Why Good Grade School Principals Matter

David Brooks’ N.Y. Times column, “Good Leaders Make Good Schools,” spotlights the importance of grade school principals in setting a culture “by their very behavior — the message is the person.” Principals raise expectations and alter norms. … When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination.

Principals used to be administrators and middle managers, overseeing budgets, discipline, schedules. The goal was to be strong and decisive. Today’s successful principals are greeting parents and students outside the front door in the morning. [A] Minnesota-Toronto study found successful principals made 20 to 60 spontaneous classroom visits and observations per week.

In other words, they are high-energy types constantly circulating through the building, offering feedback, setting standards, applying social glue. Research suggests that it takes five to seven years for a principal to have full impact on a school, but most principals burn out and leave in four years or less.

Sean Reardon of Stanford compared changes in national test scores between third and eighth grade. He found that Chicago students were improving faster than students in any other major school district in the country. Chicago schools are cramming six years’ worth of education into five years of actual schooling.

These improvements are proof that demography is not destiny, that bad things happening in a neighborhood do not have to determine student outcomes. How is Chicago doing it? Well, its test scores have been rising since 2003. Chicago has a rich civic culture, research support from places like the University of Chicago and a tradition of excellent leadership from school heads, from Arne Duncan to Janice Jackson, and the obsessive, energetic drive of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.


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