The wrong way to pick the best principals

June 12, 2013

Anyone involved with schools has noticed that many governors, legislators and school boards think business practices can improve education. There is little proof of this. It’s a fad. If we leave it alone, it will go away.

But sometimes the latest business idea is too foolish to ignore. Take, for instance, this recent commentary piece in Education Week, “We Need a New Approach to Principal Selection,” by brothers Ronald J. and Bill J. Bonnstetter.

“Identifying an effective principal requires a clear vision of the job duties, expectations and required personal attributes,” they wrote. “While most selection committees would agree with these criteria, the present selection system ends up being filled with personal biases and status quo mentalities. That’s why we recommend using benchmarking.”

Ronald Bonnstetter is professor emeritus of science education at the University of Nebraska. He now works as senior vice president of research and development for his brother Bill, chairman of Target Training International, a private company that does human behavior and skill assessments for businesses and groups in 90 countries. The Bonnstetters know much about business and education, but they fail in this piece to consider the importance of finding out how well principal candidates have done with students.

The best principals I know, the ones who have track records of supporting teachers and raising student achievement, began their careers doing imaginative work as teachers, counselors or other staff jobs. They acquired administrative credentials, but that was just paperwork. The key was working as a deputy to an established principal with a great track record. They asked questions and pursued projects that enhanced learning.

Smart selection committees pick such principals based on the results of their work. But the Bonnstetters seem to think the words used to describe a principal’s qualities are more important than actual deeds.

The Bonnstetters say they called together “a new group of nationally recognized educators and a business representative” who knew what “visionary education leadership” entailed.

“Together, this group generated 37 separate job-related areas, including 23 competencies needed from the new-generation principal,” they wrote. “For example, the key competencies include: personal effectiveness, leadership, interpersonal skills, goal orientation, futuristic thinking, continuous learning, decision making, persuasion, and creativity/innovation.”

They compared these words to a list of competencies suggested by experienced K-16 educators and found significant differences. Because K-16 educators are responsible, according to the Bonnstetters, for what they consider the failure of the U.S. education system, the authors conclude that the competencies described by their new, visionary group are better and should be used to pick principals.

I thought benchmarking meant looking at what worked, not what words sound good to experts. The Bonnstetters’ piece is not connected to real schools. It is a fairy tale. A few experts wave their wands and utter magic incantations that summon new principals who will solve everything.

Some of the area’s most successful principals and principal trainers scratch their heads at this. Michael A. Durso, a Montgomery County Board of Education member who was a star principal in the District, Virginia and Maryland, said, “I cringe sometimes when our business ‘partners’ talk of how we must embrace the business model for success.”

Marie Shiels-Djouadi, who turned around Wakefield High School in Arlington County, said, “I think the Bonnstetters’ thoughts are not going to give us strong educational leaders in any school environment.”

The Bonnstetters have a chance to redeem themselves. I hope they take their research one step further. Let’s see how much significant improvement in student achievement they find in schools run by principals who have the “key competencies” they value.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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