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Principals' pedagogic obsolescence: re-assessing what is important in schools

Neil MacNeill
Rob Cavanagh

Robert Cavanagh is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education, Curtin Univerity. Neil MacNeill is Adjunct Lecturer at Curtin Univerity and principal, Ellenbrook Primary School.

Principals are in danger of pedagogic obsolescence as the pressure to focus on the administrative component of their jobs deprives them of the opportunity to teach.

In Australia, the change in nomenclature from head teacher to principal was accompanied by a developing stereotypical view that the principal was the senior person in the office who attended to financial and staffing issues. What a sad indictment that the careers of so many brilliant teachers should end this way!

Education is sadly in need of courageous school leaders who will challenge this trend and lead pedagogic change in schools from the front.

The pressures of New Public Management

New Public Management (NPM) (Fink, 2005; Gronn, 2003a, 2003b; Moos, 1999; Sachs, 2003, Wittmann, 2006), the managerialist reforms that accompanied the introduction of the so-called economic rationalist approach to government (Pusey, 1992), heavily influenced government policies in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result of this ideological change, government services and administration were redesigned and this had impact on schools, especially government-funded public schools. Hood (as cited in Moos, 1999, p 44) identified seven principles of New Public Management in England, which were equally applicable in the Australian context:

  • hands-on professional management (active, visible, discretionary control of organisations from named persons at the top)
  • explicit standards and measures of performance (clear definition of goals, targets or indicators of success, preferably in quantitative form)
  • a greater emphasis on output controls (with resource allocation and rewards linked to measured performance, and a stress on results rather than procedures)
  • the break-up of large organisations into smaller units operating on decentralised budgets
  • the introduction of competition
  • an emphasis on a commercial style of management (which replaces the former public service ethic)
  • an emphasis on doing more for less.

In Australia Burke (1997, p 5) reported a similar situation:

The goals of national reconstruction and intra- and international competitiveness, which derive from economic rationalism, corporate managerialism, human capital and microeconomic reform, have thereby hijacked the master discourse in education and training policy and practice. In aligning education with the needs of the economy the government has orchestrated educational solutions to market problems and market solutions to the perceived crisis in education.

As a result of their increased administrative and budgetary powers in the New Public Management philosophy, Berg (as cited in Moos, 1999, p 51) reported that in England, head teachers would not play a role in teachers' curriculum decisions or methods of teaching. Western Australia witnessed a similar situation as a result of the State Government's 1987 Better Schools reforms:

The Burke Government, as with the Whitlam Government, believed that the Public Service would obstruct and resist its policies and by July1, 1986, 85% of departmental heads had resigned or retired. The governments also gained control over its departments by lodging ministerial advisers within them ... Their role was to ensure budget cuts were implemented and Ministers always appeared in a positive light – they were the instrument in shifting the decision-making role from the departmental heads to the Ministers (Berson, 2006, p 229).

The pressures of New Public Management reform on principals' perceptions of their roles were profound. By necessity principals became more preoccupied with issues of accountability and were drawn away from the practicalities of teaching and learning in classrooms. School principals’ time is finite and they constantly have to juggle a range of conflicting demands. Cotton (2003, p 63) observed that principals were 'drowning in a sea of administrivia' or dealing with student behavioural issues.

Some argue that teaching is like riding a bike – once you learn then you will always be able to do it. The analogy is simplistic and it is far better to argue that teaching is a profession, like medicine, where specific professional learning must be undertaken constantly to maintain professional relevance and credibility.

Pedagogic obsolescence

As a result of the new pressures of accountability through New Public Management and a public that no longer respected institutions, it was noted by Resnick and Glennan (2002, p 162) that principals have had a diminishing influence on teachers’ pedagogic practices:

Meanwhile, district administrators, from principals to central office staff, spend relatively little time in classrooms and even less time analysing instruction with teachers. They may arrange time for teachers' meetings and professional development, but they rarely provide intellectual leadership for growth in teaching skill.

This view was supported by Downey, Steffy, English, Frase and Poston (2004, p 99) who recorded how little time principals actually spent in classrooms:

We know from research that most principals spend from 10 to 80 per cent of their time in and around the office area. An additional 23 to 40 per cent is spent in hallways and on the playground. About 11 per cent is spent off campus, and only about 2.5 to 10 per cent is spent in classrooms.

Murphy and Hallinger (1992) questioned the notion of balancing, and considered that it was impossible for one person to give adequate attention to both roles. They suggested the need for empowering others to assume and exercise leadership roles. In addition, they required leadership to be viewed in terms of what it enables others to do rather than prescribing what others should do.

In asking teachers about principals’ instructional leadership, Blase and Blase (2000) found that '... talking with teachers to promote reflection and promoting professional growth are the two major dimensions of effective instructional leadership'. The principals' role in this process becomes problematic when they do not have pedagogic credibility or the time to engage teachers in dialogue about teaching and learning. Fink and Resnick (2001) posit that principals become removed from the instructional aspect of teaching when their knowledge and skills become outdated:

Principals' time is filled by the many demands of administrative functions. Like most people, they also tend to gravitate toward doing what they know how to do. Unsure of what to look for or how to intervene when they visit classrooms, principals tend to visit rarely, perhaps only to make formal evaluations. With their knowledge of teaching growing dated they delegate questions of instruction and professional development to others.

Added to this situation, growing teacher empowerment has pushed the principals further out of the pedagogic leadership loop (Fink & Resnick, 2001). It appears that the problems experienced in pedagogic leadership of the demands on principals’ time and the pedagogic de-skilling of principals also occur in Australian schools.

Pedagogic leadership

Pedagogic leadership is about changing the school's culture in relation to teaching and learning, and it is broader than the instructional leadership promoted in American schools. We take the broad view of teaching and learning that acknowledges the relational basis of learning and accepts that the culture and context of classroom influence students' learning.

