School & District Management

National Principal-Certification Project to Fold

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 22, 2014 4 min read
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The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards last week voted to scrap its nearly five-year-long, $3.5 million effort to create an advanced certification for principals.

In a unanimous decision, the board of directors for the National Board agreed that financial and administrative challenges had become too great to continue with the program, said Ronald Thorpe, the president and chief executive officer of the Arlington, Va.-based organization. Also, too few principals had persisted through the field- and pilot-testing phases to generate a large enough sample to ensure that the scoring of participants would be valid and reliable, Mr. Thorpe said.

“I deeply regret that this hasn’t ended up where we hoped it would end up,” Mr. Thorpe said.

The decision to terminate the program—which had set out to mirror the board’s 25-year-old certification process for teachers—means that the more than 200 principals who participated in the program’s field- and pilot-testing phases will not receive advanced certification.

Instead, those school leaders who completed rigorous portfolios of work over 18 months will receive “written feedback on their submissions,” Mr. Thorpe said. That feedback will be mailed to the principals no later than July 28, he said.

“No one is going to get a score, because there is no valid score,” Mr. Thorpe said. “It will be narrative and personalized to them. Participants will also receive more scripted feedback on how they measured up to each of the specific principal standards that were developed as part of the program, he said.

‘Insult to the Profession’

Jack Davern, an elementary school principal in North Carolina who completed the pilot program, is stunned.

“This is a huge letdown,” Mr. Davern said. “We did not get what we were promised.”

JoAnn D. Bartoletti, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, or NASSP, said the National Board’s decision is a major blow to a years-long push to develop national certification for the principal profession.

“Countless professional hours on our part and several million dollars were spent on this, and now it amounts to practically nothing,” Ms. Bartoletti said.

“More importantly, the National Board has broken faith with a group of committed professionals who rallied their communities to engage in this rigorous professional development,” she said. “For all their efforts, they are left embarrassed and empty-handed.”

Mr. Thorpe said the National Board would send official letters to district superintendents on behalf of the participating principals and would send press releases to local news organizations to tout principals’ participation in the pilot.

Those gestures, Mr. Davern said, fall woefully short of what he signed on for when he agreed to participate in the pilot rather than begin a doctoral program.

“Those of us who chose to do this did so with a high level of commitment and sacrifice,” he said. “This is an insult to the profession.”

Costs Too High

In weighing whether to recommend that the program continue, Mr. Thorpe said the board considered a number of factors. The professional standards for principals that grew out of the effort, he said, are respected broadly. But the high attrition rates in both the field- and plot-test phases—some 80 percent of the school leaders who had started the program dropped out—signaled that an 18-month-long process that was entirely portfolio-based might be too much for already overburdened principals.

Unlike the certification process for teachers, which involves some portfolio work and an assessment, the principals’ process was only portfolio-based, which requires much more time and labor to score, Mr. Thorpe said.

That, he said, created another big challenge: finding sitting principals who could or would take the time to be trained on how to score the portfolios and then do the scoring. “We saw huge attrition rates there as well,” he said. And the costs for scoring were going to be prohibitive.

“We think full scoring for principals would be three times longer than for the teacher certification at a per-person cost of $6,000 to $7,000,” Mr. Thorpe said. That’s compared to scoring costs for teachers of about $2,500 per candidate, he said.

“The National Board vastly underestimated the costs for doing this,” he said.

But Mr. Thorpe said the standards created for the principal profession are strong and that the board would work with other organizations—most likely the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the NASSP—to carry on with the development of a full certification program.

That pledge does little to remove the sting of disappointment for principals in the pilot like Mr. Davern.

Similar to the teachers’ certification process, the principals had to reflect on their leadership practices and write about them; conduct surveys and focus groups in their school communities and prepare demographic profiles; and submit videos that introduced their schools and showed them leading a meeting of their school-leadership team.

“The process was powerful professional development for me,” Mr. Davern said. “But it seems like the National Board just gave up on this.”

Ms. Bartoletti said that the NASSP, along with the NAESP, would not allow the standards to disappear, though it’s not yet clear how the two associations would move forward with establishing a certification program.

“The standards still have legs and we stand by them,” she said. “And we still stand by the need for advanced certification for principals.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as National Board Ends Principal-Certification Program

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