School & District Management

Plans Set for National Certification of Principals

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 10, 2009 5 min read
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After years of talk and stalled efforts, the creation of a national certification program for principals is finally under way, with plans to launch the initiative formally sometime in 2011.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards—which is spearheading the effort that will mirror the now 20-year-old advanced-certification program it runs for teachers—announced this week that it has completed work to define what skills and characteristics school leaders need to be effective. It is in the final stages of crafting specific standards for principals.

The nonprofit organization has raised roughly $3 million to help pay for developing the certification program so far, including a $1 million appropriation from Congress and $1 million in funding from the Chicago Public Education Fund.

As is true for the teachers who pursue voluntary national certification, the NBPTS program for principals is intended for those with at least a few years of experience who can prove a high level of accomplishment.

If done right, said Joseph A. Aguerrebere, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based national board, “we will end up with broad professional consensus around standards for principals and can use the framework we create to talk about different ways to develop principals in the first place.

“We don’t want this to just be a yardstick,” he said, “but a tool to help educators get to where they need to be.”

Critical Time

In an era of high-stakes accountability and intense public scrutiny, especially for the most beleaguered schools and districts, there is widespread consensus that who runs an individual school can make or break it.

“I think many of our teachers support this effort and are saying, in so many words, ‘Give me a principal who gets it and I will go work for them anywhere,’ ” Mr. Aguerrebere said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan endorsed the effort last week at a Washington event the national board hosted to announce its progress on developing the advanced certification. The secretary, who is overseeing the distribution of billions of dollars in economic-stimulus funds for public schools, said pouring money into fixing troubled schools will be futile if the principals running them aren’t effective.

“If we don’t have great leadership in our schools, we’re kidding ourselves,” Mr. Duncan said.

Diane Cargile, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, which is also based in Arlington, said a highly regarded national-certification designation for school leaders is long overdue.

“There are those of us who’ve been waiting for something like this for years,” said Ms. Cargile, who is the principal of Rio Grande Elementary School in Terre Haute, Ind. “This is a profession with a very high-level set of skills and competencies that are necessary for success, just like physicians and lawyers. We need this both for a professional-development tool and for recognition of outstanding accomplishments.”

Both Ms. Cargile’s association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals have been pushing for advanced certification for years. Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the NASSP, based in Reston, Va., said the program has the potential to change rigid state policies around education requirements for would-be administrators.

“I think that creative states are going to look at this,” he said, “and say this certification can take the place” of requiring principals to obtain Doctor of Education degrees, for example.

Mr. Aguerrebere said the board also hopes that certification can take the place of an individual state’s licensing requirements.

“Right now, we’ve got different rules for licensure in every state, and that makes for a very fragmented profession,” he said. “This is a designation that should allow talent to move more easily to where it’s needed.”

As envisioned by the national board, the principal-certification program is the first phase of what will ultimately be an advanced certification for other school leaders, namely teacher leaders.

The nine “core propositions”—a specific set of skills and characteristics that dozens of practitioners helped the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to define over several months—were designed to apply across all school leadership roles. With work on the draft standards nearly complete for principals, the board will begin next to design the assessment that will measure how accomplished principal-candidates actually are.

However the final assessment looks, it will be as rigorous and thorough as that given to candidates for national teacher certification, Mr. Aguerrebere said. For example, principals will have to show evidence that they are succeeding in raising student achievement and will have to answer “tough questions” about their work. The certification process will take place over “an extended period of time” and each candidate’s assessment will be evaluated by peers in the field, he said.

Chicago a Pilot Site

Janet M. Knupp, the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Education Fund, said her foundation’s investment in the principal-certification program is one of the largest it has made since the group was formed nine years ago. Locally, the fund has invested heavily in paying for teachers working in the Chicago public schools to go through the process for national board certification.

Because of those efforts, 52 Chicago schools have a teaching corps with at least 15 percent of their teachers nationally certified, Ms. Knupp said. Extending such work to principals seemed like the next logical step.

“When we started thinking about having nationally certified principals working in the same buildings with our nationally certified teachers, we couldn’t resist the opportunity,” Ms. Knupp said. “We have thought all along that human capital is one of the greatest levers you can pull to affect student achievement.”

She said Chicago will serve as a pilot site for the principal certification, starting next year.

“That we can start this in an urban area is really important,” she said. “With the teacher-certification program, it was really concentrated in suburban districts.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week

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