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Books, Blogs, and Ideas: Interview with Michael Fullan

Michael Fullan on why principals need to “get messy,” stop
micromanaging instruction, and build capacity.

As testing scandals continue to plague districts, and school leaders grapple with teacher evaluation and tenure, school closures, and the new standards, principals are increasingly under pressure. In his new book, The Principal, Michael Fullan calls for urgent change in the principal’s role and how schools are run.

Q | What do you mean when you say principals should be “lead learners” rather than instructional leaders?
A | I do believe principals should be deeply involved in instruction for their own knowledge. Having said that, the vast majority of a principal’s time shouldn’t be spent on observations and one-to-one feedback. Instead, they have to be the lead learner and develop the capacity of a group of teachers to work in collaboration. The principal influences the group, which multiplies his or her impact.

Q | You quote one principal who says, “You need to be willing to get messy.”
A | If you want a culture where the emphasis is on growth as opposed to evaluation only, there’s going to be some stumbling along the way. From day one to day two, you don't become great. The principal needs to be tolerant of the process because he or she knows it will lead to growth.

Q | Can you talk more about collaborative teams?
A | Districts like Garden Grove, a big, high-poverty system south of Los Angeles, are succeeding through mechanisms like the ILT, or instructional leadership team. The principal doesn't chair the team but is a member of it. The ILT works with TOSAs (teachers on special assignment), people identified by the district as good teacher leaders. The message is to use the group to change the group.

Q | What are the pitfalls of teacher evaluation?
A | A huge apparatus is in place to identify the five to seven percent of teachers who shouldn't be teaching. One hundred percent of teachers are involved in a superficial system in order to catch five percent. If you reverse that and say you want to catch the 95 percent in the collaborative culture, then you can do appraisal on teachers who are struggling. Many of the teachers who are not doing well will leave in a collaborative culture because it's so noticeable. Teachers want more feedback but they don't want superficial, negative feedback—they want something constructive.

Q | When you tighten the screws of accountability, people will game the system, as in Atlanta or Philadelphia. You advise principals to build capacity to achieve accountability indirectly.
| Capacity building is about how we help teachers get more effective. The more skilled a teacher is, the more committed he or she is. That's internal accountability. When you wrap around external accountability, where it's about transparency and intervention when there are big problems, you get the right equation. People can then engage external accountability quite ­effectively, rather than avoid it.

Q | What are the pluses and minuses of 1:1 technology?
A | I talk about choosing the wrong drivers—negative accountability, individualism. Technology is another wrong driver. The main strategy in most districts, if we can call it that, could be summed up in one word: acquisition. What my group has been able to do is reverse that and have pedagogy as the driver and technology as the accelerator. Schools must build up pedagogy and start using the technology incrementally. Most districts haven't moved into using technology effectively. Huntsville, Alabama, is an example of a district going from no technology to using it thoroughly.

Q | How can principals make Common Core a success?
A | You have all these good standards and assessments, but the third leg of the stool is pedagogy. If you try to implement the Core by putting a lot of pressure on everybody, pedagogy could be submerged. Principals and others should proactively use the opportunity to improve instruction, which will be the key to opening up everything.

Review: The Principal 

It's considered heretical, says Michael Fullan, to suggest that principals can be too hands-on as instructional leaders. Yet this is exactly what he asserts in his surprising (if sometimes pedantic) new book. The principal shouldn't box himself or herself in, micromanaging details, but instead be the "lead learner," the change agent of a crack educational team.

The book, with handy "action items" and discussion tips at the end of each chapter, cautions principals to go against conventional wisdom and heed the right drivers: build capacity rather than buy into popular notions of accountability; focus on pedagogy rather than tech for tech's sake; and use the power of the group, rather than the power of one, to achieve success. As recent test cheating scandals in Philadelphia and Atlanta remind us, a culture of accountability at all costs is not the best path to lasting success.


Dog-Eared Books: What's on Your Bedside Table?

"I find myself turning again and again to Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. It’s my instinct to avoid having difficult conversations and I have to work against my fight-or-flight tendencies. In Crucial Conversations, they describe a typical incident, and I think, 'Yes, that’s exactly what I would do.' Then they write, 'This is exactly what you shouldn’t do.' Whoops! But I am getting much more comfortable with these conversations, and this book has helped. A lot."
—Ben Daley, chief academic officer, High Tech High, San Diego

"The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. I first read it in the fall of 1994, internalized it, and still try to apply the concepts in the book."
—Michael Hinojosa, superintendent, Cobb County School District, Marietta, GA

"Wisdom for a Yong CEO. I got this book when I left the classroom for my first district job. It's a collection of letters written to a boy from CEOs of major companies. He asks them for leadership advice. The stuff he gets back is thoughtful, interesting, and sometimes funny, but there is always a takeaway for me when I revisit it. Another is The Technology Director's Guide to Leadership. It's full of wisdom directly related to my role." 
—Steven W. Anderson, Director of Instructional Technolog, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County (NC) Schools


Spring 2014

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