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The recent violence at South Philadelphia High School has again thrust the School District of Philadelphia into the spotlight. Bloggers, politicians and advocacy groups are all lashing out in an effort to process the troubling situation and affix blame. To me, the attacks at South Philly High underscore the most significant struggle of American education: attracting, building, and retaining strong school leadership.
Whether a community is rural or urban; low-income or affluent; safe and successful schools must have leaders with a CEO-level of competencies that far exceed the skills expected of most middle and upper managers in any other sector. Consider only a few of the key tasks that a successful principal faces on a daily basis:
- Managing an incredibly diverse constituent group with disparate goals. Principals must respond professionally and analytically to the needs of teachers and staff, parents and community advocates, and students, even though each group requires a specific, nuanced approach and wants a different outcome than the other.
- Driving instruction, achievement, and a positive culture within the school. A principal must have an intuitive sense of strong academic instruction across subject areas while also serving as a charismatic model of school culture. Principals also need to evaluate teachers for effectiveness – a task that most research universities still struggle to define – while simultaneously reducing turnover by inspiring them to work hard for less than lucrative wage.
- Quelling chaos quickly and quietly while holding individuals accountable. Highly effective principals can often extinguish fires before they start because they have enough accumulated respect and reputation to tap into available information. When an issue does arise, strong principals deliver swift justice, plan a measured response, and remain ultimately focused on student achievement while simultaneously improving safety.
- Implementing theoretical (and often unclear) district and state policy into actual classroom learning or school operations. From the NCLB implications to teachers’ unions to bureaucratic district rules, principals must constantly shift their approaches to adapt to the demands of the moment.
Every school district needs at least one of these leaders for every single school – there are over 130,000 elementary and secondary schools in the country – and this huge pool of education-focused, human capital talent is just not available. There exist few systemic approaches to training or finding such skilled individuals, outside of relatively new ventures like New Leaders for New Schools or the underwhelming programs offered by most graduate schools of education that tend to fall short on the management/analytic skills. Encouragingly, some charter schools have developed models that split principal responsibilities (one is in charge of academic instruction, the other of operations) to help leaders successfully specialize. This approach makes practical sense, but the costs of doing it nationally would be significant.
Do I know for sure that a leader with all four of these desired talents (and more) would have prevented the problems in South Philly? Of course not. But I suspect that many schools facing violence or chronic underachievement lack the leadership necessary to inspire and manage the teachers, students, and parents to whom they are accountable. Accepting the staggering leadership void in American education is the first step. Next, we need to develop more innovative methods of training principals and work to attract talented individuals into the field. At some point, high school and college students will hopefully talk about how they want to become principals because of the associated prestige, salary, and social importance.
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