Principals ‘too distracted’ to make sustained change

by Brett Henebery12 Nov 2015

Improving your school’s profitability, design and technologies are all worthwhile priorities…until they come at the expense of teaching and learning.
That is one of the findings of Professor David Lynch from the Southern Cross University who recently published ground-breaking research into school performance.
What he and his team found over the course of the five year study was that many principals were too distracted by concerns such as “knocking down classroom walls” and making their schools more profitable rather than improving learning outcomes.
“When we set out to do this project we had three pilot schools. We very quickly dumped the other two schools because their principals were simply not committed and lacked the critical understanding of what we were doing,” Lynch told The Educator.
He added that focusing on short-term fads was a broader problem that school leaders need to address.
“Many principals are too focused away from the core business of teaching. They [principals] are absolutely critical for starting this project and sustaining it,” Lynch said, adding that having greater autonomy over decision making was “critical”.
Lynch said without the flexibility to make a full range of decisions that impact on teaching and learning, many principals were in an administrative rut. He described how one “quasi-independent” Catholic school early on in the pilot program was held back by its lack of autonomy.
“The principal of this particular school was a determined and resilient character. He was also PhD trained and had a great insight into what did and didn’t work, which made our task easier,” Lynch said.
“However, this principal had no end of trouble with the system. If he had the autonomy he was looking for at the time, it would have made this pilot project a lot easier.
“At this particular school it took us until the third year before we were able to see any changes. The reason for this was that the principal was dealing with issues around a lack of autonomy,” he said.
While such challenges persist, the data gained from the pilot study has inspired Lynch and his team to scale up the project, though he admitted this would take time.
As a result of his team’s research, Lynch is now challenging principals to be instructional leaders, ensuring schools have an efficient data regime and encouraging teachers to work in groups, explained Lynch.
He added that before embarking on costly initiatives, principals must ensure that the research behind them is solid.
“One particular principal spent a lot of money knocking down all the classroom walls at his school. We told him we couldn’t find any research saying knocking down walls added to student improvement but he swore it was a key ingredient.”
Lynch said that while open classrooms enable teachers to informally observe each other and provide feedback, he felt they were “yet another distraction” to effective teaching and learning.
“What it all comes down to is this: when we look at reforming schools and teachers, it’s not just piecemeal. That’s why we started avoiding fads. What we’re doing is a whole of school approach,” he said.