When it comes to quality education, it’s the principal of the thing,

Published in The News Tribune, April 11, 2012

Teachers matter.  That’s just common sense.  I bet most of us can reflect back on those middle and high school days when we watched the second hand, seemingly in slow motion, tick away the interminable seconds of a boring class, or those times when an effective teacher launched us into a spirited debate that spilled over into the lunch hour and maybe even our homes.

In fits and starts, policy is very slowly catching up to common sense.  Pretty much everyone now agrees that we should prioritize attracting and retaining the best teachers to public education.  We’ll need money to do this, and there’s still a lot of debate over how we can best accomplish this.  But at least we’ve agreed on the why.

We are less far along when it comes to choosing and retaining school leaders though, principals in particular.  But they matter, and just as with teachers, we should prioritize having the best principals we can get.

This is an important issue in all communities, but in Tacoma it is one also filled with sorrow.  Along with countless others in Tacoma, Gig Harbor and beyond, I’ve been mourning the loss of Bob Dahl, Lowell Elementary’s unmatchable principal over the last 15 years and an example of an excellent school leader.

For years his transparent leadership set the tone at Lowell where students learned and problems were resolved.  Behind the scenes, Bob established a culture among teachers and staff that made each kid the collective responsibility of every adult in the building.  He was one of education’s many unsung heros, and he’s missed.

The importance of good leaders is an essential topic, and Bob’s passing presents an opportune time to reflect on how important he, and others like him, are to kids.

We’re been too slow to realize that good leadership is a key to the success of public-sector organizations, a fact that is especially true in our public schools.  While now recognizing the importance of teachers, principals have largely passed under the radar.  In part this can be explained by the difficulty in proving that differences among them matter since not much evidence backs this claim up.

Most of the support for the contention that principals matter comes from inspirational stories about particularly effective ones and their impact on individual students or groups of students.   Such stories provide anecdotal evidence, much like the stories we each tell about why teachers are important.  While great, it’s not what typically moves policy because someone can counter it with another tale delivering a different message.

Fortunately, three acclaimed scholars recently undertook the difficult analytical task of measuring the importance of principals.  Their research, published just two months ago as a working paper by the highly regarded National Bureau of Economic Research, finds clear evidence that principals matter.  Gregory Branch, Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin examined six years of school data associated with 7,500 principals to assess the impact these principals had on their students.  They conclude that principals vary widely in their effectiveness, and students with the best ones learn considerable more than those without the best, a finding that is particularly strong in schools with many poor kids.

Good principals matter by ensuring that their students have the most effective teachers possible.  They matter in other ways as well, ways that are harder to measure, but likely relate to their influence over a school’s climate, morale and culture.  Unfortunately our school system doesn’t get rid of the worst principals quickly enough, nor does it permit the best ones the budgetary- and decision-making authority so that they can matter more – but that’s a separate topic for another day.

For-profit firms have long recognized that top performance depends on excellent leadership.  Perhaps now we’ll begin to appreciate the important role that leadership plays in the public sector as well.  In education, this means turning to the job of figuring out how to attract and retain the best building leaders we can.

Because as anyone in the Lowell community can tell you these days, leadership in our schools matters.