In Partnership with 74

Will AI be your next principal? Probably not. But it’s here to stay

Gene Pinkard | June 4, 2024

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

When I was a principal, if you had told me I would be working with artificial intelligence on a daily basis, I would have conjured visions of the Terminator and Skynet in my head. Fortunately, we’re not there (yet?) but the introduction of AI amplifies risks and opportunities attached to school leaders’ decisions. Education leaders need to have forward-looking conversations about technology and its implications to ensure that public education is responsive both to what students need and what the world is going to ask of them.

This year at SXSW EDU, I teamed up with The Leadership Academy to facilitate a conversation on the role of AI in education, specifically in relation to the principalship. The panelists discussed the potential benefits and challenges of embedding AI in schools and how it might impact the role of the principal. We also explored the implications of AI for equity and access in education. As education leaders come to terms with integrating AI into our schools, they need to consider these issues:

AI can help principals avoid burnout and focus on the “human” work.  

The role of the principal is currently unsustainable. In 2022, 85% of principals reported experiencing high levels of job-related stress, compared with 35% of the general working adult population. The risk of principal burnout has sweeping  implications for the field. Principal turnover has a negative impact on teacher retention and is associated with decreased student achievement. AI can help make principals’  jobs more manageable and sustainable by helping them save time and even automate administrative and analytic tasks.

The time and technical assets afford principals with more bandwidth, so they can focus on more sophisticated,  human-centered activities such as building relationships with their faculty and the community, and fostering a positive climate, which is a proven predictor of school effectiveness. AI offers an answer to a vital question that was posed by Kentwood, Michigan, Superintendent Kevin Polston during the panel: “If time is our most precious commodity, and humans are the most important value that we have in our organizations, how do you then create more time for your people to do those innately human things that change outcomes for kids?”

Education leaders must consider the risk of bias in design.

During our discussion, Nancy Gutierrez, executive director of The Leadership Academy, emphasized the importance of who is at the table in the design process. To illustrate the risks, she referred to sobering examples, such as the initial designs of self-driving cars being more likely to hit people with darker skin tones. In terms of education, she noted that teachers might use AI to design work that inadvertently reflects their biases about a student’s capabilities, based on that child’s identity. Bias in AI is simply a reflection of existing human biases, so district leaders and principals should redouble efforts against bias that might undermine students. Eva Mejia, an expert in design and innovation at IDEO, underscored how involving educators in the design process and increasing transparency could mitigate some of these risks and enhance innovation in schools.

The role of the principal must evolve in line with technological advancements, with a focus on leading change.

Schools must actively learn about and adopt AI, rather than being passive recipients, and principals must be prepared to lead this change effectively. Principals are drivers of school success, and AI is yet another means for them to foster innovation in their schools by modeling a exploratory mindset for students and adults. For example, principals can cultivate spaces where teachers and students feel free to work with AI out in the open, sharing best practices and pitfalls for the benefit of other educators. What might principals and teachers accomplish by testing and leveraging computing power to elevate academic rigor, rather than banning tools that are already integrating in the professional world?

Unfortunately, many school leaders are doing this work at a disadvantage. When I ask principals in urban districts why they have not done more to leverage AI in their schools, the most common answer is, “I just don’t have the time.” Too often, the folks who lead the schools with the greatest needs have the least time to be proactive. They fall behind because they do not have the bandwidth to capitalize on new opportunities or innovative solutions. District leaders must commit to investing in the resources — time and material — that principals need to create the conditions required for schools to remain current and competitive.

Integrating AI into schools is not just about bringing in new technology. It is about rethinking what leadership looks like. Education leaders have the opportunity to use their expertise in school systems, learning and development to think about how AI can be used to close equity gaps, instead of widening them, and position principals to focus on what matters most — children.

Read Next