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School & District Management Opinion

Good Principals by Fiat?

By Sheryl Boris-Schacter — February 26, 2008 4 min read
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At this point, there are few educators or policymakers who would question the link between effective school-based leadership and students’ academic achievement. A consensus of sorts is even emerging on the importance of making principal-preparation programs more rigorous, educational decisionmaking more local, and on-the-job mentorship more prevalent. (“Commentary: Toward the ‘Highly Qualified’ Principal,” Dec. 12, 2007.) Analogous to what is happening with teacher professional development, the push for continuous improvement and learning for novice and veteran principals is beginning to gain traction on the national agenda.

It is hard to disagree that pedagogical leadership is sufficiently complicated and personally draining to warrant ongoing intellectual and emotional support. None of us in the schools would take issue with these reforms. But one solution being proposed to address the shortage of well-prepared and willing educational leaders could exacerbate the problem instead. Legislated, standardized, and prescribed requirements leading to a new “highly qualified” principal status would stress professional educators already weary from endless accountability measures, wasted resources, and the inevitable paperwork that cuts into time for instructional leadership. Rather than elevating the profession and boosting the recruitment and retention of skillful school leaders, this approach would lead to an even greater defection from the principalship.

Why not allow districts to implement effective models in a manner consistent with their context?

I have no problem with clarifying what effective leadership means and then holding principals accountable at the district level. Yet it strikes me as both misguided and infantilizing to propose that an act of Congress is needed to conceptualize and fund a comprehensive assessment system aimed, partially, at creating artificial prestige. Instead, the government should take the resources that would go into creating this additional level of accountability and give it to school districts so that they can support an infrastructure that enhances leadership at the local level. We cannot legislate excellence from a distance, nor should we strive for homogeneity in a field characterized by interpersonal relationships and community responsiveness. It seems that we have agreement on what supports effective leadership. Why not allow districts to implement effective models in a manner consistent with their context?

As is true in many districts across the country, the principals in my district are already held to a high standard by our superintendent, by each other, and by a culture that supports building-based autonomy. We have also long since subscribed to many of the suggestions now being made regarding effective school leadership. There is a mentorship structure. I have as much autonomy as I need to make day-to-day decisions about the running of my school. An administrative team meets weekly during school hours to discuss substantive issues of practice and philosophy, problem-solve, and provide collegial support. We talk about books, argue over policies, and attend to the vertical articulation that spans grades K-12.

The content of these meetings, and an academically challenging core curriculum to which every school adheres, are what ensure quality control across the system. The message is clear: Weekly meetings that provide professional development for principals and build shared understandings across grade levels and schools drive the district and define what we mean by excellence. We would not do any better individually or collectively if the federal government supplied hoops to jump through and a certificate to confirm that we had jumped.

Perversely, an unintended consequence of adding centrally designed “highly qualified” requirements to the nation’s principals would be that it would serve as a distraction to our work as instructional leaders. We know that principals already cite paperwork as the No. 1 obstacle to instructional leadership. This includes paperwork generated from teacher evaluations, as well as from requirements for state-mandated and standardized testing mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Although principals concede that teacher evaluations are essential components of their instructional-leadership role and could not and should not be curtailed or delegated, they feel differently about the paperwork associated with state and federal mandates. In fact, the consumption of resources and time now associated with state testing and NCLB compliance is reaching a state of hyperaccountability that challenges the sustainability of current principals and deters aspirants.

Adding centrally designed 'highly qualified' requirements to the nation’s principals would serve as a distraction to our work as instructional leaders.

Not only would the additional documentation required by a comprehensive national program of principal standards, assessment, and certification decrease instructional-leadership time, but it would also be reiterative of what I and many of my peers already produce authentically in the normal course of our work. Like most principals, I write newsletter articles, school improvement plans, teacher observation write-ups and evaluation summaries, letters to parents, faculty-meeting agendas, and year-end self-assessments. Not incidentally, many of these artifacts reflect an attention to test-data analysis, teacher development, and data-driven instruction, and most are accessible to the public.

Although it is true that there isn’t always a straight line from these and other such activities to increased student achievement, the evidence of instructional leadership is clearly present throughout. When the line between principal performance and student academic achievement becomes unambiguous, universally applicable, and measurable, I will not hesitate to learn the strategies. But I won’t be motivated by the prestige of a certificate or the promise of extra money. I’ll take my place alongside the rest of America’s principals because I, like them, do this work to increase student achievement.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Good Principals by Fiat?

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