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Volume 27, Number 1
January/February 2011

The Virtues of Experience

A conversation with Thomas Fowler-Finn on replacing principals of underperforming schools


Many states and districts receiving federal School Improvement Grants are choosing the “transformation” model for school turnarounds that requires them to replace the principals of chronically underperforming schools. Thomas Fowler-Finn, a former superintendent and founder of Instructional Rounds Plus, a consulting firm in Medford, Mass., has trained school principals across the United States and Australia. He talked to Harvard Education Letter editor Nancy Walser about what it takes to become an instructional leader.

What are the arguments for training rather than firing principals at underperforming schools?
In my work with hundreds of principals, I have found that those with experience are best able to adopt ways to improve teaching in their schools, provided they are willing to take on the work. New principals often carry the weight of expectation that they will singlehandedly turn a school around. Experienced principals, however, know that it will be the staff members who will do most of that work, and they know the personal investments of current staff and who can do what. They also tend to have more credibility with staff, who are rightly skeptical of someone who takes on the job making promises without necessarily knowing how to deal with potential obstacles—if they even know what the obstacles are. Experienced principals have found ways to deal with multiple demands from central office, unreasonable parents, misbehaving students, and a myriad of other distractions that can suck up huge amounts of time if not anticipated. The experienced principal is often more likely to anticipate problems and use his or her management skills so that there is more time to focus on instruction.

But what about the argument that it’s the old ways of school management that contributed to the underperformance of schools?
What is really wrong with public education in the United States and elsewhere is that too much blame is laid at the doorstep of individual educators, while not enough is being asked of students in the classroom. Despite the widely recognized importance of being an instructional leader in today’s schools—by analyzing data, deploying coaches, etc.—both principals and teachers still focus on covering the content and obtaining correct responses on tests versus teaching for in-depth learning and higher-order thinking. What is often called instructional leadership is really about engineering a set of technical fixes to obtain better test scores. While there are incompetent principals and teachers, the real problem is systemic and not about individuals or replacing individuals. What is needed is a recasting of the roles of principal, teacher, and student so everyone in the school system shares responsibility for creating student learners. In my experience, veteran principals quickly recognize that students aren’t learning as much as they could in their classrooms. They want to move to a new model of leadership, but they don’t know how.

How do you help principals become instructional leaders?
A great deal of my work is about helping principals, teachers, and the public understand that the current level of intellectual activity common in classrooms across the United States is primarily at the level of recall, fact, and basic comprehension, and rarely at higher levels of cognitive demand. This has been true for decades, documented in multiple research studies, and previously acceptable—even rewarded—when done well.

Convincing principals to take a different course requires classroom observations, analysis of those observations, discussion about research and model practices, and time. When principals observe classrooms, they see, for example, that students ask very few questions—almost none—and when they do, they are largely procedural. They see teachers answering their own questions, or taking one answer and moving on. They see students who really don’t know why they are doing what they are doing. In our work, we talk about what it looks like to engage students in authentic intellectual work and about the research showing that when students are engaged in deeper learning, they also perform well on tests, even if less content is covered in class.

Once principals come to terms with the possibilities versus the current state of affairs, they must then face the challenge of engaging teachers in the same journey, and then provide the kind of supportive environment that allows teachers to interact with students in ways that lead to higher learning.

Instructional leaders are most effective when asking the tough questions about student learning, not when giving answers. They learn what questions to ask through on-site experiences, not in university classrooms. Instructional Rounds does this by creating a collegial network of principals and others who visit classrooms and then objectively analyze their observations in a highly disciplined process to understand the cause and effect of what is taking place (see “Improving Teaching and Learning Through Instructional Rounds,” Harvard Education Letter, May/June 2009).

