Do Principals Need Teaching Experience?

Yep. I could stop the article right there, but let me try to make the case for my answer. On April 13, Tim Dawkins, the principal of Oliver Winch Middle School in South Glens Fall, New York, wrote a guest blog for Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground Blog in Education Week. Dawkins gave a confessional title to his thoughtful and not unpersuasive piece: “I’m a Principal Without Teaching Experience.”

Do Principals Need Teaching Experience? by Regina Paul for Policy Studies in Education

Dawkins wrote about his own valuable and relevant professional experience—eight years as a high school counselor and two years as a high school assistant principal. He said that the question we should be asking about principal preparation and the answer we should be getting is this:

‘What types of professional experiences encourage a smooth transition into school leadership?’ Is facilitating learning in a classroom one such experience? Absolutely. Is it the only experience that matters? I submit that the answer is no.

Well, I couldn’t agree with Dawkins more about that. Having watched principals up close for many years as they opened new schools or made major reforms in the curriculum or instituted innovative instructional programs or launched new school governance models, I know that teaching experience is not nearly enough to make a great principal. Dawkins is right when he characterizes his days as a principal as being filled with “unpredictability.” I am sure they are more like his former days as a counselor, in many respects, than like a teacher’s days—meetings with upset or misbehaving students, conferences with concerned or angry parents, scheduled events being pushed aside in the face of crises that no one could have predicted the day before.

And who doesn’t agree that principals need some kind of leadership/administrative training and a year or two of assistant principalship experience? Because nothing prepares you for the wide variety of administrative and instructional and community relations and personnel and legal duties that principals face every day like being an assistant, under the watchful and mentoring eye of a great principal. Clearly, teachers do not have this experience and, perhaps with a rare exception, will need it to become highly effective principals.

So, I agree with Dawkins that facilitating learning in a classroom is not the only experience that matters. But, ideally, it is a necessary experience.

Last November, I wrote a piece called “7 Things That Make a Principal Great.” One of those seven things was this (and I stand by it still):

A great principal is a great teacher. You might think this goes without saying, but it doesn’t. I love that the principal is typically called the “head teacher” in the U.K. If a principal is not a great teacher (any grade or any subject will do), then he or she cannot supervise the teachers in the school. You cannot supervise what you cannot do. Everyone knows that—including every teacher. If a principal cannot write a great lesson, deliver a great lesson, be creative in using all of the technology available, make up an appropriate student assessment, and keep the students engaged throughout, then that principal might as well stay in the office (which we already know means that he or she is not great).

In the May issue of More magazine, Judith Stone profiled a number of “second acts”—that is, career-changers who became successful in their “second act.” All the profiles were engaging, but I particularly enjoyed the one about Aihui Ong, a former software engineer, who founded Love with Food. In the profile, Ms. Ong offered her thoughts about good leadership:

I’m the only person in the company who’s done everyone’s job. I wrote the code for the site, I pitched to brands, I built our Facebook following, I packed boxes—I tell people I have a PhD in folding boxes. Because I understand the staff’s challenges, I can set reasonable goals for them. And when there’s a problem, I’ve walked in their shoes, so I can be understanding and flexible.

Yes, she can do everyone’s job—and they know it. That’s why she can supervise them and make them better.

The real work of school goes on in the classrooms and on the field trips and in the labs and in the gyms and music rooms and art studios. And, to his credit, Mr. Dawkins knows that. He wrote:

As a principal it’s my job to provide opportunities for kids and teachers, and I try my best to open that door daily.

Exactly right.

School is about what teachers do with students to help them learn all that they can. Contrary to the way that many central offices deal with principals—in a flurry of paperwork, reporting on this and that—whatever principals do to pay attention to teachers teaching and students learning makes all the difference.

So, give us principals who are great teachers themselves—indeed, who have already done that job and done it well—who can walk into a classroom and pick up the ball where a hesitant teacher dropped it, who can bring a classroom to life with a great impromptu performance, who can model challenging discussions, who can play the game better than anyone else on the field. I have known principals just like that. Who wouldn’t want one?

