Sunday, May 4, 2014

21st Century Book Review: Michael Fullan's 'The Principal: 3 Keys to Maximizing Impact'

"Facing the unpredictable principals must be able to handle a good deal of ambiguity while displaying strong lead learner qualities." Michael Fullan, The Principal: 3 Keys to Maximizing Impact
After over a decade, policies relying on high stakes testing as a means to drive more effective teaching specifically and a better education generally have become embedded in public education.  Fullan (2014)  says we have gotten it all wrong. In his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Fullan points out that these federal initiatives have failed to bring about extensive instructional change because they use the wrong policy drivers to try to change education. In other words, we simply aren’t getting the kinds of change we want in education because we are focusing on the wrong things to make that change happen. What should we be doing to maximize impact on schools? According to Fullan, we need to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader so that it maximizes the learning of all teachers and in turn all students” (p. 6). To do this, Fullan indicates we need to focus on three key aspects of the principal’s role: 1) Leading Learning, 2) Being a District and Team Player, and 3) Becoming a Change Agent.

Beginning in “Chapter One Outmoded,” Fullan describes both the current problem in education, and he introduces the idea of reconceptualizing the role of principal. According to Fullan, the current problem in education is that the “conditions for mutual learning have been seriously eroding” (p. 5).  Students are increasingly bored and disengaged from schooling, as indicated by the fact that “schooling alienates two-thirds of kindergarten students by the time they reach ninth grade” (p. 5). Teacher satisfaction in their work continues to decline (p. 5).  Even the job satisfaction of principals, who see their jobs as being too complex and too stressful, has been dropping since 2008 from 68% to 59% (p. 5). According to Fullan, this problem in education is due to an improper conceptualization of the role of the principal that is confusing and actually inhibits the professional learning of teachers and in turn the learning of students (p. 6).

In chapter two of the book, Fullan focuses on what he terms the “Four Wrong Choices for Driving Policy.” The four “Wrong Choices for Driving Policy” are: accountability, individualistic solutions, technology, and fragmented strategies” (p. 22). Each of these choices, according to Fullan, is more a part of the problem, than a solution.  For example, one of these wrong policy drivers includes current accountability strategies, which involve the belief that by tightening accountability through standards, standardized testing, and tying performance to test scores, student performance will improve. The problem with this approach to forcing educational change, according to Fullan, is that it assumes professional capacity is already there, which is not always the case (p. 27). Teachers and principals may lack the expertise to bring about learning gains with the students they have or the environment in which they’re teaching. According to Fullan, Principals in schools driven by these accountability policies are forced to simply “get better at a bad game” where you do what you can “to please the higher-ups in order to protect your staff and yourself” (p. 28). Fullan takes readers through each of these “wrong drivers” and explains exactly how that are negatively impacting education and actually keeping educators from getting the results they seek and preventing principals from leading schools the way they should.

If these “wrong drivers” of policy aren’t working, what exactly is Fullan’s solution? In Chapter Three, he begins describing what he calls the “The First Key for Maximixing Impact” which is the first of his three solutions for principals. The first key is “Leading Learning.”  In a nutshell, Fullan describes how principals can focus on building the professional capacity of the whole teaching staff rather than focusing on individual teachers. As he points out, principals should spend their time developing the group, not focusing on individual teachers because that is where the greatest learning gains for all will occur. Principals need to lead the professional learning of the teachers in a school as a group. They do this by leading “the school’s teachers learning how to improve their teaching while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t” (p. 55). According to Fullan, Principals should focus on capacity, climate, community, and instruction to maximize the learning in the school.

In chapter four, Fullan describes his second key for maximizing impact which is “Being a District and System Player.” He describes how principals need to do such things as “looking without to improve,” “foster intradistrict development,” “create district coherence,” and “reaching out beyond the district for expertise” (p. 97).  When “looking without to improve,” principals need to foster network connections outside the school but within the district to access new ideas and practices. When “fostering intradistrict development,” principals need to connect teachers in order to exchange ideas across the district. When “creating district coherence,” principals work together under the guidance of the whole district to improve all the schools. Finally, when “reaching out beyond the district for expertise,” principals connect to external sources, outside the district, for innovative ideas. In each of these instances, Fullan suggests that principals can maximize their impact on their schools by engaging the system in building professional capacity of teachers.

In chapter five, Fullan describes his third and final key for principals to maximize impact on their schools. This key is “Becoming a Change Agent” (p. 123).  Fullan argues that principals must focus on building their own professional capacity of becoming a change agent by fostering seven professional capacities for making change happen, which he describes in detail. For example, capacity one is “Challenging the Status Quo” which involves such things as questioning common practices, taking risks, exploring innovations, and avoiding letting the rules slow down the action” (p. 129). Fullan argues that principals need to foster their own capacity of challenging the status quo in their efforts to become a change agent. The rest of chapter five is devoted to describing these professional capacities for becoming a change agent in order to maximize impact on schools.

Fullan’s final chapter offers a glimpse of what the future holds for principals as they face the unpredictable world of ambiguity that education has become. He offers some parting advice for principals on how to maximize their impact on schools by focusing on the digital revolution and what it’s doing to schools and the Common Core Standards and how they affecte the role of principals who want to have the greatest impact on their schools.

Fullan’s book The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact offers principals and district administrators a full view of how current education policy is failing to bring about the results desired, and he offers a research-based approach using three key strategies to maximize impact. Each of the strategies taps into current educational leadership research and provides school leaders a “practical guide” to implement change. Fullan’s book powerfully provokes thought for school leaders on how the principal can best impact learning in her school.

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