Principals Clamor for Inclusion in States' ESSA Planning
Some worry commitment may be far from uniform
The new federal K-12 education law contains the strongest requirements to date that states gather and weigh the opinions of principals, parents, and others as they create new education plans.
But whether states are practicing this kind of "meaningful consultation"—and particularly whether they are tapping the expertise of their principals—depends very much on the state, according to the two national organizations that represent elementary and secondary school principals.
That is worrisome for the two groups, whose representatives argue that the new law was written to be more inclusive. Principals can provide valuable input about what's likely to work in schools, since they know firsthand that ideas that sound good on paper may not play out well in the real world.
It's also important for principals to be part of those discussions because changes in the new K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, will affect their jobs, the groups say.
"There are a variety of efforts underway, and it's really—no pun intended—all over the map," Kelly Pollitt, the National Association of Elementary School Principals' chief strategist for policy and alliances, said of an unofficial survey of where state education departments stood with their ESSA plans and how they were involving principals in the process.
Efforts include those in Washington state, where principals are key participants in 13 working groups on topics including learning and teaching, effective educators, assessments, early-childhood education, and students with disabilities. Those groups operate under a nearly 50-person consolidated team, which also includes representation from the state's principals' associations.
In Georgia, principals are serving on the committees examining accountability systems and school leadership and development.
Still, in other states, principals are being directed to slide-shows and "Frequently Asked Questions" sections on state education websites, Pollitt said.
The latter is not what the law envisioned as meaningful engagement, representatives from the principals' organizations say. And they worry that unless principals play a significant role in crafting policy, they may be left to deal with the unintended consequences of education policies as they did under the No Child Left Behind Act, the last iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act before ESSA.
"It's about talking about the process—setting goals, priorities, what this is going to look like," Amanda Karhuse, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said about the engagement process.
"It's not just the department of education and the governor's office sharing information and getting feedback," she added.
The principals' groups are urging principals and superintendents in states that appear to be lagging to work with teachers, parents, students, and others to create their vision of what state plans should include.
There are a number of areas in the new law in which implementation could benefit from the principals' voices, they said. Principals saw first-hand the onerous testing that resulted from the NCLB law, for instance, and can make suggestions about assessments that would provide timely feedback and the right kind of information to teachers. Principals can also provide input on other measures that can be used as part of new multimetric accountability systems. They can also offer valuable insight on how to improve the performance of subgroups within schools.
The federal law allow states to dedicate funds to principal professional development, and principals can have a say in what evidence-based programs and initiatives will best support and prepare them, Pollitt said.
The principals' groups say they don't believe that any state is deliberately excluding principals from the process. In many cases, they said, the extent of collaboration, or lack thereof, between the state departments of education and principals is often influenced by state capacity and the previous working relationship between the two groups.
Washington state has included 12 principals or members of the Washington Association of School Administrators in its working groups. The state went beyond the groups specifically mentioned in the law to include representatives from non-profit organizations, business leaders, and civil rights organizations.
"We reached out to anybody who we knew had an interest in public education," said Gil Mendoza, the deputy superintendent for K-12 education, who is leading the state's ESSA engagement process.
Principals' "insights are invaluable" in shaping the state's education plan, Mendoza said. They've often served as teachers and paraprofessionals, and sometimes in district administrative positions. They know the demographics of their schools, and can speak about what's likely or unlikely to work for various subgroups, he said.
"They offer a plethora of perspectives to the ongoing work," he said.
Where the Buck Stops
Principals, also, under the NCLB law, bore the brunt of accountability, he said.
"By federal law, we hold the building [leader] and district accountable, but the accountability falls mostly on the building," he said. "The buck stops with the principals."
In addition to ensuring principals' representation on the committees, Mendoza also conducts forums that give principals additional opportunities to provide input. He also encourages them to call or e-mail him if they have questions.
"We only get one shot at this," Mendoza said of the state's effort to be transparent and solicit input from as many voices as possible.
Georgia principals who have been tapped to participate in the working committees say that better policies are made when all educators are involved. Georgia started convening its committees in July.
Christopher P. Watkins, the principal of Treutlen County middle and high schools in Sopperton, Ga., a rural town about 170 miles from Atlanta, is one of 21 members of a committee that is reviewing accountability systems and includes another principal, an assistant principal, and two district superintendents. Within the committee's charge: Review the state's current accountability systems and come up with ways to make them better, more flexible for school districts, and easier for the public to understand.
Watkins said that if principals and other stakeholders were as involved in the process during No Child Left Behind, some of that law's unintended consequences might have been averted.
"I think there would have been more buy-in and a whole lot more support to make sure it was effective," he said.
Soliciting the perspectives of educators is "an excellent idea," he said, "because if you are making policy and you want policy to be effective, you've got to include the stakeholders it's going to affect the most."
Cecelia McLoon, a principal at Jeff Davis High School in Hazlehurst, Ga., with a decade in the principal's chair, is also a supporter of the state's stakeholder engagement process.
McLoon, who was asked by the state to serve on the assessment working committee, says she brings a principal's voice to the discussion.
"I am boots on the ground," she said. "I am with the kids and the teachers. I know how much time it takes. I know the stress, and I can bring that perspective, along with the perspective, of all the other individuals in the room."
Early discussions have included addressing who is responsible for scoring tests and the timeline for returning those scores to teachers, she said.
"I hope that Georgia's ESSA plan will be a plan that will provide useful assessment data for our teachers to inform their instruction," McLoon said. "I hope we'll be able to utilize the less-stringent guidelines from the federal government to have fewer assessments in Georgia."
"We are trying to come up with some alternatives or even tweak what we have," she added. "I have no idea what the end result would be, but ... the process the Georgia Department of Education has chosen to use—I definitely believe in this."
Vol. 35, Issue 37, Pages 14-15Published in Print: August 3, 2016, as Principals Clamor for Inclusion in States' ESSA Planning