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April 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 7

The Roles That Principals Play

All schools require leadership in seven key areas, but how the principal provides that leadership depends on many factors.

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Walk into any principal's office in virtually any school as the day ends, and you may well catch the principal scratching his or her head, exclaiming, “Where did the day go?”
What is it about leading schools that turns so many days upside down for so many principals? Why do the best-laid plans in one's electronic organizer so quickly disappear?
Of course, leading schools is complex work (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003). A principal, in concert with other leaders in the school, does his or her job each day with a passion for ensuring learning for all students while the Damocles sword of the next set of high-stakes test scores hangs in the balance, ready to judge whether the school is “good” or “failing.” Add to this the fact that any school day may be commandeered by a serious discipline incident, an upset parent, a sudden request from the central office for another report, or the announcement from “downtown” that “you need to find another $50,000 to cut from next year's budget.” These aspects of school life present school leaders with enormous challenges that are difficult to untangle (see Farkas, Johnson, Duffett, Syat, & Vine, 2003).

Leadership and School Types

To better understand what it takes to lead schools in challenging times, a team of researchers at the University of Washington, with support from the Wallace Foundation, set out to address three questions: Do all principals play certain core roles regardless of the types of schools they lead? How do these roles vary across traditional public, magnet, charter, and private schools? And do current training programs adequately address the demands of the job?
The research project studied five elementary schools, seven middle and K-8 schools, seven high schools, and two K-12 schools in Washington, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The sample included traditional public schools; private independent schools (both sectarian and nonsectarian); and “entrepreneurial public schools,” including charter, contract, and magnet schools. Because the entrepreneurial public schools generally possess more control over their finances and staffing than do traditional public schools, the leadership demands on their principals are likely to differ.
Some of the schools in the sample were success stories; others were works in progress. The study team purposefully avoided looking for “hero” principals and instead tried to capture the day-to-day work of principals in a variety of school settings. While on site, researchers interviewed principals, assistant principals, division heads, teacher leaders, and other leaders in each school. Researchers visited classrooms, attended meetings and informal gatherings, and participated in various school activities. They also looked at publicly available test score data and the state policy context to understand each school's profile.

Core Leadership Functions

The research project team set out to discover how principals and other school leaders spend their time in school and to define the scope of these leaders' responsibilities. The vast list of daily activities ranged from the routine of meeting buses to the vital tasks of hiring teachers and developing a sense of direction for the school. On the basis of this information, the researchers identified seven common functions of leadership (see Sergiovanni, 2001) in all types of schools: instructional leadership, cultural leadership, managerial leadership, human resources leadership, strategic leadership, external development leadership, and micropolitical leadership (see fig. 1, p. 17).
Figure 1. Seven Core Functions of Leadership in Schools

The Roles That Principals Play - table



Instructional leadershipEnsuring quality of instruction, modeling teaching practices, supervising curriculum, and ensuring quality of teaching resources.
Cultural leadershipTending to the symbolic resources of the school (its traditions, climate, and history).
Managerial leadershipOverseeing the operations of the school (its budget, schedule, facilities, safety and security, and transportation).
Human resources leadershipRecruiting, hiring, firing, inducting, and mentoring teachers and administrators; developing leadership capacity and professional development opportunities.
Strategic leadershipPromoting vision, mission, and goals—and developing a means to reach them.
External development leadershipRepresenting the school in the community, developing capital, tending to public relations, recruiting students, buffering and mediating external interests, and advocating for the school's interests.
Micropolitical leadershipBuffering and mediating internal interests while maximizing resources (financial and human).
The performance of these functions varied, depending on the type of school. In some schools, principals were the key players in all seven areas. In other schools, other administrators or teachers played important roles. In most schools, some functions were clearly more crucial than others. For example, in private schools, the urgency of fund raising and capital development—functions of external development leadership and strategic leadership—often strongly influenced how principals spent their time.
All seven leadership areas were important for all the schools studied; no school could afford to neglect any one of them. The study also revealed that although principals are responsible for ensuring that leadership happens in all seven areas, they don't necessarily need to provide direct leadership in each area. In each school that was making progress toward its improvement goals, the principal was at least aware of each of the seven leadership functions and knew who was responsible for providing primary leadership in those areas.

