The Center on Reinventing Public Education has a new report that tries to capture the essential qualities and functions of a school principal. Entitled Making Sense of Leading Schools, the report presents the findings from in-depth interviews with principals in 21 private, independent, charter, contract and magnet schools, yielding both some interesting and some predictable results. The report urges school districts to put less emphasis on a principal's previous classroom experience, shifting the priority to individuals who have leadership skills. Good principals must also have a nose for finding excellent teachers, but that does not require them to have been a teacher. The most important function of the school principal is as "diagnostician," someone who can identify a problem and come up with ways to solve it.
The study's authors emphasize the diversity of settings and challenges and are skeptical of the notion of a single set of "best practices." All of the principals in the study found that their principal pre-service training was of little value, though newer principals reported more value than principals who had been on the job longer. Generally, the principals felt that the job could only be learned by doing it.