Last year I spent a Saturday morning participating in a mock interview process designed to help New Leaders for New Schools participants prepare to get their first jobs as school principals. I left with two strong impressions: (1) being a principal is an even harder job than I’d thought, and (2) the candidates, many of whom were 30 or younger, seemed exceptionally bright, focused, and up to the challenge.
So I was glad to see the article in today’s NYTimes focusing on the rapidly growing number of young principals in the New York City school system. This is an important issue–the long-awaited demographic turnover driven by retiring baby boomers has arrived, with potentially seismic consequences for education.
But the article’s focus–whether youthful principals are up to the considerable challenge of running an urban school–is too narrow. The most important question is not whether new principals are better than retiring principals in the short term. The real issue is the long-term impact of a new generation of leaders who may have very different ideas about how to lead public schools.
Harvard’s Susan Moore Johnson has done some great work focusing on inter-generational difference between teachers, and the same questions apply at the leadership level. While public education is often characterized as a huge, immobile blob, impervious to reform, this may turn out to be the long-sought-for unstoppable force to change things–not new laws or policies but the steady accumulation of new people implementing new ideas, one by one.