7 Habits of Highly Ineffective Principals

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008; 6:19 AM

Joe Nathan, a University of Minnesota school leadership scholar, dropped by recently to tell me about his latest project: the Minnesota Leadership Academy for Charter and Alternative Public Schools. He wants to produce all-star principals for innovative schools, including the charter school movement he has been studying since its beginnings.

Nathan gave me a report he just produced with Carleton College junior Joanna Plotz. Their paper, "Learning to Lead," reveals the secrets of good management of schools and companies, derived from interviews with 24 business leaders. In the Leadership Academy, which opened this fall in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Education, each participating educator has two mentors, one a successful business executive and the other a successful school leader.

That sounds peachy, but it doesn't get to the heart of what many teachers tell me is the key issue in school leadership today: How did we produce so many lousy administrators?

It occurred to me that what Nathan is doing with the report and the academy might be easier to understand by looking at his main points from a reverse angle. Call it a devil's advocacy. Let's stand Stephen R. Covey's self-help classic on its head and reveal the Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Principals. (Please keep in mind it is totally my idea, not Nathan's, to summarize his very upbeat paper this way.)

1. Insist on being trained at one of our leading schools of education. In their report, Nathan and Plotz cite former Columbia University Teachers College president Arthur Levine's conclusion that "educational administration is the weakest program that schools of education offer. . . . Few strong programs exist; most vary in quality from inadequate to appalling." Nathan told me many of the great school leader training programs he knew were outside the ed schools, such as Building Excellent Schools, New Leaders for New Schools, the Knowledge Is Power Program Leadership Institute and the Broad Foundation. That might be because Nathan thinks it is important for schools to show significant increases in student achievement, as assessed by tools such as tests. Many of our education schools don't buy into such narrow measures and don't think you should either.

2. When you become a principal, make sure you keep your goals to yourself and avoid mission statements at all costs. I endorse this view. I often make fun of mission statements. But what do I know? My term as student body president of Hillsdale High School was a disaster, and I have avoided all leadership responsibilities since. Kris Johnson, the former chief administrative officer of Medtronic, the medical technology company, told Nathan and Plotz it is "vital to have alignment between what a person is doing and what the organization has established as priorities." Dave Larson, executive vice president at the food and agriculture company Cargill, said his company tells new employees on their first day how their work will help the company accomplish its goals. Contrast this with schools that hand new teachers a curriculum but don't explain how it will help teachers reach their students.

3. Fight the current fad to assess students regularly. It is intrusive and insulting to teachers. Many school critics argue that we should let teachers test and grade in whatever way makes sense to them. The business and school leaders Nathan has recruited for his academy disagree. They think consistent means of assessment are important in diagnosing each child's progress and what the school is doing to help.

4. Crack down on mistakes. People have to be brought up short whenever they screw up. Otherwise they will keep doing it. Avert your eyes from this bit of pap from Nathan and Plotz: "Mistakes within some limits are a vital part of growth. Organizations making a great deal of progress sometimes will make errors. Learning from mistakes is an important part of progress."

5. Don't let teachers meet regularly to talk about students and share ideas. They will only gossip and plot against you. Notice that one of the reasons why many successful charter and alternative public schools have lengthened the school day is to have time for these gab sessions. One of the business leaders in the Nathan-Plotz report, former General Mills Foundation director Reatha Clark King, said an important way to improve quality is to "encourage people to think outside the box and free up their thinking." This is obviously someone who does not know how to survive in a big school district, where ineffectiveness is often seen as a virtue because the lethargic administrator is less of a threat to others.

6. Inspiration is for saps. Your staff must know you're their boss, not their preacher. This seems obvious, but Nathan, Plotz and the executives they consulted don't buy it. They say, "The most effective leaders encourage and inspire people. Threats and fear will not produce the highest achievement." There they go, back to that achievement thing. Real world administrators don't need to be effective. They just need to survive.

7. Whatever you do, don't try to select and train a successor. Nathan told me that, although many districts have principal training programs, he rarely found principals or superintendents who see it as a key responsibility, as corporate chiefs do, to develop talented people who could take over for them. He thought this was a great waste, but experienced school leaders would see this as avoiding possible betrayal. Nathan's academy is designed to train junior administrators or teachers with administrative ambitions. Maybe that's why he makes such a big deal about finding the next generation of leaders. Only superintendents and principals who share his view are going to allow their best staffers to attend his academy. They might see this as a great idea, but they better be careful.

Which is the more prevalent mindset in school districts these days -- Nathan's or the ineffectiveness rules above? I think it is a close call. Let's see how the graduates of his new academy handle the deadening devotion to routine and fear of change in the average school district before we decide who has the upper hand.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company