Twenty Words that Will Make You a More Effective Principal

Guest post by Timothy Shanahan:

I agree with Gene Bottoms. “School leaders need to understand the ‘big ideas’ that should be taught in the core curriculum. They do not need to be experts, but they should know enough to determine whether students are being taught the body of knowledge… they are expected to learn in the core curriculum.” (From What School Principals Need to Know about Curriculum and Instruction, p. 1.,

That makes sense to me, but I don’t think the average high school principal yet grasps the big ideas of the Common Core (CCSS).  Maybe principals don’t need to carefully study the hundreds of pages of the CCSS English Language Arts (ELA) standards.

But one would think they could find time to read the title.

It’s an unwieldy mouthful, but it carries essential information to which all school administrators should pay close attention: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies and Science, and Technical Subjects.

Why is the title so important? Because it states explicitly that the ELA curriculum is not entirely the province of the English department.

This means that when it comes to professional development and text resources, to enact the common core it will be necessary to include a wider array of teachers than with past ELA reforms. History and science teachers (and industrial arts and computer sciences teachers, etc.) need to know how to teach the reading and writing of their subjects, and principals have to include, motivate, and support them to ensure this happens. Let’s face it: The easiest thing for a science teacher to ignore would be standards labeled English language arts. A principal’s leadership will clearly be needed.

Similarly, the standards recommend secondary students spend 70% of their school reading time with informational text. One hears stories of principals appropriating 70% of English class time for such reading (there goes the literature). I don’t know if such stories are true or apocryphal, but they highlight the importance of knowing the ELA standards govern the school day, not just the English class.

One of the biggest changes instigated by CCSS is the idea that high school students need to read harder, more challenging texts than in the past; texts that are more in line with the difficulty levels they’ll confront in college or the workplace. This one isn’t just for English teachers either.

I get that the modern secondary principal is a policy leader, financial planner, building manager, personnel director, head security officer, and public communicator. But to be an effective instructional leader, he or she must grasp the major instructional directions the school needs to go. If you want to lead with the common core, then please, by all means, find time to read the title.

Timothy Shanahan is Distinguished Professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is Director of the Center for Literacy and chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. He will be presenting at Ignite 2013 on Friday, March 1, at a session entitled The Common Core Standards: Teaching Literacy in the Disciplines vs Teaching Disciplinary Literacy. Check out Timothy’s website at

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