Thursday, September 18, 2014

The future of principals in Canada

This was written by David Berliner who is Regents' Professor Emeritus at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College of Arizona State University. His interests are in the study of teaching and general educational policy. He is the author, with Bruce J. Biddle, of The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. This post was originally published as the Forward for a national research study The Future of the Principalship in Canada.

by David Berliner

I am old enough to have learned that those predicting the future for American education are frequently wrong. As I grew up the Russians were going to beat us in everything; as I matured the Japanese were going to do the same; later I learned we were not competitive in industry. But then Apple and Microsoft came along. The futility of prediction beyond, say, the next three years became clear. But, on the other hand, strategic action calls for examination of current and future trends.

There is value in trying to understand the contemporary life of principals and to extrapolate the implications for the professional and personal life of the holders of that position, now and in the future. In order to understand the work of school leaders—as it is now and as it will be in the future— the voices of those undertaking that role must be heard by stakeholders and policymakers. With this in mind, the ensuing report focuses on principals’ perspectives from across Canada and offers remarkable insight into what needs to be done to improve this job at the personal level and to redesign the job to support efficacy.

The social contexts in which Canadian principals, as well as their colleagues globally, operate are always different and always fluctuating. Particularly in education, general findings stop being general because contexts vary significantly. For instance, schools in a First Nations community, suburban Calgary or inner city Toronto have different needs and demand different types of work from principals. Safety may be a primary concern and a powerful stressor for one principal; for another principal, stress on the job is rooted in the behavior of local parents; for other principals, scores on externally- mandated tests are what stress the principal and demand more time. Further, all educational work must take context into consideration because certain educational ideas, practices or leaders may not be right for a particular setting. Instability of context—and the need to adapt to an unstable context— is perhaps the only thing that can be generalized.

All leaders of industry and government need to monitor and understand shifts in context as they try to control their organizations’ and their nations’ future. Stasis is rare in educational systems and, thus, the question of “what needs to be done now” requires frequent re-examination. As highlighted in this report, this is part of the complexity inherent in school leadership: the principal has a critical role to play as the “change spotter” and leader of accommodations to change in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This is work that is both very hard and very important, and upon which communities and nations depend.

The effects of shifting contexts and trends require understanding by those who choose to become principals and, even more so, by those who judge their performance.

This study on the Canadian principalship highlights the burden that too many directives from above place on school leaders. This corresponds to data from the USA, where, for example, school leaders in the state of Massachusetts, in the years 2009-2013, received 5,382 multiple-page documents—around three documents a day—from the state and the federal government. These documents required action by local school districts and frequently demanded the time and attention of school principals. That reality makes Kafka’s worst descriptions of bureaucracy seem benign!

As long as the bureaucracies in which principals work inundate them with memos and mandates, neither American nor Canadian school leaders will be able to meet the needs of their students, parents and communities. Principals in both countries have to contend with almost endless needs to which attention must be paid; among the most galling of these are the ‘top-down’ mandates, which often imply that principals and teachers are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, or that they are super men and women who can do whatever is asked of them, regardless of their other responsibilities.

From the perspective of an outsider and researcher who has worked across the globe, the Canadian provincial and national systems seem to be shifting toward an organizational culture where there is diminished trust and much greater external accountability. The way around this issue was put well in this report: “At the risk of sounding simplistic, more trust and less accountability is required to make schools more engaging for our students and staff.” In fact, Finland has a system much like this, and it works.

What this report makes clear is that the principalship is a paradox. While it is a nearly impossible job, it is done remarkably well by most practitioners—even though they are usually understaffed and under- resourced—given the demands that are made on them.

If wisely acted upon, the findings in this document can be used to support and sustain a better principalship across Canada. If that is done, the profession will likely attract and keep the kind of leaders who can effectively shape the schools and communities serving this increasingly diverse and complex nation. But we need to remember that the challenges faced by our principals cannot all be addressed without also attending to the social context and the issues that exist within it.

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