Home > Uncategorized > David Leonardt “Discovers” that Principals Make a Difference. Where was he in the 1980s?

David Leonardt “Discovers” that Principals Make a Difference. Where was he in the 1980s?

March 12, 2017

David Leonardt’s op ed article that will appear in today’s paper is titled “Want to Fix Schools? Go the the Principal’s Office”. In the article he describes his recent finding that principals can make a big difference in public schools and writes that after being left out of the debates on school reform “they’re starting to get more attention.” My immediate reaction to this was astonishment, for three decades ago I gave several speeches and presentations on the importance of school-based leadership.

As a Superintendent who led public school districts in New Hampshire and Maryland in the early 1980s  through late 1990s this column brought back memories of the Effective Schools movement that swept a large swath of the country at that time. Ron Edmonds, a Michigan State professor and researcher identified five elements that existed in an effective public school… and number one on that list was strong administrative leadership  at the SCHOOL level, for Ron Edmonds believed that the SCHOOL was where change needed to occur. Mr. Edmonds also promoted the notion that ALL children can learn given sufficient time and appropriate instruction, a notion that flew in the face of some of the research findings from a decade earlier. This idea displaced the more pessimistic findings of the Coleman report and Christopher Jenks’ research, despite the pushback I often received from parents, members of the public, and, alas, teachers who held fast to the notion that intelligence was fixed .

Edmonds had one idea that never caught on, though: equity… the notion that public schools serving children raised in poverty should have the same array of services and courses as schools serving middle class children. Wikipedia synthesized Edmonds’ perspective on this issue:

Edmonds stated…”by equity I mean a simple sense of fairness in the distribution of the primary goods and services that characterize our social order.” Also, “equitable public schooling begins by teaching poor children what their parents want them to know and ends by teaching poor children at least as well as it teaches middle class children.”[7]

The idea that equity was lined with redistribution of resources crossed the line into politics for some policy makers to the extent that one of the elements of effective schools that Edmonds initially listed was dropped entirely. That element was the “Capacity to divert school energy and resources from other activities to advance the school’s basic purpose”. As a Superintendent who promoted Edmonds’ thinking, I could argue that this need to prioritize “energy and resources” did not need to be on the list of components of an effective school because it was a necessary by-product of implementing the other five elements which were:

  1. Strong administrative leadership.
  2. High expectations.
  3. An orderly atmosphere.
  4. Basic skills acquisition as the school’s primary purpose.
  5. Frequent monitoring of pupil progress.

The fourth element of the list required Principals and their school improvement teams to examine how they used time during the day and what resources they needed to assure that each student mastered the basic skills we were in the process of developing as part of our “Essential Curriculum”.

My “research” during the 15 years I worked with Effective Schools and during my 29 years as a Superintendent reinforces what Leonardt “discovered”: a good principal makes a big difference and an outstanding principal makes a HUGE difference.


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