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Final thoughts

Schools are the institutions expected to address deep-seated educational and social ills, from poor academic performance to violence to teenage pregnancy (Cuban&Usdan, 2002). Principals are the actors most likely to be held accountable for whether schools successfully attend to these difficult issues. Accordingly, in many major cities across the country, a message is being repeated, rhetorically as well as symbolically: Principals are fundamentally important to and ultimately responsible for school improvement and student achievement.

Under this prevailing logic, site-based principals are deemed accountable for a host of complex student challenges. The New York Times , for example, noted high rates of student absenteeism in some New York City schools and explained, “City officials said the responsibility for absenteeism lies chiefly with school principals, who are required by the state to submit attendance plans” (Medina, 2008, p. 2). In this instance, city officials may have symbolically distanced the Mayor from the student absentee issue, emphasizing it was a school-based problem, not a multifaceted economic, social, and cultural concern. The Times article quoted the Deputy Mayor, who explained, “You are going to have pockets of students and pockets of schools that have high rates of absence, and we can’t be afraid to go after that. Those principals will be held accountable for that” (Ibid.). The Deputy Mayor’s willingness to hold principals publicly accountable for student absenteeism may have signified city leaders’ willingness to improve schools and “fix” social problems no matter the tough actions required. By extension, such examples of the rhetoric and politics of urban principal accountability help ensure that principals are consistently positioned as ultimately responsible for solving vexing problems related to schools and students.

Urban school principal accountability is an attractive reform strategy with significant potential advantages. Notably, the demand for improved performance from principals may compel them to find new ways to elicit better results from staff and students (Ouchi, 2009). Moreover, given that individual schools are the standard unit for measuring academic performance under NCLB-related state accountability systems, it seems entirely appropriate that school district and reform leaders would focus on site-based leadership as a lynchpin for school improvement. Important questions regarding urban principal accountability remain, however. For instance, is putting principals’ “feet to the fire” through public rhetoric and symbols creating an uninviting image of the position, which may cause potentially good candidates to forgo pursuing the principalship? Also, can urban school district and reform leaders achieve an effective balance between directing tough talk and tough actions toward principals and providing encouragement, support, and stability principals need in order to effect enduring change? These are only some of the questions that we hope our study will inspire readers to consider and perhaps address in future writings.

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Source:  OpenStax, Education leadership review, volume 11, number 1; march 2010. OpenStax CNX. Feb 02, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11179/1.3
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