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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Cage-Busting: Administrators Helping Administrators

By Guest Blogger — April 18, 2013 7 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of NAESP represents the nation’s elementary and middle school principals in the United States, Canada, and overseas. Today’s guest blog is by Cheryl Jordan, Principal of Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Norfolk, VA - an urban Title I school. To learn more about NAESP’s policy agenda, visit www.naesp.org/advocacy.

If it is much easier, as Rick Hess writes, for school leaders “to place blame on outside factors and claim they are helpless to change anything as a result, than it is to actually take the initiative to make their own changes,” then principals in Norfolk have chosen to take the harder path. The “culture of can’t” that permeates some school systems simply does not exist in Norfolk.

As an urban principal in a Title 1 School, I spend a significant proportion of my time managing the demands of the new policies and initiatives. I am serving my first year as the urban representative for the Virginia Association of Elementary Principals and I am in my second year as the president of the Elementary Principals’ Association of Norfolk. I am fortunate to be able to use these platforms to deliberately convene my colleagues, including principals, assistant principals and aspiring principals, so that we have an outlet to exchange practices. The time together helps us think deeper about some of the challenges we face with our students and teachers, and we able to go back to our buildings with concrete ways to tackle issues.

One big topic in our gatherings involves understanding the tenets of Norfolk’s new teacher evaluation system. The new system has created an opportunity for principals to rethink traditional practices. Under the new system, 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation includes evidence of student achievement and other value-added measures. Such dramatic shifts demand building understanding and ownership among stakeholders within and outside schools--including among teachers as well as parents and community-based organizations. In order to communicate and build support of significant reforms, principals first need to understand these changes and the implications. We knew that it was our responsibility to understand the dramatically new teacher evaluation system for our teachers and our schools - this was essential to its implementation. Working collaboratively with the superintendent and central office helped to ensure that principals throughout the school system were maintaining Norfolk’s high standards for leadership--and ensured that leadership throughout the school system remained focused on the needs of the children we serve and the teachers we lead. As a principal, our job is to balance strong leadership in schools with a laser-like focus on the children. And we know that the more we help our teachers and staff, the more we are doing for the students. The same can be said for ourselves and paying attention to our instructional leadership skills.

This year, we formally evaluated every teacher in our district, and thus principals throughout the system spent more time than ever before in classrooms. Managerial functions are now completed after school. This was a big shift for many of us. The initiative has changed not only our work schedules, but also our entire approach to leadership. Transitional leaders were quickly accelerated into transformational leaders. Delegating and distributing leadership became not just something that would be nice to do, but something we had to do. At the helm of all of these changes in every school is a visionary, cage-busting leader who is not afraid to think outside of the box and allow those under his or her leadership to do the same. The observation, evaluation and one-on-one reflection time with teachers has been intense, and as we spend more time in the process, refining and adjusting where needed as we go, we will improve for the parents, teachers and students that we serve - as long as we have the right knowledge, tools and resources that must come with any evaluation system for educators.

It is also why the Virginia Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals strongly support programs in mentoring for principals, especially aspiring and early career principals. We have found that mentoring programs help principals with their own situation or challenge in the building since just as each child is different, unique and special, so is every school. There is never only one way to address an issue in a school. But I can learn how my peers have addressed a similar issue with instruction or one that is related to the school’s climate, like anti-bulling and harassment strategies, that I can take and tailor to my school, for my kids, their families and their unique needs. Pairing a principal currently serving in a low-performing school with a peer or experienced educator who has had success in overcoming similar challenges that hinder student academic achievement is the most effective way to help principals execute and manage all of the school improvement processes.

Principals in our district also meet monthly with our superintendent, Dr. Samuel T. King. At each meeting, we discuss with the superintendent the implications of current reforms and how principals can help, school community by school community, ensure a change process that keeps energy and morale in schools high, and how to keep everyone in the district focused on student achievement. Principals drive the agenda of these meetings. We bring questions that we or our school teams have about new initiatives, concerns about challenges we face, and ideas for change in policy and practice. The superintendent exhibits some innovative leadership of his own, by enabling principals to drive the conversation at these monthly luncheons.

Additionally, members of the principals association come together regularly to discuss how we can work collaboratively to ensure all schools are aligned and advancing in the implementation of district initiatives. This time together with practicing principals creates a space that provides a non-threatening opportunity for principals to use peer networking and practice exchange as professional development.

Principals here have used education reform changes as an opportunity to innovate. We operate as creative CEOs of the learning communities within our buildings. The executive decisions we make point toward improving student and adult learning, using innovative approaches when traditional approaches won’t do.

I believe that principals nationally--as in Norfolk--are not opposed to the changes in practice that will lead to improved instruction and learning. However, principals in Virginia and across the country do support some recommendations for policymakers who want to make corrections to the current systems. We all agree with these areas to address:

• Continue to set high expectations for schools and school leaders and support state and local accountability systems and curriculum and instruction that best meet the needs of students in the local school context.

• Encourage and support state and local assessments that include growth models and multiple measures of student performance (both formative and summative) to accurately gauge social and emotional development, language fluency and comprehension, creativity, adaptability, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

• Avoid use of standardized assessment scores as the sole or primary criterion to measure student performance; to rate, grade or rank principal, teacher, or school effectiveness; to allocate funds; or to take punitive measures against schools and/or school personnel.

• Measure student achievement in multiple ways to accurately capture students’ proficiency in core academic content areas but also in their emotional and social development; language fluency and comprehension; and creativity, adaptability, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Assessment using a single metric produces a one-dimensional view of the child, the teacher, the principal, and the school.

• Include the expertise of principals who are working every day in schools in the development of accountability mechanisms.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.