Mary Grassa O’Neill, a senior lecturer at HGSE, and HBS Professor Allen Grossman talk about their Schools’ new joint certificate program for school principals.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

A boost for school principals

7 min read

Ed and Business Schools launch certificate program to build effectiveness

When a new online training program launched in July to help school principals become better leaders and managers, the instructors expected to get maybe 100 participants.

Instead, they were swamped.

Six hundred registered for the Certificate in School Management and Leadership, which attests to the need that school principals feel to become better equipped to lead schools. There are nearly 114,000 school principals across the nation, and surveys say that superintendents are often unhappy with the preparation that principals receive.

The four-course program is a partnership between the Harvard Graduate School of Education  (HGSE) and the Harvard Business School (HBS). The program’s instructors are Mary Grassa O’Neill, former school principal and superintendent, senior lecturer on education, and faculty director of the School Leadership Program at HGSE, and Allen Grossman, senior fellow and retired professor of management practice at HBS.

The Gazette sat down with O’Neill and Grossman to talk about the changing demands on school principals, and the preparation they could use to lead their schools. (The first course, called “Leading Change,” will be offered again in October.)


Mary Grassa O’Neill & Allen Grossman

GAZETTE: How has the role of school principals evolved over the years?

O’NEILL: Once upon a time, a school principal ran his or her school the way she or he saw fit. There wasn’t a whole lot of accountability. We weren’t measuring everything. We were not using high-stakes testing. Now we’re comparing schools based on test scores. We’re issuing report cards for schools. We’re failing schools. We’re also in an era where parents think the school should take care of everything and prepare their children to get into competitive colleges. Once upon a time, we didn’t feed kids at school, but now we do. We provide counseling; we provide care before and after school. These are all relatively new requirements for schools. Add to that managing social media and technology, focusing on instructional leadership, teacher evaluation, and violence prevention.

GROSSMAN: Everything that happens in schools is now more complex. We need more sophisticated leaders — people who not only understand what the needs are, but know how to attract, motivate, and retain good people to deliver on higher expectations. The trend in American education today is very much toward decentralization, which means that each school has its own unique characteristics, and therefore must have a leader who can adapt what’s happening in his or her building to the school’s environment.

GAZETTE: What do principals need to learn to deal with all these challenges?
O’NEILL: School principals need to be better prepared. Surveys of superintendents indicate that they are unhappy with the preparation school principals are getting. The research points out that you can’t have a great school without a great principal. You can have a great classroom if you have a great teacher, but the school can’t be great. It’s very much like business. In business, great leadership really matters. We’re focusing on effective leadership and management because they go hand in hand. We chose to focus on the principals because they get to make a lot of decisions. They decide who gets to work at the school and what the school culture will be. They decide what kind of equity is offered, what the children are learning, and how to inspire and motivate students.

GROSSMAN: It doesn’t matter what sector you’re in — business, nonprofit, government, or education — you’re hard-pressed to find any outstanding, high-performing organization unless it has outstanding leadership. School principals need to be innovative, creative, and disciplined in terms of how and what we teach to our children. Schools need to create an environment where teachers can excel, where parents feel engaged, where students feel people care about them. And at the end of the day, that’s dependent upon the quality of the leader in the building.

GAZETTE: Some people may question that schools cannot be run as corporations and principals are not CEOs. What’s your take on this?

GROSSMAN: Principals have many of the same functions as CEOs, but they often bristle at the notion of being called CEOs, and there is no need to call them that. Schools can’t be run like a business. But can they adapt knowledge from the business world to the specific needs of schools? Yes. We’re not saying, “Here is what we do in business; now you go and do it in your schools.” In the year 2000, the Business School and the Ed School formed a program for urban school districts called the Public Education Leadership Project, which brought superintendents and their leadership teams to campus for a week. Many school districts that have improved their performance are members of this program.

O’NEILL: Everybody knows that you can turn a school around if you have the right person at the helm who has high expectations and knows how to build a team that rows in the same direction. We think that the principal is really the single most important person in the building. We think we can make a difference and help principals turn around their schools, take them from good to great, and from excellent to outstanding.

GAZETTE: Can you describe how the program can help principals improve their schools’ performance?

GROSSMAN: There are many programs around leadership and management, but there aren’t a lot in the field of education. We tried to create content that is relevant, whether you’re a beginning principal or you’ve been in the seat for a long time. You can always improve. We’ve identified problems that are common to virtually all schools, and then adapted managerial and leadership ideas for the participants to apply. We use the case study method. This is not a course on theory that you then have to translate into practice. It does provide theory, but it also provides the way you can implement this theory in a school.

O’NEILL: The program is very interactive, and the big focus is on practice. Everything is research-based and action-oriented. The idea is to help principals make things better. Principals will be able to work with other principals and create new social networks. The first course is “Leading Change,” and it has four parts, which deal with problem-solving strategies and building coalitions to work together, with how to develop a strong, positive school culture that supports teaching, learning, and the people within the building, and how to lead a diverse school community to make sure equity is at its core.

GAZETTE: Would the program deal with the other challenges that principals face, such as teachers’ salaries, contracts, health insurance, pensions, etc.?

O’NEILL: No one course can do everything. We’re working with the things you can change. One of the misconceptions is that often people don’t think they can change. They don’t think they have power and authority, but principals can change things, and they do have power and authority.

GROSSMAN: Every single organization has external factors that limit its ability or interfere with its ability to perform. Within those constraints, every single organization can perform either at a lower level or optimize its results. What we observed in the Public Education Leadership Project is that the quality of the leadership and management plays a big role in performance improvement, regardless of constraints. We won’t be able to solve some issues, but we want to help people close the gap between their current performance and what is possible.

O’NEILL: And ultimately, it’s for the benefit of students and their families. That’s what it’s all about. Our expectation is that an individual principal can take the course, and we welcome them, and whole districts can take the course too. A superintendent can transform a district by working with principals to implement the lessons taught in this course. The power and potential for change are enormous.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.