AP Cannot Be the Only Definition of “Challenging”

What is wrong with everybody? I can’t believe that there has not been a response of pure shock to The Washington Post index that names “America’s most challenging high schools.” I keep re-reading the explanation of the index, because I am sure that I have missed something. The index cannot—and should not—be anyone’s definition of challenging.

AP Cannot Be the Only Definition of Challenging by Regina H Paul

This is the explanation given by index creator Jay Mathews in The Washington Post:

We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. I call this formula the Challenge Index. With a few exceptions, public schools that achieved a ratio of at least 1.00, meaning they had as many tests in 2013 as they had graduates, were put on the national list at washingtonpost.com/highschoolchallenge…. I think 1.00 is a modest standard. A school can reach that level if only half of its students take one AP, IB or AICE test in their junior year and one in their senior year.

In her Education Week College Bound blog (which I always enjoy reading), Caralee Adams covered the publication of this year’s list and reported that only 11 percent of public high schools made the list of America’s most challenging high schools. She went on to note this partial explanation for the low figure (April 20, 2015):

One reason, according to education columnist Jay Mathews who created the index, is that many schools limit access to advanced courses by requiring that students be recommended by a teacher or earn a certain grade point average to sign up.

Hey, I am all for eliminating barriers to advanced courses and to any other courses that might hold students back or push them to the side unfairly or unnecessarily. I know that happens. But I am even more about eliminating this index.

Since when is “challenging” defined solely by taking tests published by a few commercial organizations, even if they test courses that are well put together and rigorous? I can tell you about plenty of excellent high school courses that are challenging and that have nothing to do with AP, IB, or AICE. So can most high school teachers. And, this may be naïve, but I would like to believe that U.S. high schools can offer a challenging curriculum for all students, not just for those in special advanced courses. In fact, I believe that the existence of special advanced courses is sometimes used unwittingly by schools to excuse a lackluster curriculum for the rest of the students—that is, focus on the prestigious advanced courses and let the others fall where they may.

When I developed curricula for high schools in school districts around the country, I used to say to teachers, “Let’s write the best high school curriculum we can imagine—so good that we will not need AP courses. Our own courses in every grade need to be just as well thought out as AP courses. All of our students deserve a curriculum like that.”

So we would get together all of the resources we could find and do the research and hard thinking and debating that makes for great curricula. When we wrote the English and math curricula for the Early College high school I co-founded in New York City, our principal, Chris Aguirre, had the idea of bringing college professors into our curriculum planning summer sessions—to ensure that the curricula we wrote for our students would lead perfectly into college courses, like the ones our third-year students took on our college partner’s campus.

At our Early College high school, we were able to put into practice what our principal and I firmly believed: If students are smart enough and/or motivated enough, send them to college early so that they can take actual college courses for actual college credit. Make the high school curriculum good enough for all students so that it can be a strong foundation for college work—on the college campus, not in the high school. We sent students to college for two or three courses in their third year with us (usually introductory engineering and architecture courses), and we sent them to take college courses full time in their fourth year with us when they had already finished their high school requirements. How is that not a challenging high school? And yet, according to the Challenge Index, we would have gotten no credit for sending students to take college courses two years early. That kind of extraordinary story is true for Early College high schools all across the country.

While I am not particularly familiar with IB and AICE tests, I have seen AP courses and exams for decades (literally, since I took an AP English exam in high school in 1970). As I have worked in school districts across the country over many years, I have seen AP grow and grow. It has almost become synonymous with “rigorous curricula.” The College Board has done a great marketing job—to high schools and middle schools and school districts and school boards and parents and students. Oh, and to colleges, too, as admissions staff judge the high school records of freshman applicants.

I can continue to live in a world where AP courses exist. Even where high school students believe they can’t get into a top college without having taken them. Even where colleges look perhaps over-fondly on applicants that took them.

But I can’t live in a world where they are the sole definition (along with IB and AICE) of “challenging.” That makes no sense. Or did I miss something?