Friday, March 7, 2014

Shouldn’t Principals Speak for Their Schools? A New Approach

A reporter wants to know what has led to big gains in reading scores at an elementary school. Why funds for a choir program have been redirected to math interventions at a middle school. Why a high school’s parking lot isn’t plowed. Who should answer these questions?

Traditionally, it’s the district—but let’s rethink that. Districts believe they can best avoid controversy by controlling all messages, but then they put themselves in the position of having to please everyone and defend every decision. Pushing communication to the school level actually insulates a central office from the politics of reform by making it clear that school leaders are the ones making decisions.

This idea was a central topic at CRPE’s recent Portfolio School District Network meeting in Houston, where Paul Hill told attendees that in districts truly committed to the portfolio strategy, principals should be the point people on engagement and communication. The autonomy that portfolio principals gain—to make spending, staffing, calendar and curriculum decisions—should come with the responsibility and pride to be the voice for their schools and to explain their decisions.

This isn’t how districts typically operate. Principals tend to cede messaging to the central office, because district rules obligate them to or because the decisions weren’t made at the school level anyway. For example, when complaints arise about centrally made financial decisions (for example, across-the-board layoffs of counselors or nurses), it makes sense for the district to take the heat from parents and the media.

But when decisions are decentralized to the school level, as is the case with student-based allocations, principals can make more nuanced decisions and are better equipped to explain the tradeoffs. Principals are likely to understand that parents aren’t a homogenous group with identical priorities. Principals also tend to be better known and more trusted in the community than are central office officials. And it’s not always about bad news. When schools see academic success or launch innovative programs, principals should be the ones to talk about what’s led those changes and what it means for families.

Central offices that move communications out to schools set themselves up to no longer be the targets of critiques that reforms aren’t working. Of course, the risk is that they may seem to be abdicating responsibility, so this strategy has to be managed carefully, and district leaders need to help principals, parents, and media transition to the new expectation. (Some districts already do this. The Tennessee Achievement School District’s policy is clearly laid out here.) It also requires a culture shift: Traditionally, said Hill, districts’ communications goals have been to disseminate only the “good” stories and maintain a certain level of support and acceptance. With a portfolio strategy, districts are meant to share both good and bad news, to explain what’s working and what’s not.

When principals are the ones making decisions, it only makes sense that they are the ones communicating about them to families. Spring Branch ISD Superintendent Duncan Klussmann, who was attending the meeting, agreed, emphasizing that principals need to be the ones forming meaningful connections with the community they serve: “It’s those relationships that are more important than anything.”

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