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Putting New School Leaders To the Test

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Nearly every state is working vigorously to set academic standards for students and to devise ways to measure them. And a national board has established rigorous standards for teaching. But these efforts to raise expectations for what 3 million teachers and 52 million students do inside the classroom will fall short unless states and school districts set standards for the school leaders responsible for every classroom: the nation's 80,000 principals.

A collaboration involving almost half of the states and important professional groups has produced model standards for school leaders and the means to measure them. The standards are anchored in the academic results the public wants from its schools. At least six states have committed to using the new standards to test prospective principals to make sure they have the skills and knowledge they need, and more states are lining up to follow their lead. ("New Exam for Would-Be Principals Provides States a Tool for Licensing", Nov. 5, 1997.)

In much the same way that the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future has moved some states to bolster new teacher assessments, the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, in cooperation with the National Policy Board for Educational Administration and led by the Council of Chief State School Officers, is urging states to adopt its six standards and has worked with the Educational Testing Service to develop a unique exam that adds accountability.

Research and common sense say that good teachers do not work in isolation and that poor teachers need to be identified and helped. What principals do to help create a shared vision and promote it across their schools, to guide good instruction, to manage effectively, to discipline fairly, and to reach out beyond the campus governs success in every classroom.

Over the past 20 years, researchers have built a compelling body of evidence that links successful schools and effective principals. To start, the most effective principals help their schools craft more definite academic goals and use those goals in planning. They are more likely to handle discipline issues with consistent responses. They stretch to find resources for their schools, and direct them toward goals.

More important, the most effective school leaders take an active part in the educational life of the school and help teachers sharpen their academic mission. They monitor academic results, report test scores back to teachers quickly, and craft policies that maximize students' opportunity to learn.

As the research findings have mounted, the description of principals as the "instructional leaders" in their schools has become commonplace. But principals and teachers in many schools say those are only catchy buzzwords, far from an accurate depiction of a principal's duties.

Paradoxically, while the public and principals themselves acknowledge the need for their leadership in teaching and learning, few principals report devoting substantial time and attention to that end, and few teachers see their principals as educational leaders.

The obstacles to principals' exerting educational leadership begin with their own training and licensure as administrators, which push issues of learning and teaching to the margins. Once on the job, principals face a blizzard of small demands, leaving them with few blocks of time for planning, observing, and shepherding change. Districts want principals to manage their buildings first and foremost, and evaluations are frequently based on organization and control. For their part, teachers sometimes want to shut out the world when they shut their classroom doors.

As the research findings have mounted, the description of principals as the "instructional leaders" in their schools has become commonplace.

The disconnection between the principal's preferred role and the form the job usually takes in the real world is particularly troubling given the forces that are reshaping schools. More and more, campuses face the challenge of autonomy over everything from instructional practices to budgets. People outside the school building play larger roles in determining what goes on inside it. The global economy, the electron-quick pace of technological change, and the more diverse face of American society force schools to respond.

Three years ago, under the leadership of the Council of Chief State School Officers, 23 states and the District of Columbia joined with 11 professional organizations to craft model standards for school leaders that recognized the magnitude of principals' responsibilities and the challenges they confront. The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, or ISLLC, sought to stimulate a national conversation on quality school leadership as well as provide the raw material for improvement.

Central to the consortium's work was the link between a principal and productive schools that get better educational results. The ISLLC standards marry leadership to learning, management with measurement of academic growth, and stewardship to the development of productive learning communities.

Each standard starts identically, to reinforce its connection to student learning. A school administrator is an educator who promotes the success of all students by:

  • Facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community;
  • Advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth;
  • Ensuring management of the organization, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment;
  • Collaborating with families and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources; and
  • Acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner, and understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.

The states and professional groups went further, to describe each standard by outlining knowledge required by it, dispositions that mark it, and performances that demonstrate it. For example, a principal leading a school aimed toward student learning and staff professional growth would know about curriculum, assessment, and motivation; would value lifelong learning and a safe and supportive environment; and would ensure that programs are evaluated and refined and that curriculum decisions are based on research and teachers' expertise.

Five states in the consortium--Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina--and the District of Columbia have taken the standards an important step forward by creating a state-of-the-art assessment to measure them. The six-hour exam for prospective principals developed by ETS is performance-based; it asks principals to respond to real-life situations. More than 2,500 practitioners had a part in writing and reviewing the assessment, and more than nine out of 10 who have taken the exam said it mirrors life in the principal's office, from the situations posed to the sample documents provided as context. The assessment will be widely available next year.

An entry exam tied to licensure is a practical, cost-effective reform tool for states. Its immediate effect is clear--ensuring that only applicants who possess the knowledge and skills required for the increasingly complex principal's post will be considered.

That leadership, in turn, provides more support for teachers and students to achieve higher standards of their own. From the perspective of scale alone, states may find it desirable to reach out to their principals as a necessary foundation for moving students and teachers toward standards.

At the same time, the standards for principals and the assessments tied to them provide a benchmark for the improvement of leadership-preparation programs in colleges and universities. The consortium's work was designed with recent guidelines released by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education in mind.

The disconnection between the principal's preferred role and the form the job usually takes is troubling given the forces reshaping schools.

An exam that asks new principals to prove themselves also creates common ground for them with teachers who face entry tests and students who must pass tests to earn grades and promotion. The principal becomes a role model for meeting high expectations, and can say with authority, "Do as I do."

Beyond an entry-level assessment, a number of states are working together on a process through which principals on the job can demonstrate they meet high standards. Much like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' rigorous screening, the process is likely to be based on portfolios of principals' work. The school leaders will be asked to demonstrate their knowledge, disposition, and performance through actual decisions they have made and actions they have taken.

Principals who meet the ISLLC standards will be ready to meet the growing challenges of school leadership: leading collaboratively, enabling teachers through their support and expertise, allocating resources to reach goals, providing information to guide decisions, and extending the boundaries of the school community.

The public wants more from its schools. Research helps show us how to get it--with high standards, cooperative and dedicated staffs, and committed parents. Principals have the responsibility of bringing those pieces together. It is time to ensure they can be educational leaders in more than description.

Joseph Murphy is a professor of educational leadership at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and the chairman of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium.

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