What’s wrong with that Principal?




Contrary to the wisdom of common practice, here I am, leading with a negative. To be fair, there is already enough written about how significant, important and necessary principals are, how much good they can do for the school community: but those articles are mostly aspirational, except in the rare award winning cases, the cases when awards are given by long standing professional organizations with high credibility factors and not private foundations. Most principals fall far short because, in reality, it is frequently an impossible job, so it should be no surprise to hear the question, “What’s wrong with that principal?” Maybe it really should be “What is wrong with the principal’s job?”


Personally, I would not want to be a public school principal (I’m happiest in the library). I think it is a rotten job. That’s mostly because there are far too many opportunities for failure. Which means of course that there are far too many failures, which is why the hierarchy above the principal is the zone of real control. The hierarchy is willing to smooth the edges of failure as long as the principal remains compliant. To the school community they are the deciders but to the hierarchy they are nothing but place holders. And candidates for moving up the ranks, if they have that certain something.

Most principals are easily sucked into the allure of corporate riches and are susceptible to soft corruption.

They dress for success. When I say that, I am specifically saying success in the corporate world. In any school community the principal is the front person for the corporate world, the persona of corporate reality. Most principals are easily sucked into the allure of corporate riches and are susceptible to soft corruption. They become unwitting shills to market forces. They usually come trained with a non existent understanding of political economics, psychology or philosophy. They are the front line in the hierarchy that supports white supremacy culture with their able logistical guidance, keeping the schools running just well enough.


They abuse data. It is rare to see a principal’s presentation on data that does not send up a dozen red flags putting the bullshit detector into hyper activity. Some principals cheat or game the system. Others use benign neglect and omission to home in on their single issue concerns. They use data to rationalize inequitable decisions. Data is the carrot that their superiors use to dangle in front of them, motivating them and keeping them in line. They themselves are abused by data.


They employ logical fallacies. Asserting the consequent, denying the antecedent and lacking a true premise is their norm. They sound like politicians in public settings and technocrats in private meetings, but throughout they are prone to saying things that they don’t actually believe and doing things they never talk about. They exist in a very narrow place facing the wrong direction. They are adrift in an existential wasteland, ill equipped to make authentic decisions and unable to employ the power of the school’s hive mind to make the best decisions. But they could turn things around.


If principals took up the cause of their students and teachers and fought against the hierarchy to undo the artificial scarcities that have plagued our schools since the 1980s, they could make all the difference. It seems far too unlikely but maybe we can wake them up. Maybe we can help them see that what’s wrong with the schools is what’s wrong with principals and vice versa. What’s wrong with principals is that they are the pivot point and they need some help.


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I'm a school librarian in Seattle who wants to take the corporate created standardized test away and give students books instead. Nothing would be better than to bring real progressive education to public school.

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