School leadership is business leadership

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There is an important business located near where you work and live. It is performing a valuable service that is crucial to your community’s future. It is preparing the future employees you will eventually hire and groom into the members of your leadership team. It is assuring that the family interests of your current employees are well tended. That business is your local elementary, middle, or high school; a business piloted by an important managerial leader—a principal.

Local school districts are among the largest businesses in the region with four public school districts in the tri-county area that have a combined income of more than $1 billion annually. We rely on school boards and school superintendents to handle these funds wisely, but the real work of the schools takes place in local school buildings where committed teachers are led by principals. Principals do much more than manage their budgets, coordinate school schedules, and evaluate teachers. They are major players in assuring the success of children. And that work is definitely challenging—even for the most experienced of leaders.

Only 33 percent of third graders and 28 percent of eighth graders in South Carolina scored at the proficient or higher level in reading on the National Assessment of Educational progress exams from 2015. Although eighth grade data have been flat, third grade scores are trending up. In fact, South Carolina was one of only 13 states showing an increase in third grade reading scores last year. Many things may account for this increase, such as improved curriculum and quality of teaching, but it is likely that school leaders deserve at least part of the credit. Nevertheless, schools in the state still have a way to go, and test scores are only one measure of quality. The ultimate measure of success is seeing high school graduates become engaged citizens within their community.

Indeed, principals must work effectively with families, community leaders, businesses, and other stakeholders to assure that our children and youth are prepared for college and careers. In a 2010 study published by the Wallace Foundation, researchers concluded that among a range of school-related factors, principal leadership was second only to teacher instructional quality in determining student success in learning. Several key studies by this same research team and others have established a set of principal characteristics consistently linked with student learning. Specifically, the research findings show us that good principals do the following:

  • Communicate a clear sense of mission focused on high expectations for all students. They understand educational standards and have a commitment to each student reaching his or her maximum potential.
  • Foster safe and caring learning environments. They arrange for an effective physical environment and build a supportive climate in which students feel safe to grow and learn.
  • Hold and communicate clearly a set of ambitious expectations for the performance of each student in the building. They understand the importance of effective instruction and can target resources to address the most important needs.
  • Effectively use data for improvement of teaching and learning. They know how to assess and monitor student progress and can assist teachers in planning individualized intervention plans for each student.
  • Build a distributed leadership team in which teachers, school counselors, paraprofessionals, parents, and others work effectively together to promote student learning. They cultivate leadership and creative talents in others.

A new set of principal standards developed by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration, focuses on these and other important characteristics, including expectations that principals optimize human potential and operate their schools so as to promote equity and intercultural understanding. Programs for preparing school leaders, such as the excellent master’s and specialist degree programs at The Citadel, are embracing these new standards. We understand that preparing the next generation of school leaders is among the most important work we do in our institutions of higher learning. In short, principals must demonstrate the wide range of people and organizational skills expected of leaders in any business environment. They must understand their primary mission—developing human capital—and build an environment in which all involved are focused on that mission.

Without a doubt, school principals are an important link in the business chain of success in South Carolina. Principals are frontline leaders in making a difference in the academic success of children. It is often said that the function of business leadership is to create wealth. Seeing school principals as business leaders means seeing them as wealth generators. Human capital is business capital, and young people who are well-educated and emotionally and socially competent are among a community’s most valuable assets.

Larry Daniel, Ph.D., is the dean of the Zucker Family School of Education at The Citadel. Developing partnerships between The Citadel and K-12 schools in South Carolina and nearby states to identify and prepare future principals is one of his primary endeavors. He has focused on building excellence in faculty and academic programs for the majority of his 33 year career, and has taught students from middle school through advanced graduate levels.

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