Alternatives to the Principal-Led School

When we look at promising possibilities or we are working through existing or impending challenges in education, it is easy to get inhibited by assuming that the dominant models in education are essential. This gets intensified when policies are created on varies levels that rely on certain assumed models. One area where this is especially prevalent is in the way that we define the roles of staff. While this applies to how we think about the role of K-12 teacher or University professor, I will use the example of principle to illustrate this point. Consider that we looked at the data and found that we have an impending shortage of principlals for our schools in the near future. One potential solution is to create a campaign to recruit more principals. Yet, this might also be a chance to reconsider the idea of a principal-led school.

What is the role of a principal? While there are certain rather common standards associated with state licensure to become a school principal, the role of principal can vary from one school to the next. In some school, supervision of instruction is a large part of the job, but in other schools, there are additional people who are in charge of that. In many schools, the principal helps shape the vision of the school, strives to influence the culture in certain ways, manages people, deals with legal and compliance issues, and much more. Yet again, these roles vary from one context to another. In fact, as I was writing this article, I browsed several principal job descriptions. They had plenty of difference. Given this reality, what is the core responsibility of a school principal? Is it possible that these responsibilities could be effectively met in different ways?

Yet again, these roles vary from one context to another. In fact, as I was writing this article, I browsed several principal job descriptions. They had plenty of difference. Given this reality, what is the core responsibility of a school principal? Is it possible that these responsibilities could be effectively met in different ways? Consider four alternatives at work in various schools around the world.

Teacher-Led

There are schools where teachers share the responsibilities associated with that of principal in many schools. If you happen to visit such schools, you might be surprised to find that it can work quite well. They often need to outsource or hire people to help with certain administrative tasks (like financial or legal issues), but that is often the case even when a principal is leading a school.

Parent-Led

Then there is the movement in certain parts of the world toward what some refer to as parent-led schools. The parents themselves manage the responsibilities that we often associate with the principal, quite often forming some sort of council and constitution to guide their actions and decisions.

Student-Led

This is even more extreme for many readers, but we also have examples of student-led schools. There are still adults involved in these schools, but the idea is that the students collectively establish rules, enforce them, take ownership for shaping a positive culture, have significant input on curriculum, and much more. The students themselves do a great deal of what we might see as the role of teachers and the principal in many other schools. As with all things, you can find examples of this that don’t seem to be working well, but there are others where people are very satisfied with the result.

Distributed Leadership Models

There are other schools that create a list of all the responsibilities that we might typically think of as belonging to the principal, but then these are distributed among many roles. There might be multiple staff members, teachers, parents, community members, students, outsourced work, and even strategic partners who collectively fulfill the necessary administrative tasks. A guiding document, a sort of constitution, serves as a source of accountability as with many teacher-led, parent-led and student-led schools.

Any of these and other models can and do work. Principal-led schools are just one of many possibilities. Yet, how many of us limit our sense of the possibilities to what we know? What new opportunities might we be able to surface if we were willing to reconsider how roles and responsibilities in learning organizations are distributed?