For years, education experts have been critical of the amount of time that principals spend on menial administrative tasks. Principals have better things to do than spend their days worrying about when buses are arriving, trying to repair dilapidated bathrooms, or making sure forms are filled out properly.
Instead, the argument goes, principals should be focused on their role as "instructional leader." They should be spending most of their time managing curriculum, monitoring lesson plans, and evaluating and mentoring teachers.
While I think there is universal acceptance that principals' days should not be consumed by broken toilets, a decade-long study by University of Pittsburgh Professor Carrie R. Leana, finds that contrary to conventional wisdom, "instructional leader" is not the most effective area in which principals should focus their energy. Rather, the study finds, principals should spend more of their time collaborating with people and organizations outside the school.
"When principals spent more time building external social capital, the quality of instruction in the school was higher and students' scores on standardized tests in both reading and math were higher," says Professor Leana in an article about the study in The Stanford Social Innovation Review . Conversely, principals spending more of their time mentoring and monitoring teachers had no effect on teacher social capital or student achievement.
As the leader of an organization that focuses on building relationships between school principals and business leaders, obviously this is music to my ears. However, it isn't surprising.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending the New York Post's Liberty Medal Award ceremony as Sana Nasser, Principal of Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, received the medal in education. Nasser transformed her 3,000-student school by creating small, specialized learning academies. She told the Post it was the external relationships she built that enabled her to develop the structure and bring in the outside expertise she needed to create the small learning communities that dramatically improved her school.
Nasser's relationships began with Charles Bendit of Taconic Investment Partners, who provided her with crucial management coaching that enabled her to begin delegating and empowering others at her school. Charles then connected her to Paul Neuman, the owner of a catering company who helped her open a fully operating kitchen and helped her design a real-world cooking curriculum certified by the Culinary Institute of America. Next, they connected with the general manager of a television station, who arranged for the school's television studio to be renovated so that a journalism curriculum could be started. Ultimately, Bendit and Nasser formed a business advisory committee for the school, and the results of their efforts are indisputable. The graduation rate at Truman has increased by 10 percentage points, and the percentage of students who are "on track" for graduation is 20% higher -- and attendance 10% higher -- among students in the small academies than for those in the general education curriculum.
On the other side of the Bronx, Linda Rosenbury had just become the principal of Junior High School 22 and was struggling to figure out how to inspire her students to do their homework every day. Enter Steve Altman, an attorney who helped her create "HOMEWORK MATTERS!" Students participating in the program commit to doing their homework every night and, if they do, they are invited to attend a monthly pizza luncheon. Each luncheon features a prominent guest speaker, from music executives to not-for-profit leaders. The program has grown from three pilot classes to nine classes, as more and more students -- and teachers -- want this opportunity to connect with the outside world.
And over the past five years, CA Technologies has worked with two schools in New York City. Their work has helped students to develop crucial technology, cultural literacy, and other Twenty-First Century skills needed to compete in today's workforce. They've introduced robotics programs, brought smart boards into the classroom, and created a unique electronic pen pal program that connects students in one school with peers at the CA-HOPE School in Hyderabad, India. The result: greater student engagement, higher school standards for innovation, and new educational opportunities for teachers.
These examples (and hundreds more just like them) are different in many ways, but they all bring to life the finding that external relationships can significantly move the needle in student achievement. However, they also illustrate another important point that we at PENCIL have been espousing for years.
To be effective and truly affect positive change in student achievement, external relationships must be created with purpose. When creating a relationship, it is crucial to think about what the school needs and how an external partner can help achieve that goal. Altman, for example, doesn't throw pizza parties for the entire student body because it would be a fun thing to do -- he does it to incentivize students to do homework because Rosenbury believes strongly that her students will not succeed if they don't do their homework. Similarly, many of the other partners we work with don't help arrange random field trips for students because it would be a "nice change of pace." Rather, they develop thoughtful "awareness" programs that open students' eyes to new opportunities, provide exposure and experience in the "real world," and bring to life the value of education -- and, ideally, the joy of learning. Moreover, by enabling school leaders to forge meaningful, long-term external relationships that target specific school needs, principals are effectively strengthening the instructional leadership of their schools.
The solutions to the problems confronting our nation's education system are complex, and no one person or organization has all of the answers. Likewise, the challenges confronting each school are complex, and no single principal has all of the answers. But, if principals reach out into their community, they will find that many solutions are waiting just outside their doors -- in the form of talented, motivated, compassionate professionals eager to be invited in to help.
Follow Michael Haberman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pencilprez