Pedagogy is a planned action, designed by human agency that acknowledges the social, political, and moral context of the learning act, which directly results in the acquisition of new knowledge, beliefs or skills for the learner (MacNeill, Cavanagh & Silcox, 2005).

We believe that school principals have a direct role in influencing teachers' pedagogic practices, and they should remain head teachers.

A good example of pedagogic leadership is quoted by Wortham (as cited in Blankstein, 2004, p 70) who made the point that while establishing the school's learning culture she spent up to 50 per cent of her time in classrooms, which is quite different from Wolcott's (1973, p 89) experience at Taft Elementary School and the research of Downey, Steffy, English, Frase and Poston (2004). In establishing a school's pedagogic culture, it appears that school leaders spend more time in the initial stages of establishing the pedagogic culture than when it is up and running, so the stage of development should be considered when making judgements about principals' roles.

A major counterbalance to pedagogic change is structural change, and Elmore, Peterson and McCarthey (1996, p 7) warned that externally driven structural change in schools is often '... to appease certain key political constituencies' but at the school level '... transformation of teaching practice is fundamentally a problem of enhancing individual knowledge and skill, not a problem of organisational structure; getting the structure right depends on first understanding that problem of knowledge and skills'. (Elmore, Peterson & McCarthey,1996, p 240)

In an Australian context, Rowe (2004, p 19) strongly supported the findings of Elmore, Peterson and McCarthey. Associated with the raft of structural change issues is the regulatory context in which the school staff operate. In all schools the principal's role is clearly defined and this definition forms a critical component of the principal's performance management. To a large degree the parameters of the principal's role are defined in terms of key areas of accountability, which includes budgetary management, human resource management, and students' learning outcomes. Budgetary issues are regarded as of primary importance because failures in this area often result in sackings while it is rare for a principal to be dismissed because the standard of students' learning is poor.

The MetLife (2003, p 36) examination of school leadership ranked financial issues as the greatest challenge for principals, which supported the belief that managerialist pressures impact heavily on principals in the contemporary climate. With potential sanctions in place, most principals will ensure that the accountable aspects of the role are attended to, even at the risk of ignoring the key purpose of schooling – students' learning.


Principals need to practise and develop their pedagogic skills and not let go that which won them credibility in their developing careers. If principals leave the teaching field then they must expect that other leadership structures will develop to fill the void and they will become spectators in the real issues of schooling. It is time to reconsider the real role of school principals and reverse the trends toward pedagogic obsolescence.


Berson, M 2006, A Fair Chance in Life: Primary schools and primary principals in Western Australia 1850–2005, Western Australian Primary Principals Association, West Leederville, Perth.

Blankstein, AM 2004, Failure Is not an Option: Six principles that guide student achievement in high-performing schools, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.  

Blase, J & Blase, J 2004, 'Effective instructional leadership: Teachers’ perspectives on how teachers promote teaching and learning', Journal of Educational Administration, vol 38, no 2.

Burke, C 1997 (November), Leading schools through the ethics thicket in the new era of educational reform (ACEA Monograph series), Australian Council for Educational Administration, Hawthorn, Victoria.

Cotton, K 2003, Principals and Student Achievement: What the research says, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

Downey, CJ, Steffy, BE, English, FW, Frase LE & Poston, WK 2004, The Three-minute Classroom Walk-through: Changing school supervisory practice one teacher at a time, Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Elmore, RF, Peterson, PL & McCarthey, S 1996, Restructuring in the classroom: Teaching, learning and school organization, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Fink, E & Resnick, LB 2001 (April), 'Developing principals as instructional leaders', Phi Delta Kappan, vol 82, no 8, pp 598–606.

Gronn, P 2003a, 'Distributing and intensifying school leadership', in N Bennett & L Anderson (eds), Rethinking Educational Leadership (pp 60–73), Sage, London.

Gronn, P 2003b, The new work of educational leaders, Paul Chapman Publishing, London.

Moos, L 1999,  'New dilemmas in school leadership', Leading & Managing, vol 5, no 1, pp 41–59.

Murphy, J & Hallinger, P 1992, 'The principalship in an era of transformation' [Electronic version], Journal of Educational Administration, vol 30, no 3, pp 77–89.

MacNeill, N, Cavanagh, R & Silcox, S 2005, 'Pedagogic leadership: Refocusing on learning and teaching', International Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning, vol 9, no 2.  Retrieved 15 July 2006 from http://www.ucalgary.ca/~iejll/.

MetLife 2003, The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: An examination of school leadership [Electronic version]. Retrieved 15 July 2006, from http://www.metlife.com/WPSAssets/20781259951075837470V1F2003%20Survey.pdf.

Pusey, M 1992, Economic Rationalism in Canberra, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Resnick, LB & Glennan, TK 2002, 'Leadership for learning: A theory for action' in AM Hightower, MS Knapp, JA Marsh & MW McLaughlin (eds), School Districts and Instructional Renewal (pp 160–172), Teachers College Press, New York.

Rowe, KJ 2004 (August), 'The importance of teaching: Ensuring better schooling by building teacher capacities to maximise the quality of teaching and learning provision – Implications of findings from emerging international and Australian evidence based research', paper presented at the Making Schools Better Conference, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Sachs, J 2003, The Activist Teaching Profession, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK. 

Wittmann, E 2006 (April–June), 'Reducing school administration to a technicality? Philosophical reflections of senior German school administrators in the context of New Public Management-based vocational school reform', International Journal of Leadership in Education, vol 9, no 2, pp 111–128.

Wolcott, HF 1973, The Man in the Principal’s Office: An ethnography, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York.


Subject Headings

School leadership
School principals
School administration
Teaching and learning