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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

The Principal’s Role: Innovation Through Navigation and Collaboration

By Guest Blogger — April 17, 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 is Gail Connelly, 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.

The principals leading our nation’s schools shoulder enormous expectations and demands to execute all that’s on their growing list of responsibilities. As reforms like Common Core and new teacher evaluations systems roll out, they strive to set the right culture in a school building that will support teachers and students, and transform structures and processes to enable new practices to more easily occur. They will tell you that they are not opposed to these changes; trying out new systems or supporting seismic shifts practices are what school leaders do. Principals take pride in the responsibility of improving teaching and learning, and helping every child reach their greatest potential.

At about the same time that No Child Left Behind fully shifted nation to a path of accountability based on student and school performance measured through standardized tests, educational research papers started to outline the importance of the role of principal in leading school change. Indeed, the role of principal has been found to be second only to the relationship between teachers and individual students to achieve and sustain academic success, particularly in schools that service high percentages of disadvantaged or low-income children. While the correlation between student achievement and principal performance is albeit indirect given the circumstances that principals have the ability to directly control, we do know that the expectations, attitudes and actions of principals are ever more important and can have a profound effect on whether or not succeeds.

The evolution of the role of the principals continues to grow more complex every day. For the sake of improving student achievement, principals are expected to cram unlimited amounts of content and curriculum into a 6.5-hour day, including STEM, the arts, foreign language, as well as the building of critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills, all done through project-based learning, digital learning, deeper learning, next generation learning, and competency based learning. Not to mention the challenges posed by the myriad social and emotional needs of children that must be addressed during the course of a school day. Principals will tell you how important the context of a school is - changing and adapting to meet the unique needs of the student demographic it serves. As instructional leaders, principals will tell you there is no one way to improve a school, but they can tell you there are standards and expectations for strong school leadership to get on road to continuous improvement.

Principals, if they are lucky enough to have the authority, are also expected to hire high-performing teachers who fit the culture of their particular school--and, once hired, to retain them by providing job-embedded professional development, collaborative work environment, data-driven decision making and working conditions that will entice the best teachers to stay. Principals are now navigating implementation of teacher evaluation systems to assess the performance of everyone within the school community, as well as train their teams to ensure that their classroom observations can track depth of knowledge and critical thinking skills. Many of them have been lucky to have the opportunity to learn about the models of teacher evaluation that states and districts are using, and if they have not been sufficiently supported, work with their teachers and superintendents to determine the most agreeable processes.

As a result, principals are spending more time in classrooms. This trend bodes well for principals to hone the skills needed for strong instructional leadership, but the pressures are mounting for principals to spend more time out of schools-- out in the community building relationships with community stakeholders to ensure that students and families can have access to programs and services that will provide a well-rounded education. Now more than ever, principals are expected to identify and raise additional funds for their schools not provided by the district or the state - many work to secure grants with national and local foundations to get the extra funding needed to make the school’s ends meet. Principals are the chief ambassadors of schools, which requires time to engage parents, business leaders, community-based organizations, and other agencies in new ways.

This is a particularly important role as the Common Core State Standards and Common Core State Assessments come online. Every principal knows that the Common Core require much deeper levels of change than simply classroom practice--as revolutionary as those changes may prove to be. The real change that must take place to implement the Common Core is also one that is structural--and behavioral, which means it will require whole new understanding from parents, business leaders, community leaders, civic leaders, etc.

Furthermore, principals are finding that their jobs go beyond ensuring the effective implementation of Common Core--no easy feat in itself--to needing to lead local advocacy and engagement efforts, explaining why Common Core is a value-add to students, parents and teachers alike.

In recent focus groups that NAESP conducted with principals about the supports they need to implement the Common Core State Standards, principals talked about professional development as the priority need for themselves to manage all this. They told us that principals need support in content and also in change management.

Some specific needs they cited:
• Time to observe classrooms to see if differences in questioning or demonstration of instructional strategies are occurring
• Understanding depth of knowledge
• Tools to help guide walk-throughs and classroom observations
• Ways to give effective feedback to teachers that helps them improve their practice
• Examples of effective strategies in practice
• Examples of the summative assessments that are driving changes in practice

It seems all but impossible for any principal--acting alone--to accomplish all of these things. Instead, our notion of what constitutes a “high performing” principal must include the ability to get high performance out of others. Likely, vertical teams and communities of learners working together will characterize the nature of schools over the next five years or so. And to support that extensive collaboration will require distributed leadership--enabling others to make decisions and share responsibility for student learning, including the empowerment of teacher leaders, coaches and professional developers.

Likewise, high-performing principals understand that time is a variable for student learning and for adult learning and collaboration. Principals are busting the cages of their traditional schedules to expand collaboration time for teachers and learning time for students--before school, after school, on weekends, during the summer months--doing whatever is required not only to create the kinds of collaborative learning communities that can help to remediate students who are behind but also help all students progress faster in their learning.

As one principal in our focus groups put it, “I think building time for learning communities is key. I know I had to rearrange my schedule, which is really different but I was able to build in 40 minutes every morning for teachers to have. It’s not a lot of time, but it’s some time. And then we’re also a union school, so I get 30 minutes one afternoon a week. So Mondays is our long day. We meet after school. Being creative with the schedule to provide time for collaboration is important and key.”

Principals who understand this will be “busting cages” as they think in new ways that will allow everyone in their learning community to come together to determine the best approaches to implement reforms in their school context. To this end, they will carry on and proudly shoulder the leadership necessary to improve our nation’s schools.

- Gail Connelly

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.