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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

Re-Thinking the Pendulum: Cage-Busting Policy Levers

By Guest Blogger — April 19, 2013 9 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 is Kelly Pollitt, Associate Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). NAESP represents the nation’s elementary and middle school principals in the United States, Canada, and overseas. NAESP believes principals are primary catalysts for creating lasting foundations for learning, and leads in the policy, advocacy and support for elementary and middle-level principals and other education leaders in their commitment to all children. To learn more about NAESP’s policy agenda, visit www.naesp.org/advocacy.

Reform in education has been a continual watch of a pendulum that swings back and forth in regard to the appropriate federal, state and local district roles in education. A snapshot of the past 30 years consists of steady shifts from a high level of school-based authority, such as the site-based management approach of the 1980s and 1990s, then a sharp snap back up to federal authority after No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The pendulum now rests somewhere between federal and state authority over all school-based reforms after the U.S. Department of Education’s “ESEA flexibility” waivers were created after Congress was unable to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

As do many others, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and many of the principals we talk with regularly do believe that the one-size-fits-all accountability approach in NCLB was a far overreach in federal authority, and unfairly demeans and penalizes schools that actually make steady progress in student achievement. Still, schools are by no means better off under the waiver scenario. As education leaders in the 113th Congress contemplate where to push the pendulum next in the long overdue reauthorization of ESEA, NAESP encourages a comprehensive renewal--but with an approach to policymaking that takes into account the lessons learned after the past three decades of education reform. Think of this as “cage-busting” policy leadership. If we educators can be asked to do it, why can’t policymakers?

In the 1980s, site-based management came as a response to the increased demands on principals, charged with serving both as authentic instructional leaders as well as organizational managers of their building. The majority of site-based models included authority given to individual schools to make decisions directly about programs, personnel, budgets and instruction. Districts retained ultimate authority on overall budget allocations, determined the formula for schools based on poverty and population of students in need, and controlled overall allocations related to food and transportation. Decision-making in the school building was shared among principals, teachers, parents and the community, and leadership responsibilities were executed by principals who delegated authority throughout the school. This philosophy is retained by many districts and schools today, and principals report positive student outcomes as a result. NCLB shifted the paradigm to more federally prescribed state interventions into the school-driven models, and installed an important spotlight on accountability for the nation’s poorest and disadvantaged students. After a decade of NCLB-era policies, collaborative decision-making in schools has suffered under the weight of a one-size fits-all, teaching-to-the-test, punitive sanctions on schools based on standardized tests that really have run the show. Most states are implementing growth models and many have so-called “waivers” from the most onerous accountability measures contained in NCLB. “Differentiated” accountability systems are in place in some states to try to tackle the issues raised by the law, also perceived by many as standards-based reform on steroids. But differentiated accountability using the same tests and data is simply a new labeling system for schools and their “achievement gap scores”. It is also by no means a 50-state solution, and many districts and schools continue to struggle with the accountability conundrum as evaluation systems and Common Core State Standards roll out.

While current federal policies have eroded the collaborative decision-making tree in school buildings, NAESP encourages a comprehensive renewal of the law to restore many of areas of education reform that history, research and evidence have shown improved schools. The more we hear about what interventions work to help schools improve (a note to policymakers: Improved test scores were the effect, not the cause), decisions were made in deliberate collaboration among parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and all stakeholders in the local school community. The decisions were supported by superintendents, as teachers and principals were held accountable for their decisions based on student achievement outcomes, which eventually canceled out the need for collaboration and distributed leadership. Test scores ruled the show.

In his book, Rick Hess discusses the keys to unlock the principals’ “cages,” where they are bound by “regulations, rules and routines” all related to accountability, presumably. He offers suggestions for how principals can overcome obstacles in their path. According to him, principals must not simply “coach teachers in how to differentiate instruction, [but] rethink the design of the school and instructional day to make differentiation more manageable.” Hess wants principals to “devise new solutions to escape familiar frustrations.” Principals would agree and many are already cage busters in their own right--navigating and implementing new practices related to teacher evaluation systems and Common Core adoption in most states, among other reforms. We would argue, moreover, that the theory of action presented as “cage busting” must be applied to policymaking as well. It is time for the policy to go back to what we know leads to lasting school reform--that is, building the capacity of teachers and principals in school buildings. This is not a premise based on old-hat professional development or “more of the same”, rather a new approach that will equally empower educators to improve instruction and learning, and hold them accountable in meaningful ways.

