spend more time managing the organization and climate of the school than those principals who spend time in direct contact with teachers in classrooms.

Another study of first-year urban principals prepared by New Leaders,  a program imbued with beliefs in instructional leadership, revealed that new principals, a large fraction of whom left the post after two years, had little impact on student achievement even while observing and monitoring teacher lessons (see RAND_TR1191)

A few studies, of course, will not banish a theory lacking convincing evidence, temper the rhetoric of principal-as-instructional-leader,  or alter principal preparation programs. Current rhetoric and ideology highlighting instructional leadership trump research studies, past and present, again and again.

Some donor-funded efforts try combining the results of the above studies and earlier research about principals managing the instructional program with their direct involvement in teachers’ classroom practices. See, for example, the Wallace Foundation’s recent publication The-School-Principal-as-Leader-Guiding-Schools-to-Better-Teaching-and-Learning.  In their well-intentioned effort, however, they give life to a failed theory and pump oxygen into the prevailing rhetoric.

The rose-colored view that principals of schools, big and small, urban and suburban, elementary and secondary, can throw fairy dust over teacher lessons and improve student academic performance continues to dominate professional associations of principals and university preparation programs.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 17, 2013