Thought Leadership

Coherent Central Systems and Rethinking the Principal Role

Gene Pinkard, Director, K-12 Leadership for the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program

Think of a school principal. Depending on your age, you’re likely to conjure up Saved by the Bell’s Principal Belding, The Simpsons’ Principal Skinner, The Breakfast Club’s Dean Vernon or even Captain Underpants’ stodgy alter-ego. These characters are reliable comedic relief whose tyranny is laughably bulldozed. (Joe Clark with his bat and bullhorn in Lean on Me may be the hero of this group!) In reality, we know that the best school leaders foster spaces where the culture is welcoming, and instruction is rigorous. Would-be “troublesome” students are embraced with support and opportunities to be creative. Unlike those popular caricatures, real principals have no script and are increasingly required to be adaptive leaders. With all that principals have on their plates, system leaders need to support principals with coherent, focused strategies. 

Same Characters, New Scripts

A central strand of the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program’s work has been a peer-learning network for the superintendents and cabinet members of large urban school districts. A shared quest for high-impact policy led us to publishing Rethinking the Role of the Principal, based on research, social context, and leadership experience. Meanwhile, decades of a continual churn of transformation strategies lacks a coherent architecture, even as initiatives inevitably intersect at the student and school levels. For school leaders—that intersection feels more like a collision.

Over the last ten years, the role of the school leader changed dramatically—from an emphasis on operational oversight and discipline to human-capital management and instructional leadership, while always shouldering the responsibility for sense-making for local communities. Districts across the country wrestle with how much authority to devolve from central office to principals. These decisions span the gamut of organizational functions. Schools are inherently complex, charged with closing daunting opportunity gaps, and adopting standards that fundamentally change what adults and students need to know and be able to do. The faculty rightly seeks informed guidance from school leaders, who are scrambling to keep pace with all this and the related evaluations.

Re-casting Roles

Coherent leadership requires a shift in the role of the principal and their relationship to central offices. The storyline of success starts with clarity of roles and a culture of equity and learning. Ed & Society convened system leaders, researchers, principal development organizations and principals themselves to outline how coherent systems operationalize a vision that advances equitable outcomes, and positions principals for optimal impact. If we view the shifts in Rethinking the Role through a lens of coherence, we see congruence between the principal and the system, and a commitment to ways of operating that sustain alignment:

  1. Establish a few priorities. When we reframe the principal role in our historic context and consider research, we find that the most impactful shifts for principals are leading through the science of learning for students and adults, prioritizing school climate, and leading with a community orientation. This list also implies a much larger set that no longer lands on the principal’s desk, demanding discipline about a limited number of priorities.
  2. Engage Authentically. The Superintendent must establish—in message and operations—a culture in which everything the system does is in service of school-level educators. Systems committed to positioning principals for success invest in authentic preparation, align central offices to school needs, and align principal expectations to the high-impact priorities noted above. 
  3. Model collaboration. System leaders safeguard the focus required for school leadership through intentional collaboration for alignment in central offices, and insulating principals from “noisy” demands that don’t drive achievement. Superintendents might meet with the heads of academics and the school office together to reinforce coordination. Those chiefs can foster collaboration across their teams in school visits and principal development sessions. 

The leaders in our networks—many of them former school leaders—all recognize the tension between ensuring quality at scale and fostering informed decision-making at the local level. Even if planning is centralized, school leadership can’t be scripted. Principals execute the theory of action; they supervise and improvise the implementation of every strategy in their building to support teachers and positively impact students. The role of districts is to author a cohesive storyline and cast the principal as an empowered, transformative leader. A coherent system provides a setting where our leaders will be the dynamic players that real-life schools require. 

Gene Pinkard is the Director, K-12 Leadership for the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program. He has been a principal, principal supervisor, and district chief focused on transformation, equity, and instruction.