Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Toward the ‘Highly Qualified’ Principal

By Joseph A. Aguerrebere Jr., Paul D. Houston & Gerald N. Tirozzi — December 10, 2007 6 min read
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As Congress considers the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, it could take an important step forward by supporting proposals that help set higher standards for principals and improve pay for effective leaders, particularly those who work in high-need schools.

The NCLB redesign outlined in a “discussion draft” released this fall by the House Education and Labor Committee includes a proposal to fund principal training in the use of data, improving instruction for all students, and literacy development. It also would pay “exemplary, highly qualified” principals annual bonuses of up to $15,000 for each of four years that they worked in a high-need school and provide all principals up to $4,000 in annual bonuses based on the performance of their schools, particularly on tests that demonstrated student improvements over time.

Federal policymakers need to be careful, however, to avoid repeating the mistakes made five years ago in establishing provisions for “highly qualified” teachers under the law. Any effort to create a similar definition for principals should be based on high national standards, performance assessments across the range of skills required of accomplished leaders, and a demonstration of effectiveness that includes student achievement outcomes. It should not be based on seat time, course hours, or minimal state standards that have legitimately been established for novice principals. If Congress allows each state to determine its own qualifications for highly qualified principals, the nation will be faced with having 50 different definitions of what constitutes exemplary school leadership.

A Call to Action:
School Leadership
Toward the ‘Highly Qualified’ Principal
Getting Serious About Leadership
How States Can Build Leadership Systems

The federal provisions for highly qualified teachers targeted minimum state-licensing criteria for beginning teachers (which made sense, given the pervasive problem of out-of-field teaching). This language, however, suggested to the public that the law would assure that all students had especially competent teachers, something it does not do. So while the promise of highly qualified teachers was dangled before the public, the result is that teachers labeled “highly qualified” often are simply those who meet entry-level state standards. This path should be avoided as Congress turns its attention to principals.

We need a nationwide advanced-certification system for principals if we are going to meet national student-learning goals. Such a system would clarify the skills, knowledge, and achievements that set highly qualified principals apart from peers with minimal credentials. Currently, there are no such national standards and assessments. An advanced principal-certification system would fill this void, while reinforcing the role and importance of principals in raising student achievement.

The time is right to create such a voluntary advanced-certification system that encourages and supports the professional growth of administrators. Principals themselves tell us they need more training in how to strengthen relationships with teachers and mobilize a school’s resources for student learning. This is not surprising. Instructional leadership has too often been diluted and given a low priority as part of principal-preparation programs.

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Should the reauthorized NCLB Act include a provision on school leadership? Join the discussion.

In today’s schools, though, federal and state accountability measures have focused a bright light on school-level performance at the same time that the public and the government have expressed a strong interest in lifting all schools in the system. Rather than being places where teachers work in isolation, schools must promote collaborative work environments in which the expertise of the entire faculty is pooled and the knowledge and skills of the strongest teachers influence all teachers—benefiting all students, not just the select few lucky enough to be assigned to the most effective members of the faculty. For such change to occur, the role and efforts of the principal as an instructional leader are crucial. A national advanced-certification system would meet these demands head-on with a new model for principal recognition.

The demands on principals and their need for advanced training—particularly training in instructional leadership—are growing and have made the job much more challenging. Not only is it becoming increasingly difficult to attract prospective candidates to the principalship, but, just as troubling, it is harder to keep effective and experienced administrators on the job. We need to offer these valuable school leaders an incentive to enter and then remain in the profession.

An advanced-certification system would do this in several important ways. Ideally, principals who earned the advanced professional credential would be recognized with the prestige it conveyed and also a financial reward. It also would expand their career opportunities by paving the way to more responsible administrative positions at the district level and to leadership positions in other districts.

Board-certified principals would demonstrate that they can provide leadership in teaching and assessment, have the capacity to allocate resources efficiently, and are knowledgeable about school management, curriculum, and parent and community relations. They also would show they can grow teacher capacity and create a healthy professional community that capitalizes on the skills of the strongest teachers and nurtures novices. Advanced certification, and the recognition that comes with it, could be leveraged to provide incentives for effective principals in low-performing schools to remain there, and for others to move to these schools, where their skills are urgently needed.

The time is right to create such a voluntary advanced-certification system that encourages and supports the professional growth of administrators.

For such a system to be effective, it must establish a common set of rigorous standards, which should be developed by an independent, nongovernmental entity along the lines of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This entity would include principals of traditional public schools and charters, teachers, superintendents, business leaders, and state and local officials. It would encourage the use of performance assessments that meet the highest professional standards for validity, reliability, and fairness, and that take advantage of cutting-edge leadership-assessment models in other sectors. While we acknowledge that there will never be a perfect performance assessment, we also believe it is possible—in fact, essential—to develop an advanced administrator assessment that can clarify and make the connections to student achievement. This would be an invaluable contribution to the field.

Congress could set this process in motion by approving language in the No Child Left Behind reauthorization to fund the research and development and the initial implementation of a comprehensive program of standards, assessment, and certification.

We recognize that instruction and learning of a high quality are central to the public’s vision for its schools. But it will take more than a vision to make this a reality. We need to raise the bar for principals by creating a common definition of highly qualified school leaders that is measurable, meaningful, and can be implemented on a national scale. By doing so, we can get the leaders we need in the places we need them.

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