Is principal autonomy overrated? Report makes case for better instructional leadership from district

iStock_000021923625XSmallMany principals naturally would like to get fewer marching orders from the central office. Recent research has made a case for principal autonomy and provided evidence of the benefits of more decentralized decision-making in making school improvements.

But a recent report by the Southern Regional Education Board says that what’s needed to improve high schools is not for central offices to leave principals alone but for district administrators to provide better instructional leadership and support.

Beyond oversight

District administrators need to provide the same kind of instructional support and leadership to principals as principals are expected to provide to teachers, the report says.

The problem with top-down directives from district offices is that those directives frequently don’t provide enough guidance on how to achieve goals and often are not part of a cohesive and comprehensive vision or strategy, the report says.

“This report does not urge school districts to abandon their oversight of schools.  Rather, district leaders must support a comprehensive framework for school-level improvement and implementation. Central office staff must reach agreement with principals about the improvement design and then expect schools to implement it.”

“The district leadership challenge is to move from oversight, from holding principals accountable at arms length, to providing the capacity-building support that true district-school partnerships require.  The research is clear and overwhelming. If school districts want high-achieving high schools, they must empower principals to be leaders of change.”

Principals from 22 high schools in 17 states were interviewed about their working conditions and their relationships with district staff as they implemented the High Schools That Work program.  High Schools That Work is a school improvement initiative for high school leaders and teachers being used in more than 1,200 districts in 30 states.  The 22 principals were selected from SREB lists of the 100 most-improved and the 100 least-improved schools.

In the least-improved schools, most reform initiatives were centralized in the district office and there was little evidence that the district was building the capacity of school leaders to participate in reform, the report concluded. In the most-improved schools, principals and district administrators appeared to have a more collaborative working relationship. Principals gave a much more detailed description of district staff’s responsibilities and their support for improving student achievement, the report says.

 A collaborative lattice approach

“The best districts demonstrate evidence of a collaborative ‘lattice’ approach between the school and central office,” according to the SREB report.  “With the right principals in place, districts are providing the necessary support for them to lead their schools to success. When districts allow principals to focus on school improvement, principals can help their teachers to do the same.”

In this study,  principals in the most-improved schools were more likely to report frequent visits from district staff than principals in the least-improved schools.  Principals in the most-improved schools also were more likely to describe visitors from the central office as being focused on instructional issues than principals in the least-improved schools.

Districts’ goals and expectations were often related to meeting Adequate Yearly Progress, improving state test scores and meeting minimum targets rather than increasing achievement to grade-level standards, according to interviews with principals. Principals seemed to be left with vague understandings of expectations and little direction on how pressing problems could be addressed.

One principal said: “When I was hired for this position, I was informed by the assistant superintendent of schools that my job was to raise student achievement. When I asked how I was to do that, the answer was ‘I don’t know, just do it.'”

Goals for improvement often did not convey to principals an urgent need to deeply examine all aspects of the school–scheduling, climate and culture, student motivation, instructional practices, use of resources, etc, the report says.

The report made several recommendations to help districts reorganize to support each of their schools:

  • Redefine the roles and responsibilities of district staff to emphasize working collaboratively with principals and teachers to meet district goals
  • Give principals authority commensurate with their responsibilities, especially with regard to making personnel decisions
  • Provide specialized training and coaching to build district staff capacity to support schools in creating a relevant and challenging learning environment
  • Provide orientation to principals and teachers on the district’s role in school improvement and solicit their input on the most-needed support
  • Hold district staff accountable for work that helps schools achieve specific goals for improvement and provide incentives for performance of this work


“The District Leadership Challenge: Empowering Principals to Improve Teaching and Learning,”  Southern Regional Education Board, 2009.

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