Professional Development Opinion

New Age Principals

By William J. Price — January 07, 2004 7 min read
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How should we prepare school leaders for the difficult tasks they will face in the era of standards and accountability?

During recent months, a number of foundations, institutes, and policy groups have debated the dual problems of how to improve the quality of school administrators and how to attract more qualified applicants for positions in school leadership. The “findings” of such groups are not surprising. With the exception of proposals for deregulating licensure requirements for administrators, put forth by some groups, there is much agreement with the various analyses and recommendations.

Few would disagree, for example, that at least part of the reason applicant pools for administrative vacancies are growing smaller has to do with unrealistic working conditions and lack of greater financial incentives. Principals report a growing complexity in their work requirements, longer hours, and little control over the things that matter, such as personnel, budget, and programs. Pay differentials between many principals and top-paid teachers are viewed by many teachers as making it not worth taking on an increased level of responsibility with its incumbent demands and high-pressure work life. Many highly talented teacher leaders, therefore, do not become applicants for the building principalship.

The more contentious recommendations to reduce licensure requirements to allow for recruiting nontraditional applicants for the principalship will do little to change the more fundamental problem facing those who do seek this position. Regardless of the route used to get the job, many will not be successful in it because they lack the essential skills required in a new age of standards and accountability. Both current principals, and those entering the principalship for the first time, find that they are ill-prepared to manage an infrastructure that supports instruction and has as its constant focus the technical core of teaching and learning.

The central question, of course, is this: What are the skills needed to create the type of infrastructure that supports instructional improvement and student learning? While there are many skills the successful principal should have, I would suggest four specifically that are absolutely essential to school improvement and accountability.

The first I would broadly describe as the ability to manage information. Primarily as a result of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the parallel requirements adopted by individual states through their own standards and accountability measures, schools are overwhelmed with data. Information must be collected on several facets of the school’s programs and services, including test scores across grade levels and disciplines. Such data must also be organized by school year so that comparisons may be made that, through later analysis, may chart growth in achievement levels. To manage such large data sets, the ability to use technology as a tool for information management is a required skill for principals. They must become knowledgeable about administrative applications of technology and must be able to easily access and collate important databases.

Principals must have more than a passing familiarity with the curriculum: They must know it thoroughly in order to assess the degree to which it is being effectively taught.

Closely related to the development of an effective information-management system is the ability to analyze and use the data available to effectively assess the areas where students are not achieving to expected levels of proficiency. As often noted in the school reform literature, schools are rich in data but analysis-poor. Principals must know how to lead data-focused meetings at which, among other things, data is disaggregated by gender, race, disability, and socioeconomic level. In addition, careful analysis of test items in each subject area may be able to reveal patterns of where students are not doing well. Such an analysis should be used to inform actual decisions by the school’s staff—decisions that lead to the development of clear objectives and strategies to improve teaching and learning. Strategies should clearly address areas in need of improvement, as determined through an analysis process that is led by the building principal.

Careful analysis of school data may also reveal the need for strong principal leadership in the form of curriculum alignment, which is the third essential skill required of the successful principal in an era of high-stakes testing. While educators can debate the unfunded costs, the fairness, and the warped logic of the No Child Left Behind Act, the reality is that current administrators are faced with the need for compliance with the federal law to avoid severe sanctions. So their curricula must align with external standards that give a clear sense of what satisfactory performance means at each grade level and within each discipline.

Principals must have more than a passing familiarity with the curriculum, particularly in math and reading at the early grades. They must know the curriculum thoroughly to be able to assess the degree to which it is being effectively taught. This also requires use of that dirty word “monitoring,” which means regular visits to classrooms, honest feedback to teachers, and assistance for teachers whose teaching is not addressing the standards against which pupils will be measured.

The ability to manage information, the ability to analyze and use data for decisionmaking, and the ability to align and monitor the degree to which the curriculum and instructional program are in sync with external standards: This list represents a tall order for any principal, and it simply cannot be done alone. It requires that teachers collaborate, and sit together to examine the results of their instruction. Teachers must, together, ask questions: In what areas are students not doing well? Which lessons seem to be most successful for students having difficulty learning? Can these lessons be shared and adapted by other teachers?

This kind of collaboration will not happen unless the principal establishes a school climate and culture that supports, values, and rewards this type of professional behavior. Whether we call it building a community of learners, developing collegiality through collaboration, or some other term, it is the sine qua non of effective principal leadership, and is the fourth critical skill required of the principal in this new age of standards and accountability.

The principal's job in today's schools is far more difficult and demanding than it has ever been.

If those who enter the principalship have any real chance of leading their schools to higher levels of achievement in today’s high-pressure, high-stakes-testing environment, acquiring these skills should be a priority. Institutions of higher education that have principal-preparation programs have an important role to play in ensuring that their graduates know and are able to perform these skills. This may require some retooling of the structure of many preparation programs. Two fundamental changes should head that list:

  • Principal preparation should include an increased emphasis on data management and analysis. Traditional statistics courses, as offered in most graduate schools of education, are not geared toward the type of statistical analysis required by principals in their actual work in schools.

A few forward-thinking professors in some graduate schools have already begun this process of redesigning traditional statistics courses used in principal- preparation programs. They rightly note, for example, that the focus should be on descriptive rather than inferential statistics, and that there should be an emphasis on ways to prepare and communicate findings from data analysis in easily understood terms to the larger community. This will require the use of charts, tables, and computer graphics that can display the statistical patterns and comparisons of data sets that inform decisionmaking and suggest strategies for improvement.

  • Preparation programs in educational leadership should forge stronger links with their counterparts in curriculum and instruction, particularly when such programs are located in different departments of schools and colleges of education. The principal’s role as an instructional leader requires better preparation in curriculum design and evaluation, as well as in instructional supervision, because these are the critical skills embedded in today’s standards and accountability models.

The principal’s job in today’s schools is far more difficult and demanding than it has ever been. It has been made especially hard by the need to empirically demonstrate through “wall chart” data continuous improvement in student achievement for all students. Applicant pools for the principalship will continue to dwindle unless we do a better job of preparing candidates for the difficult tasks they will face in this new age of standards and accountability in the schools.

William J. Price is a professor in the department of leadership and counseling at Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, Mich.


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