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Q&A: The Principals' Center Founder Roland Barth

Roland Barth, Ed.M'62, Ed.D.'70, is an author, consultant, school leader, former HGSE faculty member, but foremost he is an educator at heart. A former teacher and principal, Barth is also the founder of The Principals' Center, a professional development program based at HGSE for school principals, assistant principals, and other school leaders. For the past four decades, Barth's work has impacted educators from all over the world. He continues to do so through the many books he has authored including Open Education and the American School, Improving Schools from Within, Run School Run, Lessons Learned, and Learning by Heart. HGSE spoke to Barth about The Principals' Center's 25th anniversary and the role of a school leader today.

How has the role of principal changed over the 25 years since you started The Principals' Center?

The role of the school principal always changes. New laws, new demographics, and new expectations on the part of parents, faculty, and central office contribute to new complexities. But there are constants: the principal still selects, supervises, and provides staff development for teachers. The principal continues to hold central responsibility for a school's budget, program, and personnel. The principal continues to have a disproportionate influence upon the health of a school and upon the learning of youngsters--for better for worse.

How has K-12 education changed in the past 25 years?

Since A Nation At Risk in 1983 schools have received extraordinary, sustained attention from policy makers, state departments, governors, and officials in Washington. A feverish effort to improve schools continues with No Child Left Behind [NCLB]. The public and its elected representatives are concerned about what happens in schools. The effect has been to place the performance of teachers, administrators, and students under increasingly more severe scrutiny.

In other respects things in schools haven't changed that much. Teachers are still too commonly seen as second class citizens in our society. How many Harvard College graduates enter careers in teaching? Not many. You don't tell your roommates, "I'm going to teach fourth grade in the Cambridge Schools." You tell them, "I'm going to be a lawyer."

The nature of instruction in schools continues to be "information rich and experience poor" with teacher directed, didactic transfer of knowledge being the predominant pedagogy. This, despite evidence that children, like adults, learn best when they pose questions they care about and have the resources to pursue those questions.

How does NCLB affect school leaders?

NCLB is doing remarkably good things for the undeserved in our schools. Those in the bottom of the class--minority groups, special needs students--have been discovered and are no longer swept under the rug. Now they are clearly identified, their performance is carefully monitored, and additional resources are brought to support their learning.

But NCLB is having a negative effect as well. Many teachers feel demeaned by the new emphasis on their role to prepare students for tests and then remediate them on the basis of those tests. That's not what most teachers signed up for when they entered the profession.

NCLB has placed the finger on the principal as the point person in the school. When the superintendent is getting heat from the state department, he doesn't call the teachers, the parents, or the kids. He calls the principal. The principal is expected to get tough and lean harder on teachers and students. The principal is now like a boat fender in a storm between the dock and the pitching boat, trying to mediate these forces.

What makes a school leader successful today?

My answer today is the same as it was 25 years ago. The successful school principal is a culture builder, one who discovers and has the courage and resourcefulness to provide conditions within the school that are hospitable to human learning--that's what it means to be an educator. Successful principals are maniacally focused on promoting learning. Successful principals are more focused on promoting learning and long-term life-long learning than they are on short-term performance.

Successful principals are committed to social justice. Many youngsters have parents running interference for them. But many others have no advocates outside the schools. The principal's work is to make sure that every youngster has an advocate within the school. Often this means the principal becomes a central advocate for disenfranchised children.

How has The Principals' Center impacted education and contributed to the success of principals?

Back in the early 80's, when we were working to launch The Principals' Center, principals were seen as the "learned" not the "learners." The principal's responsibility was to provide learning for students and their teachers. Woe to the principal who hoisted on the flagpole the message, "I don't know how." If you didn't know how to do something you faked knowing how. You were "forbidden not to know," as someone once said.

The Principals' Center, and other leadership development organizations, has transformed the place of the principal as a learner. It is no longer cool for a principal to initiate a staff development activity and then to leave the teachers to attend to "more important matters." Doing so telegraphs the message to the school community that learning is for unimportant people. Nothing is more important than learning. A principal exerts no more important influence upon the school than by visibly being the
"leading learner." The Principals' Center has helped shout from the mountaintop of our profession the message, in education one is a learner and thereby a leader.