Alternatives to Principal-Led Schools

What would a school look like without a principal?  For some of us, this is difficult to imagine because we’ve never seen such a structure before.  And yet, it is happening throughout the United States and the world.  These models take many shapes, but here are a few of them.

Teacher-led Schools – Imagine a school where teachers don’t simply have influence, but they are in charge of most to all the decisions about how the school functions. There is usually still a board (at least in the US), but pretty much all the site-based decisions reside with the teachers themselves.  Administrators or district leaders don’t select, design and/or carry out the curriculum.  The teachers do it. The same goes for many of the school policies about conduct, grading/assessment models, teaching strategies, etc. While teacher-led schools take on many forms, in some of these schools, the teachers even make decisions about hiring, evaluating one another, managing the budget, and terminating one another.

Parent-led – How about a school where the parents collectively make key decisions in the school? This is happening is the UK.  In fact, it may well be the teachers who create the school in the first place.  In other instances, as in the case of homeschooling, parents create cooperatives where children gather and parents take the lead for the learning experiences.  In still other instances, parents are creating cooperatives to extend, shape, or supplement the learning experiences at virtual schools through local cooperatives…sometimes coming close to being a school within a school.

Student-led or Student & Teacher-led – Probably one of the more widely known expressions of this comes from the Sudbury schools, where students select the curriculum, learning, establish polices, lead groups that address conduct, etc.  In some, teachers also have a vote, but it is an equal one to the students.  More broadly, this student-led focus is present in a variety of democratic schools around the world, with varying forms and levels at which students are responsible for the decision-making.

One Reply to “Alternatives to Principal-Led Schools”

  1. Doug Harrell

    I am delighted to finally see this idea in print! I wonder your thoughts on the history of this type of school, and would love to hear of any misconceptions I may have on the subject.

    My understanding is that ‘Principal’ is merely short for ‘Principal Teacher’. In other words, they are the most senior teacher at the school, who has been designated as the ‘buck stops here’ person who speaks for the school, when a spokesperson is required. Also, with some measure of authority when a decision must be made without consulting the faculty, for instance on discipline. After all, the principal must, in fact, be a credentialed teacher before they can be a principal at all. It seems to me the idea grew out of necessity, as schools grew to a large enough size where there were many teachers and classrooms, and a spokesman was needed, and eventually there were more administrative tasks than could be handled by a classroom teacher, so it evolved into a full-time job.

    For instance, my grandmother was the ‘Principal’ of a two-room school house in the 1930’s, where the other teacher was a high school graduate who taught the lower grades, while she taught the upper grades, and ran the school. Administrative duties were minimal, and done when time was available, whether while students worked quietly, or outside class time. She naturally spoke for the school, and had final say on matters of discipline. She answered only to the superintendent. I would guess that you could run a school this way with several more teachers, and would have to get to 10 or 12 before a principal in the manner we now think of would even be necessary.

    My impression of the schools I attended growing up in the ’70’s and ’80s, as well as my early days of teaching in a rural school in the early 2000’s, was that the faculty set the tone, the policies, and the procedures for the school. Admittedly, a lot of things were taken for granted. Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic were required courses, and perhaps history and science, but all else was elective. Why would an ‘administrator’ who knows nothing about mathematics passed College Algebra presume to dictate to the Calculus teacher what they should be teaching? The faculty would determine what the course of study should be, and the principal’s job was discipline enforcement and administrative support.

    Also, while I’ve never been a member of a college faculty, I always had the impression that the collective faculty was also highly influential in all that happened on campus, from degree programs offered, to the policies and such. All major decisions went before the faculty.

    Now, schools have become top-down kingdoms, where the administrators (attempt) to rule with an iron fist, and try to implement “improvements” that they think will improve things, but mainly make more work for teachers, preventing them from focusing on the students’ learning. Teachers are treated as wayward children, themselves, rather than as professionals. Worse, politicians and bureaucrats try to do the same, from an even further removed vantage point.

    How is this supposed to succeed?

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