Different Leaders for Different Schools

There are many different ways to lead a school. Although the principal is the titular leader, he or she often shows leadership by enabling others to exercise direct influence.
Models of leadership in the schools studied gravitated to one of two poles—they either centered on the principal or were widely distributed among others in the school. In some schools, all seven functions appeared to rest almost exclusively on the back of the principal. This circumstance was most prevalent in traditional public schools, perhaps because of limited resources or contract provisions. Often, such a situation seemed a recipe for a beleaguered leader.
In other schools, a more evenly distributed model emerged, akin to the way in which a musician leads a jazz combo. In this model, the leader lays down the basic melody line and encourages individual “band members” to improvise around the theme.
For example, interviews with the principal and other school personnel at one preK-4 church school indicated that the principal's main sphere of activity revolved around managerial functions, such as assembling and delivering the necessary fiscal and academic reports to ensure that the school could accept voucher students from the local school district. The school's church-based board of directors provided most of the strategic and cultural leadership. Although not a career educator, the principal was also involved in the human resources function—in hiring and firing staff members, visiting classrooms, and participating in teacher evaluations. But she did not oversee the school's curriculum. That job fell to an experienced teacher on the school's staff, a person everyone acknowledged to be the school's real instructional leader.
In all the schools studied, the principal's delegation of a given function never amounted to abdication of responsibility. Even in a school with a fairly wide distribution of leadership, the principal needed to keep a finger on the pulse of each of the seven core leadership functions. For example, in schools that were moving forward toward their goals, the principal, even if he or she was not the main instructional leader, nevertheless articulated a set of criteria defining effective instruction. In some cases, the principal's connection to instruction was demonstrated by his or her ability to identify teachers and administrators who had strong instructional skills and to organize the school in ways that promoted those educators' leadership. Given today's emphasis on instructional accountability, these distinctions are particularly important for the instructional leadership function (Knapp, Copland, & Talbert, 2003). In no case was a principal walled off from the instructional work of the school.

Master Diagnosticians

Given the array of needs associated with the seven core leadership functions and the periodically turbulent world of schools, it is no surprise that the principals in the study's 21 schools often pointed to the necessity of “diagnosing problems” and “analyzing available resources and solutions.” These tasks require an ability to “read” a school's goals, commitments, context, and resources. Diagnosis requires understanding a school's strengths and weaknesses. It means setting priorities, spurring others to act, and thinking for the long term. Understanding and delivering what the school needs is the principal's core job.
The principal of one public magnet school provides an example of diagnosis in action. She began her interview by reporting that she inherited an office that was always full of students. “The kids,” she said, “were always in trouble.” The school had rules, but no one enforced them. By the time she took over, the school's expectations for behavior of both students and adults were shockingly low.
The principal made changing the school's culture her top priority. She clarified behavioral expectations by posting the school's existing rules about behavior and insisted that everyone, adults and students alike, take these rules seriously. Outlining consequences for inappropriate behavior, she created a conflict resolution program and required teachers to manage discipline problems in their classrooms as much as possible. (In the past, teachers had routinely sent misbehaving students to the principal.) Finally, she worked on building relationships by getting to know every student individually, making it a priority to “let the kids know I care about what they are doing.” She became a visible and persistent presence on playgrounds and in hallways, where interactions among students and between students and adults had deteriorated. She also let parents know that they could count on her. “I don't let anything go with parents,” she said. “I follow through on everything.”
This principal's solution to her challenge rested on her efforts to reshape the culture of the school. In doing so, she needed to understand what her school required. She understood the micropolitical terrain of the school and the need to develop a consensus on the subject of student discipline. As a diagnostician, she realized that she needed to pay attention to both the outward manifestation of the problem and its underlying root causes. She was aware of the need to put in place a combination of informal actions that would set a tone and formal structures that would clarify expectations. She understood that she had to attend to multiple groups within the school—students, teachers, and parents—and mediate conflicts within and across groups.
The diagnostic skills that principals in this study displayed reflect a powerful combination of proficiencies: the ability to use and understand multiple forms of data and the ability to see the connections between multilayered challenges.

