Principals Should Focus on Instructional Leadership


Gordon Donaldson and George Marnik’s The Maine Principal Study reports that school leaders in our state 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 principal’s job is so demanding in other areas that it is challenging for principals to find time to focus on being the instructional leader schools need.

The past decade has seen the principal’s load increase, with an average school size of sixty-nine more students than was true a decade ago, as well as five more staff. Additionally, students are significantly poorer than they were a decade ago.  These factors help 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 to serve as instructional leaders. They need professional development themselves, and they need to be focused on providing instructional development for their staffs. We should find ways for them to manage other aspects of the principalship so that they can focus on improving learning outcomes in students.

We can learn something about leading schools from other countries. Singapore, for example, believes that strong educators need opportunities for career growth if they are to remain in the field over a lifetime, and also understands that no one person can fulfill all the roles needed to run a school effectively. 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. One of these roles includes supervising teachers, which principals in Maine say occupies an enormous percentage of their working life.

If we truly 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 should be a principal’s focus, not what she fits in when other tasks are done.

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.