Speaking Out: Leveraging the Power of the Principal

By Chris Pearson
Principal, November/December 2016

After spending a year as a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education, I am further convinced of two facts about American education: The building principal is the single greatest leverage point for educational reform, and this goes unrecognized by most people. Not to discredit the invaluable work done by classroom teachers and districtlevel leaders, but there is no other position within the American educational system that can so powerfully and personally impact all of the populations within a school community as a principal.

Power in the School and Community

In environments ranging from urban East Coast cities to remote Native American Indian reservations, I have heard teachers consistently talk about their principals’ positive impact on school culture and, in many cases, how a principal completely transformed the workplace from a negative and distrustful culture to an open and supportive one. Teachers raved about how they loved coming to work, felt supported, and how their school community functioned as a team.

Similarly, parents talked about how their interactions with a principal impacted their overall perception of their school and their child’s educational experience. These parents felt that the principal empowered them, listened to them, and acted as a partner rather than an adversary. Several parents I talked with had children with disabilities or came from impoverished backgrounds. These parents initially viewed the educational system with downright antagonism. But highly skilled principals were able to successfully mitigate these negative perceptions and create positive relationships based on a sense of mutual trust and student advocacy.

I have been amazed with the quality of leadership I have seen and its power to impact the community. For example, a high school principal in rural Washington leads his students on a graduation day Senior Walk through his district’s elementary schools to show younger—mostly Mexican immigrant students—an example of future success. The principal on the Lakota Sioux Reservation partners with tribal members to provide mental health support after an unthinkable streak of student suicides devastates a community. A principal in Baltimore keeps his doors open to the community from early morning to late at night, working with the local food bank to deliver food to needy families. And a principal in New York City leads a charter school dedicated to the sole purpose of educating kids in the foster care system. These are heroes of the American education system.

Power at the Policy Level

Progress has been made to help elevate principals as key stakeholders in the nation’s dialogue on education reform. Congressional work on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) supports increased focus on principals in federal education policy, an important lever in driving investments at the state and local level.

Even with these policy gains, however, we still need to advocate for programs specifically dedicated to the development and retention of great principals. One program that highly influenced my career was the Federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) Program.

As principal in a Title I school, the Federal SIG Program inspired me with its requirement that principals at under-performing schools be replaced, signaling a powerful message that leadership matters. I was struck by the phrase “operational flexibility” and the belief that to turn around the nation’s most challenging schools you need the right leader and you need to let him or her lead. This message compelled me to take the opportunity of reforming a “Turnaround School,” and led to the most fulfilling experience of my educational career. While overall results of the SIG program were inconsistent to mediocre, in discussions with other SIG principals and through my study of SIG schools in Washington, what has been most striking is the significant role of the principal in determining each school’s success or failure.

In a recent conversation between Principal Ambassador Fellows and U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., two questions were asked: What keeps you up at night? And what gets you up in the morning? The quality of responses was inspiring and affirmed what I know is true about great principals in this country: Not only are we invigorated by the challenges that we face, but we are also driven by them.

So my challenge to principals around the country: Make your voices heard with the singular message that “principals matter” to those making policy and funding decisions at all levels. We have a unique opportunity to guide the local implementation of ESSA in a manner that places principals at the forefront of educational reform. Now is the time to step out of the daily grind to advocate for resources that support principal leadership development and promote innovative leadership practices. Finally, help demonstrate beyond refute what I learned in my year as a Fellow—that the principal is indeed the most powerful lever for educational reform.

Chris Pearson is a superintendent and principal in Conway School District in Mount Vernon, Washington.

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