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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.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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.