Having completed his examination of the learning task (by looking at teaching, curriculum, and assessment), Ken Robinson turns his attention to what is essentially a meta-educational topic: administrators. That designation (mine, not his) is not intended to suggest that administration is not critical to achieving the educational objectives of a school; Robinson argues just the opposite. But administrators have a very different role, one that needs, in Robinson’s opinion, to be disentangled from the managerial norms of the industrial model. For Robinson, a good principal and a good administrator more broadly is one who equips and empowers schools to succeed in all three areas of the learning task. He phrases it like this:
In schools, great principals know that their job is not primarily to improve test results; it is to build community among the students, teachers, parents, and staff, who need to share a common set of purposes.
That community building purpose resonates strongly with my experience speaking with both principals and teachers. Principals have expressed frustration to me with how little of their day can be given to tasks that have a clear and meaningful educational purpose. District meetings and the attendant paperwork consume the lion’s share of their time. When they see teachers, it is not to build to communities but to conduct performance reviews (one of the few places where I think Robinson’s industrial metaphor holds up well). When they see parents, it is not to discuss a common set of purposes but to defuse conflicts and enforce discipline. This lack of community–this prioritizing of supervision over guidance–is a common theme for teachers I speak to as well, for whom a good principal is one who sees them people and can compartmentalize administrative and non-administrative personas.
How then does Robinson imagine fixing this problem? He singles out two tasks that principals should focus on. The first is creating room for and then provoking change. With uncharacteristic theoretical soundness, Robinson correctly asserts that “culture is about permission.” It is about what your group says is okay to do and who gets to make that determination. The principal should be the source of this permission, and Robinson argues the convincing position (even if he doesn’t argue it convincingly) that greater permission means greater innovation.
This includes, most importantly, permission to fail. More than anything, this is what is lacking in schools. The stakes are so high and the measure of success so narrowly defined, that the risk of failure outweigh the rewards of success when it comes to educational experimentation. A teacher who tries a new classroom management technique, a new classroom design, a new instructional approach may reap significant rewards in student growth or achievement; more likely, the gains will be small or imperceptible. Meanwhile, that teacher risks position and career in an environment that has no room for error and no forgiveness for non-renewal. Changing the culture of permission is rightly placed at the feet of principals, even if Robinson acknowledges that “challenging those conventions can be sensitive work.”
The second area of activity for principals is “beyond the gates,” as ambassadors tot he community at large. Schools, like other organizations, need a face, a public persona that can interact with the world at large in a coherent, digestible way. The principal takes the vision of the school out into world and sells it to the district, to the parents, and to the community. They then return with the demands, expectations, and shifting conditions in society in order to keep the school an adaptive and responsive institution. Doing this, however, requires principals to know their schools (beyond teacher evaluations) and to know their districts (beyond administrative meetings).
The problem with this, and with Robinson’s rosy vision of principal led change in general, is that principals are not at the top of the food chain. They are answerable to a higher authority–superintendents and school boards typically. While most principals that I know are former educators themselves and still deeply steeped in a worldview not wholly alien to their teachers, most superintendents and school boards are political rather than instructional animals for whom the perspective of a classroom teacher might as well be extraterrestrial. They, not to mention state boards and national cabinet departments, tightly constrain the degree to which principals can shift the lines of permission or spur adaptation to changing conditions on the exterior.
Admittedly, that is part of the problem that Robinson has identified with the standards movement and its top down model of control and reform. Moreover, the limited “do what you can where you can” approach can and should apply to principals as well. But it is precisely this limited call to action that makes the changes in question less than revolutionary. As Robinson admits, “I know many great schools that practice most, if not all, of the principles discussed so far.” So do I, and my experience with teachers and principals is that those that don’t cannot rather than will not change. They agree with the critique; they agree with the solution; they just do not have the space to act on it. In other words, short an actual storm the Bastille style revolution–in which the people divorced from the learning environment but not from seats of power–are brought to heel, Robinson is just preaching to a choir that has already exhausted its hallelujahs.