Virtually every public school in the country has someone in charge who’s called the principal. Yet principals have a strangely low profile in the passionate debates about education. The focus instead falls on just about everything else: curriculum (Common Core and standardized tests), school types (traditional versus charter versus private) and teachers (how to mold and keep good ones, how to get rid of bad ones). You hear far more talk about holding teachers accountable than about principals.
But principals can make a real difference. Overlooking them is a mistake — and fortunately, they’re starting to get more attention. The federal education law passed in 2015, to replace No Child Left Behind, puts a new emphasis on the development of principals. So have some innovative cities and states, including Denver, New Orleans and Massachusetts.
There is no better place to see the difference that principals can make than Chicago. I realize that may sound surprising, given the city’s alarming recent crime surge.
And yet: Chicago’s high school graduation rate has climbed faster than the national rate. The city’s teenagers now enroll in college at a rate only slightly below that in the rest of the country. Younger children have made big gains in reading and math, larger than in every other major city except Washington, which has a far better known success story. Chicago’s good news is not limited to the three R’s, either. Students are also spending more time studying art, music and theater.
The progress has multiple causes, including a longer school day and school year and more school choices for families. But the first thing many people talk about here is principals.
“The national debate is all screwed up,” Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, told me. “Principals create the environment. They create a culture of accountability. They create a sense of community. And none of us, nationally, ever debate principals.”
And, while we’re at it, it’s worth noting that our schools are not stagnating cesspools:
But like Chicago, the country has also made real progress. The national high school graduation rate has risen to an all-time high of 83 percent, from 75 percent a decade ago. In elementary and middle school, math and reading scores are higher than a decade ago.
Why? Educators have learned a lot over the last couple of decades about what works. Teaching quality matters tremendously. So do empowered principals, held accountable for their schools’ performance. Students need many hours of instructional time — as well as extracurriculars. And parents and students alike should not be trapped in a monopoly: They should have the ability to switch to a different public school if their local one isn’t a good fit.
There is no great mystery to what students need. As Emanuel said, the goal is to create the kind of support and options that upper-middle-class parents all over the country give to their own children. When that happens, it’s the single best strategy for fighting economic inequality.
I’d suggest Leonhardt puts a little much emphasis on choice, relative to these other facts. Many top-performing school systems achieve that without a lot of school choice. For them, there simply are no failing schools that students are “trapped” in. That needs to be our goal.