New Standards for Principals Defended

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In their recent essays criticizing the new requirements for certification of public-school principals in New Jersey, James W. Guthrie ("The Value of Teaching Experience for Principals," Commentary, Oct. 19, 1988) and Ted Elsberg ("Let Sense Take Precedence," paid advertisement, Sept. 28, 1988) recognize neither the inadequacy of a half century's conventional practice nor the potential value of the new standards.

The policy adopted in September replaces a system that--in its essential components--was created in the 1920's. At that time, most public schools were headed by "principal teachers" whose main responsibility was to instruct students and to perform minor administrative duties.

The old system certified as a principal any teacher who acquired three years of school experience and a master's degree in any field. While 24 credits of "preparation" were mandated, the topics were so broadly defined that most teachers could fulfill this requirement simply by completing the work for a master's degree.

Only two courses in administration were required--and these could be chosen from a large number of widely varying, often narrow topics.

Three-quarters of all principals earned their licenses without ever enrolling in a program specifically designed to prepare principals. Indeed, many qualified for licenses without intending to do so.

The rules required teaching experience but made no provision for measuring the quality or significance of that experience for individual candidates. And organizations of school employees won passage of a law that defined "teaching" as any work in public education: Experience as a librarian, central-office psychologist, or media specialist was considered "teaching."

This system, like those of most states, was not designed for training, competency evaluation, or licensing; it served as a state-mandated internal-promotion policy protecting public-school staff members from outside job competition as they advanced on a career ladder.

By its terms, every tenured school employee with a master's degree was considered fundamentally qualified to run a school. Yet it legally barred anyone else in American society--regardless of talent, training, and achievement--from even competing for positions as principals.

In creating the new standards, we sought to devise a system that would emphasize recruitment of candidates with leadership potential, provide such candidates with the systematic training in both management and education that they needed to succeed, and assess their competency.

More than half of the principals in New Jersey are over the age of 50. Looking toward the next century, we asked ourselves why we should not seek as their replacements the best leaders society has to offer.

Public education must compete with business, other sectors of education, and other professions for leadership talent. If we do not do so successfully--if we do not provide sound educational leadership--then any other changes we make will prove meaningless.

The new approach requires that each candidate for a principal's license earn a master's degree in an approved administra6tion field and pass a test in that area.

To establish the content of these requirements, we commissioned a panel of nationally known scholars from the fields of educational, public, and business administration.

The candidate must next undergo an assessment of his ability to perform basic tasks of the principalship, including an evaluation of the skills in teaching and curriculum that are most important to principals. The resulting report of the candidate's strengths and weaknesses--to serve as a means of focusing continued training--will be available to local employers.

Once offered employment, the candidate will complete a two- to four-month induction before assuming his position.

Finally, he will work for one to two years on probationary status under the supervision of a mentor--a licensed and accomplished school administrator who has completed a mentor-training program.

The new principal's training during this period will also include the equivalent of three graduate courses--the first of which, to be completed before employment, will emphasize supervision of curriculum and teaching. Only if he succeeds during the probationary period will the new principal receive a standard license.

These requirements are far more stringent than our former criteria. Teachers will be able to qualify as principals--but now they will have to meet meaningful standards of training and assessment.

The new rules charge local communities with detailing, on a position-by-position basis, the types of prior work experience-- such as prior teaching experience--that they require or prefer of candidates.

If a community wants its elementary principal to be a "head teacher," then it should insist that candidates possess the appropriate qualitative experiences; it should not rely on a simplistic state rule that equates three years of experience teaching any subject or any level with three years of outstanding achievement as an elementary teacher.

Two-thirds of New Jersey's current elementary principals have taught in high school or served in a district office but never worked in an elementary school.

A strong background in teaching might not be as important a qualification, however, for the principalship of a large high school employing 10 supervisors, or for an elementary school structured and staffed so that responsibility for instructional expertise lies with someone other than the principal.

While drawing most principals from the teaching ranks, the program will allow up to 50 nonteachers to qualify by meeting the same requirements that teachers must satisfy. These candidates will also have to teach full time for two months before they assume principalships and for one class period a day during a two-year probationary period. This pilot project will be monitored with the help of an independent advisory board.

The entire plan was researched carefully for more than a year. During two years of public debate, the New Jersey Board of Education formed advisory committees, held numerous hearings, and modified the plan three times to ensure quality controls.

With a review of the policy planned for 1992, we stand ready to make any further modifications that prove necessary.

Why, then, have so many educational administrators been quick to criticize these responsible efforts to promote change where change is so clearly needed?

Why do they prefer a system that did not require educators to meet rigorous standards and barred noneducators from competing?

Are they afraid that noneducators will fail as principals? Or are they afraid they will succeed?

Five years ago, New Jersey proposed opening the doors of teaching by providing an alternate certification route to talented men and women who had not taken education courses. All of the dire predictions made by educators at that time have since been proven wrong--and wrong by 180 degrees.

Perhaps the larger question before us now is not how much prior teaching experience principals need, but rather under what circumstances educators are willing to support the responsible implementation of new ideas without rejecting them in the abstract.

Vol. 08, Issue 12, Page 20

Published in Print: November 23, 1988, as New Standards for Principals Defended
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