Book Review: The Principal Profile

Principal Profile coverI recently stumbled across a book on principal effectiveness that you’ll probably never find in your local bookstore. Based on research done in Canada in the 1980s, Ken Leithwood & Deborah Montgomery’s Improving Principal Effectiveness: The Principal Profile describes four levels of effectiveness:

1. Administrators are building managers who use positional power, personal preferences, and other idiosyncrasies to guide their leadership. Goals for student learning are not at the forefront, nor are strategies for advancing the work of the school well-considered, articulated, or implemented.

2. Humanitarians are leaders whose primary concern is the relationships and happiness of everyone in the school (especially the adults). Decisions are made largely on the basis of promoting a positive climate.

3. Program Managers are more skilled in using decision-making processes and strategies that reflect more widely shared priorities, and tend to base decisions on student learning needs.

4. Systematic Problem Solvers are skilled in a wide variety of strategies for decision-making, school improvement, and goal attainment, and ensure a high level of consistency and performance directed toward shared goals.

The chapters detailing each of these levels are the best part of the book; the remaining chapters describe how the levels were derived from research, and how they might be applied to school leader hiring, training, and retention.

I can’t strongly recommend the book, given the enormous change that has taken place since 1986 (Ken Leithwood’s more recent work is much more significant), but it was interesting to see the terminology used in Canadian schools at that time, and the four profile chapters are helpful. The book is not terribly readable, but you might find it worth looking over if you are interested in principal effectiveness.

Where Am I?
The most powerful part of my experience in reading the book was reading the specific descriptors of principal behavior and performance at each level, which included characteristic quotes from principals. It was impossible not to see myself in the descriptions – and not always in the chapter I’d like.

As a general leadership development practice, it can be helpful to read descriptions of practice, and see how you compare. I’d prefer more narrative forms – stories of real leaders – to the descriptions in this book, but the quotations were nonetheless helpful in describing the thinking and decision-making of principals at varying levels of effectiveness. If I’m not performing the way I need to be, having a clear vision of a more effective level of practice is essential, and The Principal Profile provides just such a vision.

Heroism Vs. Performance

Why do we find the idea of principal performance hard to swallow?

We like to think of the principal as a hero who does whatever it takes to ensure student learning. When we see heroes, we are drawn to them, and we tell ourselves “We need more heroes like this one!” We think heroes will save us.

And we think “If being a principal means being a hero, I must be a hero.” And we stop thinking about our own performance as school leaders.

But we will never have a shark-fin curve when it comes to excellence in school leadership:
shark fin curve diagram

Our profession will never be 90% heroes. And it shouldn’t be.

As Copland notes in his 2001 Kappan article “The Myth of the Superprincipal” (see excerpt, PDF), demands on school leaders are exceedingly high, and this expectation of heroism is problematic for recruitment and retention of effective school leaders. Expecting people to be heroes discourages qualified candidates from entering the field, and leads to burnout among those in the profession.

But the alternative is not to lower expectations for principals. Instead, we can – we must – identify what effective principals do, how school leaders improve their performance, and what can be done at the local, state, and national levels to promote improvement.

The “Warm Body” Zone

What’s my impact as a principal? One way to look at effectiveness is to divide the spectrum (from low to high) into three distinct zones:

  • The crisis zone – ineffective leadership causing major problems for student learning and school operations
  • The “warm body” zone – maintaining the status quo, keeping the school functioning the way any moderately competent person could
  • The peak performance zone – truly making a difference in student learning

The size of the warm body zone varies from school to school. In some settings, anything but peak effectiveness will create a downward spiral into crisis. In other schools, it’s fairly easy to coast – the warm body zone is large, and it would be hard to derail the success that’s being experienced.

Our challenge is to break out of the warm body zone and into peak effectiveness. Are students in my school learning more because of my leadership? If so, I’m in the top zone, having a positive impact on student learning. If not, why am I here? Is it just to ensure that there’s a warm body in the principal’s office? Or am I driving myself and my school to excellence and results?

In schools where the challenge is to stay out of the crisis zone, reaching the peak performance zone may seem impossible. In schools with a larger “warm body” zone, breaking through to the peak performance zone can seem just as difficult.

My point is essentially this: principal performance matters for student learning. What drives you to excellence?

x How to Handle Every Kind of Email
Google+