Improving Schools by Empowering Principals

Any teacher will tell you that having a good principal matters. Principals help build a positive school culture, support teachers, and bring the school community together. I am fortunate to teach under a great principal, and his efforts are largely responsible for why my school is a great place to teach and learn.

Yet our education system doesn’t give principals the trust and respect they deserve. In other industries, managers are generally given power over hiring and firing of employees, and then (rightly) held responsible for organizational success. But, due to teacher tenure laws, principals are held responsible for school success without the power. Empowering principals with real managerial authority could encourage innovation, attract more talent into the school system, and ultimately improve student achievement.

Principals have thankless jobs. They juggle complaints and concerns from parents and teachers, receive orders from higher district administrators, and then have to observe their teachers and ensure that the school is meeting instructional standards. Plus seven teachers just called in sick and need coverages. And whoops, then the copy machine breaks. All of this while developing a positive, high-achieving school culture and learning environment.

Yet despite that responsibility, principals lack perhaps the most important power of a manager: hiring and firing their employees. It is unreasonable and unfair to hold principals accountable for the performance of employees that they did not select. That expectation no doubt deters talented people–as well as talented teachers–from entering administration. Furthermore, this lack of power blocks the innovation and dynamic leadership that our schools so desperately need. How can we expect a Steve Jobs-type principal to flourish without an ability to make changes and take risks?

It’s no secret that management matters. That’s why corporate boards spend millions to to find a new CEO, why “search committees” are used for important vacancies instead of Craigslist postings. Yet by limiting principal power, we are blocking the potential for transformative management in our schools. As currently designed, our system forces principals to act as little more than custodians to the bureaucratic slog already in place. Given the crisis in our system, that is simply not enough. Let’s give our principals a fair chance to help our schools be more

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