Context Matters

Leaders in all the schools said they shared responsibility for actions in all seven areas of leadership. Leaders in private schools and some entrepreneurial schools reported that they were more likely to share the leadership functions of culture, strategic vision, and human resources. The ability to share leadership was more prevalent in these settings than in the traditional public schools, for which the leadership structure is determined outside the schools.
In traditional public schools, principals were sometimes unable to exert much authority in such areas as instructional leadership—because the district drove the curriculum—and human resources, because of centralized recruitment and hiring. The statutory role of districts and states in public education often created significant differences in local autonomy in these schools.
Principals in the most-constrained environments generally had trouble ascending beyond middle management functions. They spent much of their time complying with and implementing directives established by either the district superintendent or the school board. These principals' actions often focused on keeping the school clean, the students under control, and the teachers pacified. In some traditional public schools, the collective bargaining agreement and other districtwide policies determined the focus and extent of teachers' professional development. In other traditional public schools, bureaucratic imperatives constrained the principal's work. More than one principal noted that the least-productive portion of the day was spent dealing with a barrage of e-mail and other correspondence from “downtown.”
Despite these general patterns—traditional public schools being more constrained than private or entrepreneurial schools in terms of autonomy and distributing leadership—there is no absolute link between governance and the principal's freedom of action. Some charter schools have considerable freedom of action; others may be micromanaged by their boards to such an extent that there is little freedom of action for the schools' frontline leaders.

Atypical Schools, Atypical Leaders

Although this research demonstrates diversity within school types—there is, for example, no typical charter school, public or private—a few patterns emerged describing the ways in which certain kinds of schools carry out leadership activities in the seven areas. The actions of superintendents, districtwide school boards, and central offices profoundly affect traditional public school leaders. The actions of these groups are, in turn, influenced by federal, state, county, and city government policies and by collective bargaining agreements (Farkas et al., 2003). Although charter and independent school leaders are not immune from external influences, their schools' lean governance structure—generally built around boards of trustees—exempts them from the weight of a larger system. And although charter and independent schools must be licensed by the state and abide by basic state, city, and county regulations, they are less directly affected by those parties than public schools are. Some have teacher unions, but their labor relations are generally local and not defined by contracts negotiated far from the school.
The study suggests that these differences in governance structure influence the degree to which adults in the school share leadership responsibilities. It also suggests that governance affects the level of a school's authority to act in each of the seven leadership areas.
The study also has an important message for those who would aspire to lead schools. During the course of the study, principals discussed their credential programs and the experiences that best prepared them for school leadership. Their preparation programs seemed to offer little value; principals often described the programs as theoretical and disconnected from the real challenges they encountered. The study suggests that there is more work to do in aligning the design of such programs with the reality of the principal's job.
But the study has another message about leadership. The ability to diagnose complex problems in schools and ensure leadership in all seven core leadership areas defines leaders as courageous and clearly grounded in what it takes to lead schools in challenging times.

Farkas, S., Johnson, J., Duffett, A., Syat, B., & Vine, J. (2003). Rolling up their sleeves: Superintendents and principals talk about what's needed to fix public schools. New York: Public Agenda.

Knapp, M., Copland, M., & Talbert, J. (2003). Leading for learning: Reflective tools for school and district leaders. Seattle, WA: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.

Leithwood, K., & Riehl, C. (2003). What we know about successful school leadership. Philadelphia: Temple University Laboratory for Student Success.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (2001). The principalship: A reflective practice perspective (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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