Rather than trading veteran principals for the new, the real need is to invest in the appropriate training for principals directly on-site in classrooms and with teachers. I’m not making an argument against recruiting new people. I’m simply saying that there is no magic in replacement. In the work I have been doing there are as many “aha!” moments coming from veteran principals as from the new, there is as much excitement about applying the work, and many veterans lament the years lost prior to learning in depth about the complexity of classroom learning and the true nature of instructional leadership.
In your work coaching experienced principals, what are the main challenges?
The main challenge is that principals, especially veterans, lack a working knowledge and confidence in the role of instructional leadership. Principals of today have gone from relatively private, independent practice to leaders of schools judged by test scores. Student test scores now represent a very big portion of a principal’s reputation and self-evaluation as well as motivation. The requirements on veterans are to do a job for which they were not prepared, educated, or hired. The circumstances aren’t that much different for the newly appointed. In fact, I find that those who are hiring principals and those who are applying and/or being recruited have as much to learn about high-quality learning and instructional leadership as the principals they would replace.

Veteran principals—many long since out of the classroom—also fear that if they take on the role [of instructional leader] they will be seen as frauds by their teachers. It is rare for principals to engage in the same in-service training as teachers, and most teachers will tell you they think principals don’t know very much about instruction. If you have ever observed typical meetings of principals you would know that the conversation is not about instruction or learning. They do not discuss their problems of educational practice with their colleagues in any depth, if at all. They do not feel as though they are experts in instruction, and in fact, principals have little clarity about describing excellent teaching in more than general terms.

So, the challenge is to reverse these circumstances and help them gain a clear understanding of effective instruction and learning—how an instructional leader actually gets involved directly with the teaching and learning in the classroom and what questions should be raised—and confidence enough to replace their prior roles with new behaviors. When principals don’t act as instructional leaders, it more likely stems from a crisis in confidence and a lack of knowledge, not a lack of will or interest, as is often portrayed. The challenge is to create the support and in-service necessary on the job in the schools for principals to be effective and productive. Instructional leadership is something that both inexperienced and experienced principals can learn.

Are there steps or stages to working with principals to improve student learning?
Certainly data of student performance and surveys of students, parents, and faculty are helpful evidence in the work of instructional leaders. In fact, I recommend—as do many others—that every school get faculty involved in data teams in an open, transparent, objective look at results. As principals consider the possibilities of changing their practice and developing more fully the role of instructional leader, they need to be convinced that such an effort is worth the investment of their time. That can only happen on a personal level, but once it does, a host of other issues arise. In addition to gaining knowledge and confidence, principals have to learn to model for teachers the same behaviors of instruction that are desired within the classroom. This raises anxiety for principals and leads to many questions from them, such as: “When can I find the time to take teachers through learning experiences similar to mine? Am I capable of doing so? What resources are available to help, such as videos of teaching episodes, access to research, protocols for discussion, and analyses of student learning? The faculty expects me to have answers, and now I’ll be asking questions—how will that play out?” These are all normal and healthy issues, and they reveal how vulnerable principals feel in doing the real work of instructional leadership.

What do you look for as signs of progress?

Instructional leadership is a dynamic and messy process. Major shifts of thinking are required, many of which do occur from the beginning only to be retested. Critical to the change in behaviors is observing instruction from the student’s point of view. It is not what the teacher says and does that makes a difference, it is what the teacher gets the students to make, do, say, or write. So one critical sign of progress is understanding the importance of looking at the “student outputs” in the classroom versus the [teacher’s] inputs. In the schools where experienced principals have implemented what they have learned through this training, for example, students are asking questions about content and identifying what they need and want to learn next; teachers are obtaining daily feedback from students on what they have learned; and, in surveys, teachers agree, and students say, that they are truly engaged in learning.

The power of learning instructional leadership on-site is clear when veteran principals proclaim to their colleagues, “I realize that I can’t really tell what is going on in classrooms until I observe student work and talk with students.” Perhaps we should call it “learning leadership” rather than instructional leadership so that thinking about leadership is focused on student learning. I don’t want to get caught up in semantics, yet it is common for participants to feel overwhelmed and discouraged by what they see in classrooms as they come to terms with the actual level of thinking or cognitive demand and the scant amount of intellectual work required of and produced by students. This is the realization that drives principals to action.

For Further Information

For Further Information

F.M. Newmann, A.S. Bryk, and J.K. Nagaoka. Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardized Tests: Conflict or Co-existence? Improving Chicago’s Schools. Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2001.