Compensatory Leadership

on Jun 24, 2013 in Blog by

I had the opportunity to take part in a webinar last week with CCSSO and the New Hampshire State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) team. The NH team lead presented a problem of practice for consultation. In the process, she was asking great questions about the roles of principals in her state, especially in relationship to teacher leaders.

Our exploration of NH’s problem of practice led me to think about the work other states are engaged in as they review their standards and evaluation systems for principals. I encourage state leaders to consider the possibility that many of the demands placed on principals could be compensatory—that is, a school leader may be weak in one aspect of school leadership, but that weakness could be offset by strength in another aspect of their leadership repertoire.

Similarly, if we take a team approach to school leadership, it could mean that some principals’ specific weaknesses could—if the principals organize their teams well—be offset by the strengths that teacher leaders and others in their building possess.

For example, while I have to express my appreciation that the ISLLC standards asserted the primary role of principals as instructional leaders when they were first drafted two decades ago, I think it now is worth questioning the extent to which every principal has to be an effective instructional leader for every individual teacher in the school.  More and more systems require principals to evaluate teachers and expect them to give high quality, actionable feedback from their observations of teaching.  It doesn’t take long to recognize individual principals will be overwhelmed not only in terms of workload, but also in terms of their competence.  At some point, it is reasonable to believe that peer teachers in a content area are better equipped to support instructional improvement among their colleagues than are administrators who do not have special expertise in that content area.

When we were working on the InTASC model core standards for teaching a couple of years ago, we chose to call them standards for “teaching,” not for “teachers.” The standards themselves called for teachers to collaborate with one another in new ways. This is especially important because developing mastery in teaching takes time; teachers do not enter the classroom on day-one as experts. Creating conditions where teachers collaborate in teams ensures that students have access to effective teaching regardless of an individual teacher’s effectiveness.  Thus, talking about “teaching” meant that we were open to the possibility that teams of teachers could be rallied to meet the standards.

Similarly, as we think about our expectations for school leaders, let’s consider that principals who inevitably have weaknesses in some aspects of leadership have at least a few different options when determining how to ensure their buildings will enjoy effective leadership across all the standards.  They can:

  • 1. shore up their skills in the areas where they are weak;
  • 2. build on their existing skills in an area of leadership that compensates for their weaknesses; and/or
  • 3. engage teacher leaders and others in work that compensate for their weaknesses.

The latter two approaches seem more realistic than expecting that every single principal, regardless of how long he/she has been a principal, will meet or exceed every single standard we hold for them.

Though it may be more realistic, however, there are systemic factors that will get in the way of effective distribute leadership. If a principal evaluation system, for example, is focused too squarely on the work of individual principals and not teams, it may not matter that we ultimately determine that school leaders can meet the standards by engaging a team in the leadership of a school.

Are we designing principal evaluation systems that can take into account–let alone promote–distributed leadership?