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Good governance comes as Executive Principals

Think of a leader, any leader. I will bet that very few people would first think of a principal.

It is most likely that people would picture a political figure, maybe a historical one like Sir Winston Churchill.

But principals are important leaders too; they play a key role in influencing student outcomes.

This is why National proposes to sink $359 million into ‘Executive’ and ‘Change’ principals, as well as ‘Lead’ and ‘Expert’ teachers.

Executive Principals will work with other schools in their community, establishing goals and working towards achieving them.

Change Principals will seek to raise achievement in schools that have a history of low student achievement.

So how do principals influence student outcomes? Following from this, what is important for the success of the Government’s initiative?

Effective teaching

Perhaps we already know that effective teaching is the greatest within-school factor on student outcomes. I would have nodded off in mathematics class if I could have got away with it, but a Welshman changed my life with his history teaching.

I had average mathematics results and developed a passion for history.

The research evidence bears out this anecdote: What happens in the classroom has the greatest within-school influence on student outcomes.

For their part, principals and other school leaders create the conditions necessary for great teaching.

Important factor

A number of researchers therefore consider leadership as the second most significant contributor to total school effects on students. In particular, principals influence a school’s goals, vision, systems, teachers’ professional development, resources and culture, all that shape what happens in the classroom. The leadership effect on student outcomes is hence indirect.

Put another way, what leaders do directly impacts classroom conditions, which in turn directly impact student outcomes.

Executive principals and Change Principals will potentially improve student outcomes in this way. But research suggests that they must concentrate on particular practices.

Effective practices

A meta-analysis produced by academics at the University of Auckland finds that the most effective practices on student outcomes are promoting and participating in teacher learning and development, and planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum.

Experienced Canadian researcher Kenneth Leithwood suggested in a recent article that the practice of ‘building collaborative structures has the greatest impact on student outcomes. ‘

However, he concluded that a variety of leadership practices is more likely to lead to school improvement than a narrow set.

Every practice should build upon and reinforce others.

In addition to building collaborative structures, other important practices are setting vision and goals, having high expectations and providing individualised support to teachers.

It seems that Executive and Change Principals will have to be across many, if not all, of these practices to improve their chances of success.

This is a tough ask.

Trust vital

It is even tougher when we consider that the critical factor, which undergirds all leadership practices, is trust.

Trust is indispensable. It is the glue that holds a team together and enables members’ cooperation toward the achievement of common goals.

The Government seems to be aware of this, for the emphasis of its policy is on cooperation rather than competition. This tenor is surely promising for, and crucial to, the success of Executive and Change Principals.

But danger remains. The policy could fail at the grassroots; principals may encounter micro-politics within individual schools and struggle to negotiate these.
Executive principals are employed in their role for only two days a week. Will this be enough to create and maintain trust? Change Principals will have to forge ‘guiding coalitions’ in new schools in short order.

They must be acutely aware of social and cultural contexts.

Success appears to hinge, then, on the new principals’ grasp of what leadership practices to adopt and their ability to develop trust.

Exceptional people

They must be exceptional people indeed, and much hangs on the appointment process. It will be interesting to see who is appointed and by which criteria they are evaluated.

Yet, even the appointment of exceptional people might not be enough. Leadership is a two-way street. It entails the cooperation of all actors galvanised toward the achievement of goals. Success will therefore require both capable Executive and Change principals and willing collaborators.
In any case, National’s policy follows evidence: it puts money into the two factors within schools that best foster student achievement – teaching and leadership.

National seems to be aware of the value of trust by emphasising the importance of cooperation. So long as capable leaders emerge from the appointment process, the Government would have done its part.

The rest is up to the schools.

Dr Luke Fenwick is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland, with whose permission the above article has been reproduced. Dr Fenwick is currently doing research on Effective School Leadership, the results of which will be published later in the year.

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