School & District Management

National Board May Pull Plug on Principal Certification

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 03, 2014 7 min read
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A years-long endeavor to create national certification for principals is in peril of being scrapped, a move that could leave in the lurch more than 100 school leaders who invested 18 months of time and effort to take part in the program’s rigorous pilot.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—which more than four years ago dove headlong into creating advanced certification for principals that would mirror its 25-year-old program for teachers—is slated next week to decide whether it should shut down its work on a national-certification designation for school leaders.

The board of directors for the NBPTS will take up the issue at its April 11-12 meeting, spokeswoman Aparna Kumar said.

In the meantime, dozens of principals from around the country who agreed to be guinea pigs for the fledgling program have been in a state of limbo for months, waiting for reviews of their work that have never come. More than a year after meeting their final deadline and submitting elaborate portfolios that detail, for example, their instructional leadership, their family- and community-engagement strategies, and the data that show how they are impacting student achievement, none of the principals has received any feedback on how they stacked up.

See Also

Update: National Board Votes to End Principal-Certification Program

And though officials at the National Board insisted earlier this month that no final decisions about the program’s fate have been reached, many principals in the pilot group had major doubts. In the days leading up to the board of directors meeting, many of them inundated National Board officials with emails and letters that made passionate pleas to keep the program intact.

“This is really devastating,” said Jack Davern, the principal of Elon Elementary School in Elon, N.C., and one of about 120 principals who made it through the pilot. “I had a choice of doing this or starting my doctorate, and I did this. I involved my entire school community and have had the support of my district leadership.”

Looking for Answers

Another North Carolina principal in the group, Glenn Reed, said all the leaders in the pilot understood that the process could have some bumps along the way and that delays were likely. What’s made him angry, he said, is the lack of communication from the National Board about where things stand.

“They won’t even talk to us,” said Mr. Reed, the principal of Stateside Elementary School in Jacksonville, N.C. “It’s like we got a divorce and I lost all my work in the divorce agreement. We are all so frustrated.”

Officials from the National Board declined to directly answer questions about the status of the principal-certification program. The organization’s president and executive director, Ronald Thorpe, has been out of the country and unavailable, Ms. Aparna said.

Instead, Andy Coons, the organization’s chief operating officer, emailed a statement to Education Week: “We are now working with technical advisers to review the entries that have been scored to inform our next steps,” he wrote. “This issue will be taken up by our Board of Directors at its upcoming meeting [April 11-12]. Until then, no official decision has been made about the future of the program. We value the commitment that field-test and pilot participants have made on behalf of the profession to inform this work. We are committed to continue working with our partner stakeholders, such as [the National Association for Secondary School Principals and the National Association for Elementary School Principals], on ways to support efforts in this area.”

Promising Start

The National Board’s launch of an advanced principal certification was announced with great fanfare in late 2009 in Washington and came after nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes agitating from national school leadership organizations to create one.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was there to endorse it. So was Penny Pritzker, who at the time was a member of the Chicago Board of Education and is now the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. The project had a $1 million earmark in the federal budget, and another $2 million in total from foundations such as the Chicago Public Education Fund to help get it off the ground. The two national professional associations for school leaders—the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals—had long been pushing for national principal certification and were strong backers.

Soon after, the National Board completed work to define what skills and characteristics school leaders need to be effective, and followed that up with developing specific standards that principals would have to demonstrate mastery of to be considered “accomplished.”

Once the National Board was ready to start piloting in 2011, the vast networks of NAESP and NASSP went to work recruiting strong, willing candidates to test-drive it, said Dick Flanary, the deputy executive director of programs and services for NASSP. Mr. Flanary also served on the advisory panel that worked closely with the National Board to develop the standards.

“Our message to our state affiliates was that principals who agree to do the pilot get to do the process for free, and that the end result could be advanced certification that would be recognized as an incredible achievement,” Mr. Flanary said.

Joseph A. Aguerrebere, who was the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based National Board when the advanced certification for principals was launched, said there was broad support for the endeavor, including from some district superintendents who said they would pay for principals to go through the process of becoming certified. (Many teachers pay for much or all of the process to receive advanced certification in their profession, which can cost at least $2,000.)

“They thought it would be powerful professional development and transformative for schools,” said Mr. Aguerrebere, who left the National Board in 2011 and is currently the associate director for teacher education and public school programs in the California State University system’s chancellor’s office. “We also had a strong cadre of nationally board-certified teachers around the country who were saying we should do this. That helped convince a teacher-dominated board that we should do it.”

Robert N. Farrace, the spokesman for NASSP, expressed dismay that the years of work put into national principal certification could be scrapped.

“This is disappointing,” he said. “NASSP invested a lot of energy to create the standards for this, and categorically, we stand by those standards. It will be a huge loss and a big disservice to the field if those disappear.”

‘Worth the Time’

For the principals in limbo—several of whom shared the letters and emails they have sent in recent weeks to National Board officials with Education Week—the main question is whether they will ever know how they measured up. The only explanation the National Board has offered them for the long delay, the principals said, is that people trained to do the scoring have been difficult to come by.

Mr. Davern, of Elon, N.C., said he can’t wait much longer before explaining to his school staff members and his bosses what is going on with the program.

“Everyone in my school community knows about this because many of them contributed to the work I had to do,” said Mr. Davern, who earned his national board certification as a teacher earlier in his career. “They fully supported me in this.”

Of the roughly 1,600 school leaders selected in the initial call for pilot participants, only 120 endured through the intensive process, Mr. Davern said.

Similar to the teachers’ certification process, the pilot principals had to reflect on their leadership practices and write about them. They did surveys and conducted focus groups in their school communities and prepared demographic profiles; and they had to submit videos that introduced their schools and showed them leading a meeting of their school leadership team, Mr. Reed, of Jacksonville, N.C., said.

Many of them, from districts such as Chicago; Springdale, Ark.; and the Atlanta suburbs, expressed in emails and letters that they benefited greatly from participating.

In his letter to the National Board, Dan A. Sims, the principal of Tri-Cities High School in Fulton County, Ga., wrote: “Simply put, the process was amazing for me. I do hope that you consider all of us strongly as you render any final decisions on the program. We spent numerous hours and sacrificed much to commit to what we thought was worth the time. It was.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Principals’ Credential May Get Ax


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