Why are we shackling school principals? Accountability must be paired with autonomy

The 29th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, based upon telephone interviews with 1000 teachers and 500 principals, paints an unfortunate picture of the plight of school principals.

  • 89 percent of principals agree that “a principal should be held accountable for everything that happens to the children in a school”
  • 43 percent of principals say they “have control when it comes to removing teachers”
  • 42 percent of principals say they “have control over curriculum and instruction”
  • 22 percent of principals say they have “a great deal of control in making decisions about finances”

What’s so unfortunate? The survey indicates a significant gap between what principals expect of themselves (and what is expected of them) and their ability to meet those expectations by using levers – staffing decisions, curriculum adjustments, spending authority — that could help them make a real difference for the kids in their schools.

Did we ever do the right thing by our school principals?

With district schools around the country facing closure, one has to wonder:  Were the school leaders in charge ever  given the freedom to lead their schools to success? Or are the schools and their principals simply scapegoats for poorly designed strategies pushed down from the district central office?

All too often, school districts create a conflict of interest when it comes to school performance. The typical district M.O. is to micromanage school leaders, and then fault them when their students and schools don’t perform well. Districts put principals nominally in charge of schools, but retain centralized authority over key decisions that could affect performance.

Believe it or not, as I travel around the country, I often hear district leaders say something surprising: “Our principals don’t have the ability to lead their schools with autonomy.”  To that, I have several responses:

  1. You can’t know the true capacity of your principal corps unless you give them the power to lead.
  2. You will never attract the type of principal you want if you shackle them and give them so little control over their schools.
  3. The current model of micromanage and blame doesn’t seem to be working, so what do you have to lose?

Rather than maintaining a don’t-rock-the-boat program of micromanagement, district leaders should instead focus on developing and empowering true school leaders. That means giving school principals real freedom to improve outcomes and meaningful support to do what it takes to better serve kids. Most importantly, it means pairing accountability with autonomy. Anything else is just more of the same.