School Climate & Safety Opinion

Is Your Time Spent on Accountability or Capacity Building?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 02, 2016 5 min read
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Supervision of personnel is a central responsibility of school leaders. Helping teachers do a better job involves the investment and talent of their principals. Helping principals do a better job involves the investment and talent of their superintendents and assistant superintendents. This is far more than supervision. An article published in the Hechinger Report entitled How to help principals do a better job? Train their bosses reported:

A 2012 survey found 75 percent of principals think their job has become “too complex.” Between 2008 and 2012, the same survey found job satisfaction among principals decreased nine percentage points, from 68 percent to 59 percent. Half of all principals quit during their third year, and districts nationwide are trying to figure out how to better support principals and improve their effectiveness.

From Supervision to Capacity Building
Over the past few decades the role of principal, like that of other educational leaders, has shifted from primarily management to leadership. The role shift is so profound that some leadership preparation programs have even eliminated supervision courses from requirements for the building leader certification programs. Yet, those functions remain within the building leader role in most schools. What has changed is that they are also expected to offer vision, develop faculty capacity and set a course for followers amidst the tumultuous change we are experiencing....all while keeping the focus on students, their safety and growth.

We may all be responsible for the operating assumption that once a person is in the role, they are prepared for whatever comes. But, there are some problems here. From the Hechinger Report:

Even as the demands on principals have grown, including new academic standards and teacher evaluation systems, principal preparation programs have been slow to evolve, said Vanderbilt’s Ellen Goldring. “Part of the challenge is the university programs that prepare principals simultaneously need to change,” she added. “So when principals are entering the field, they are more prepared for these challenges.”

Most new principals come from the teaching faculty. If they, as teachers, only experienced observation and evaluation only as a measure there is likelihood that they will do the same.

Continuing professional development is essential for all professionals, for teachers, principals, and yes, superintendents, too. Isn’t it odd that other professions require continuing education for continuation of licenses or certification but our business, the one focused on learning itself, does not? Is this reticence part of the pressure we fell to know it all, to have the answers? We succumb to that pressure before we even understand the real question sometimes. Yet, we should be the models for leaning and for sharing what we are learning, not as a fad but as an improvement strategy.

If our voting public, who supports our budgets with their tax dollars, do not understand the need for ongoing professional development, we will struggle to make a positive argument to keep the fiscal support necessary in our budgets. Schools continue to bend and stretch to meet the changing needs of their children. Ultimately, we believe schools need to shift into a new design for learning. This cannot happen without the support and understanding of the public. This education of the public is the leader’s job but we all know that it is easier if teachers are arm in arm with the leader. Before a leader can become a successful communicator about the need for this support, they have to come to know the internal capacities of the system and of its people. That is the “work before the work”.

How to Maximize Capacity Within the System
Perhaps the most important question to ask is whether you are using the observation and evaluation process for supervision and accountability or for the development of teacer capacity while supervising for accountability. It is generally true that the number of evaluations principals must complete annually complicates this goal and contributes to making this a more rote process. “I don’t have time. I just have to get these done.” are understandable expressions of frustration. But even more important, this powerful capacity building feedback opportunity of observations and evaluations becomes simply an activity repeated over time with no noticeable result.

There is no evidence to indicate that a process intended to evaluate by placing a word or number on the actions of another is effective in developing capacity or changing practice. In order to learn and improve, we, just like our students, benefit from clear expectations, information, provocative questions, modeling, encouragement, and reflection in a safe environment where risks can be taken and feedback is quick, honest and valuable. That is pretty difficult to provide when pushing through the pile on the desk that includes but is not limited to the observations and evaluations with a looming deadline.

But there is this other issue...it is a system wide problem. The support and development of the principals and superintendents is also too often not well connected to a district plan or to an evaluation process focused on personal and professional capacity building...not only as a model but to actually help them continue to grow and improve as leaders. Unless we accept the impossibility of using an accountability measure as an improvement measure, little improvement is likely.

The solutions rest in the hands of each local school and district. The responsibilities, timelines, number of leaders to share, talk with, and learn from, experience, contracts, limits and strengths all make a difference. Each leader must be troubled by the time spent on accountability versus time spent on development of talent. Then, something else has to happen.

Who can help? How can leadership be shared? Are there others who can be included in the observations of some teachers? Can those who you do not observe be ones you spend time developing? Can a coaching initiative be incorporated? And if you are in a school or district where there are only a few of you can you be mindful of your conversations with teachers to create thoughtful and reflective opportunities for improvement?

For superintendents, the best way to fuel district improvement practices will be to model them with the principals. Superintendents may be skilled at identifying principals who are not measuring up and even accomplishing their departure. But, we wonder how many of principals who left were in need of better development and are passed on to another system.

In the end, schools are learning organizations. If administrative time is spent on measuring accountability alone, chances for improvement diminish. When leaders have figured out how to work within their organization to maximize capacity for learning and develop the language of improvement, then everyone is growing and system capacity is as well.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.