Principals, school improvement in Maine

By Kathreen Harrison | Apr 11, 2014

According to data collected from principals around the state and reported by Donaldson and Marnik in The Maine Principal Study, principals have difficulty finding time to focus on being the instructional leader schools need. They have so many job-related functions to perform, that many devote relatively little time to initiating educational programs, evaluating curriculum, collecting student data, and other activities directly aimed at improving learning outcomes in students.

The past decade has seen the principal’s load increase, with an average school size of 69 more students than was true a decade ago, as well as five more staff. Additionally, students in Maine schools are significantly poorer than they were a decade ago. These factors together begin to explain why principals are finding it very difficult to prioritize instructional leadership. They are primarily engaged in activities like supervision and evaluation of teachers and in student supervision.

At a time when the Department of Education is demanding that schools restructure and adopt proficiency-based grading and the Common Core, we need our principals here in Midcoast Maine to be given time to serve as instructional leaders. They need professional development themselves so that they are comfortable with all aspects of the new mandates, and they need to be focused on providing instructional development for their staff. We should find ways for them to manage other aspects of the principal’s job so that they can focus on improving learning outcomes in students.

We could learn something about leading schools from other countries. Singapore, for example, seems to recognize both that no one person can fulfill all the roles needed to run a school effectively, and that strong teachers need opportunities for career growth if they are to opt for remaining in the field over a lifetime. The top teachers in Singapore take on leadership roles in their schools as part of their job, in effect shouldering some of the work that would otherwise be left to the principal. The roles they take on include supervising beginning and mid-career teachers, thus lifting that load from the principal.

In our area we talk of "mentoring" new teachers, but that mentorship relationship is usually very circumscribed and added to a teacher’s regular teaching load, in exchange for a small stipend. In Singapore, the supervision of teachers is taken seriously, and master teachers have reduced teaching loads so they can truly help with the professional development of newer teachers.

If we want our students to have access to a world-class education here in Maine, we need to make it possible for our principals to focus on instructional leadership. Decisions about curriculum and programs, and the road map for implementing change successfully, should be a principal’s focus, not something she fits in when other tasks are done.

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