Principals will tell you that the increased demands of instructional leadership and pressures of accountability are not new, and not necessarily the problem. What is an issue is the time the policies allow to build knowledge, tools, resources and integrity of instructional leadership skills, which are the foremost priorities of any reform. Before you begin, the school culture must be ripe with high expectations and an eagerness to address glaring challenges. Principals accept the responsibilities associated with accountability, as evidenced by the report NAESP released last year with our secondary colleagues at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Rethinking Principal Evaluation. In fact, the findings offer a big hint to policymakers: Focus on greater accountability, especially where principals are concerned, that extend beyond student achievement data and related to the conditions in schools that exemplify their strong instructional leadership. Going forward, NAESP has a few other “cage-busting” recommendations for federal policymakers:

Acknowledge the Core Competencies of Effective Principals. Inherent in developing a local system of effective principal evaluation is the need to develop common understanding of what effective school leaders are and do.

Develop Comprehensive, Fair and Objective Principal Evaluation Systems. Recent changes to existing programs, such as School Improvement Grants, and the development of new federal initiatives, such as Race to the Top, call for the development of state and local principal evaluation systems. To meet program requirements, states and local districts have hastily devised principal and school leader evaluation plans that quantify “effectiveness” based in significant part on standardized test scores. As a result, many of these plans lack clear performance standards and research-based practices that accurately identify the true characteristics of a high-performing principal.

Develop Accountability Systems That Include Growth Models and Multiple Measures. Principals know firsthand that states simply need more time and resources to develop and run systems necessary to effectively measure student growth. It is also clear that states must do a better job measuring the multiple ways in which educators impact student learning and or the evidence of improved cognitive performance. At the school building level, differentiated accountability and sound teacher and principal evaluation systems cannot function properly without sufficient, accurate and timely data. Systems must do a better job of supporting quantifiable measures of student performance that are not standardized test scores, which are nothing more than a snapshot of a student’s abilities.

Hold Principal Preparation Programs To Common High Standards. To meet the standard of effectiveness, principals and assistant principals must have demonstrated success in being a classroom teacher and in leading adults, have an advanced degree, and express a passion for and commitment to shared leadership.

Insist on Standards-Based Certification, Induction and Mentoring. Standards for the preparation, certification selection, and professional development of principals should result from cooperative efforts among state and local principals’ associations, state departments of education, higher education institutions, local school districts and businesses. Criteria to assess aspiring principal candidates for entry into the principals should be developed collaboratively based on multiple indicators to determine an individual’s strengths.

Dedicate Ongoing Professional Development That Strengthens Core Competencies. Current social, economic and political realities require principals to accomplish ever-greater academic goals with ever-shrinking resources, prepare young people with higher order thinking skills befitting a global society, analyze and use increasingly complex data and incorporate rapidly changing technology in instruction and learning. To meet these demands--and many others--principals require high-quality, forward-looking professional development.

Policy recommendations include:

• Strengthen professional development programs in ESEA to build capacity of principals, aligned to core competencies of effective school leadership.

• Allocate a higher percentage of Title II funds to professional development activities. (Only three percent are currently allocated to principals; the bulk of the remainder is allocated to teachers.)

• Provide a range of learning opportunities for principals that extent and build upon their formal academic preparation.

• Enable principals to master emerging school improvement strategies and support their knowledge of rapidly changing skills and technologies, including professionally delivered events outside of their schools and site-specific, job-embedded learning and online training.

To read the full NAESP policy brief, visit www.naesp.org/advocacy.

- Kelly Pollitt

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.