The data are clear: Teachers matter. In fact, teachers account for one-third of a school’s total impact on student achievement. Especially startling is the fact that students with three consecutive years of effective teachers outperform students with ineffective teachers by 50 percentage points. This research on teacher quality has spurred a national effort to rethink how we prepare, support, and evaluate teachers. And rightly so.
But what often gets lost in the policy conversation is the role of the school leader in ensuring that there is a strong teacher in every classroom. Without a high-quality principal at the helm of a school, students are unlikely to have successive years of effective teaching. Principals are best positioned to ensure that every student has a great teacher year after year. We also know that strong teachers will leave a school if they do not feel that the principal provides a supportive environment.
Exemplary principals hire, train, support, and retain effective teachers, while releasing those who are not ensuring students excel. They create a climate that values effective teaching and supports teacher collaboration. They establish instructional and data systems to help teachers succeed and understand whether their teaching is producing student mastery. By creating the structures for quality teaching throughout the building, principals send a message that teaching and learning are what matter.
Today’s school leader is no longer simply a building manager. Principals must be instructional leaders who diagnose teachers’ strengths and areas of growth, provide them with targeted feedback and strategies for improvement, model effective practice, and monitor teacher progress. While the impact of an effective teacher is undeniable, it is limited to those students in that particular classroom. In contrast, a principal’s impact is felt throughout an entire school.
And data show how leadership makes a difference. According to a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, there is substantial variation in the effectiveness of principals, showing that the quality of the principal impacts student achievement. The authors found that having a principal in the top 16 percent of the distribution leads the average student to learn 0.05 standard deviations more annually than he or she would in a school with an average principal.
So while the national conversation is consumed with the topic of teacher effectiveness, we cannot overlook the importance of the school principal. The U.S. Department of Education has signaled its interest in encouraging states to implement reforms in teacher and principal preparation, support, and evaluation. Both the Race to the Top competition and the No Child Left Behind waiver process have emphasized the importance of developing human-capital strategies that evaluate the effectiveness of both teachers and principals. Yet states are generally taking on teacher evaluation separate from—or at least ahead of—principal evaluation.
In 2010, the George W. Bush Institute launched the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, or AREL, to reinforce and promote the significance of school principals in leading and sustaining school improvement and student-achievement outcomes. Eighteen innovative programs with strong principal-preparation models have joined with us to form the AREL Network. The members of this group include Achievement First; the ED-Entrepreneurship Center; the Gwinnett County, Ga., school system; the KIPP Foundation; New Leaders (formerly New Leaders for New Schools); the University of Illinois at Chicago; and the New York City Leadership Academy.
These programs are led by a wide variety of providers, including universities, nonprofits, charter school management organizations, and districts, but all are committed to graduating highly effective principals. By linking these programs, AREL aims to speed the transfer of best practices and thereby accelerate the development of high-quality principal preparation across the country.
For years, education scholars such as Richard F. Elmore and Arthur E. Levine have pointed out the flaws of traditional principal-preparation programs. Many of those programs lack sufficient methods for recruiting and screening candidates; they emphasize theoretical and sometimes outdated coursework; they fail to give candidates hands-on and real-life experiences in schools; and, once candidates graduate, the programs make little or no effort to make sure their graduates secure jobs or succeed in them. Not surprisingly then, a 2006 Public Agenda survey found that nearly two-thirds of principals reported that their preparation programs had not prepared them for the realities of leading a school.
This lack of preparation could be contributing to the fact that almost 50 percent of principals leave the field within the first five years of starting, with a majority leaving within the first three years. The job of school leader has become increasingly challenging because of expanded responsibilities and inadequate professional supports. The churn of leadership makes it difficult to sustain reform efforts in schools that result in improved teaching practices and learning outcomes for students.
Clearly, it is not enough simply to train high-quality school leaders without addressing the context and conditions that can either support or hinder principals once they are on the job. If we expect principals to engage in the hard work of instructional leadership, we must ensure that state and district policies are coordinated and aligned in support of instructional improvement as the highest priority.
We need to take a multifaceted approach that starts with a comprehensive review of the various policies, systems, and processes that span the continuum of a principal’s career. This continuum includes preparation, certification, induction, ongoing professional development, evaluation, compensation, promotion, and licensure renewal. Some of these issues reside at the state level, others at the district or preparation-program level. The George W. Bush Institute, together with the Council of Chief State School Officers, is beginning this work by launching a first-of-its-kind endeavor to collect data on state policies affecting school leaders. We want to bring to light the importance of creating and sustaining a system of cohesive education leadership policies that work on behalf of principals who are responsible for attracting and retaining teacher talent and driving the improvement of student learning.
Until we have outstanding leadership in every school, we will not achieve teacher effectiveness—nor significantly improved student-learning outcomes—at scale. We do our schools and students a disservice if the national conversation continues to focus solely on teacher quality, without recognizing the linkages to and importance of simultaneously building systems to improve and support principal quality.
Teachers are critical, but we cannot forget that it is the principal who is best positioned to ensure successive years of quality teaching for every child—and our national discussion must include a focus on both.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Teacher Effectiveness, Yes. But What About Principals?