While principals increasingly are moving to center stage in national debates over school improvement, a new study finds most states have little or no information about how their principals are prepared, licensed, supported, and evaluated.
The Dallas-based George W. Bush Institute was expected to release an analysis of all 50 states’ principal policies and related data collections in Washington this week. It finds that even states with otherwise comprehensive longitudinal-data systems collect limited information about principals, particularly on their preparation.
“Despite the growing body of research, most states are not requiring the use of evidence on principal quality in policy,” said Kerry Ann Moll, a co-author of the report and the program director for the Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership.
“Seven states couldn’t even tell us how many licenses they give each year,” Ms. Moll said. “That’s a big basic-data problem.”
Many states have few policies and collect little information on how school principals are prepared, licensed, supported, or evaluated, according to the Bush Institute survey.
SOURCE: George W. Bush Institute
For some states, she said, collecting data on principals “was not even on their radar,” but others, like Rhode Island, are creating comprehensive systems to follow principals from their training programs through licensing, placement, and school leadership.
According to an analysis by the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, a majority of states now collect data on teacher preparation and effectiveness, but, “you can’t just pull information on teachers and principals and assume the data needed is going to be the same for both,” Ms. Moll said. “There are nuances there.”
The study, based on a survey of state education leaders in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, identifies five key responsibilities of an effective school leader:
• Recruiting and selecting teachers;
• Developing and supporting teachers;
• Assessing and rewarding teachers;
• Using data to drive instruction; and
• Developing a positive school culture.
“I do think we are asking more of principals than we’ve ever asked before,” said Benjamin Fenton, the chief strategy officer and a co-founder of the New York City-based principal-preparation program New Leaders. These include making principals lead academics, manage personnel, and keep tabs on the finances of their campuses.
Mr. Fenton was not connected to the report, but was scheduled to comment on it during a briefing on the release at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.
“One of the biggest things we have to ask of our principals now is that they are very skilled in being leaders of leaders, developing the leadership skills in other staff,” he said. “For some of the [preparation] programs, this is a bigger and bigger focus.”
The Bush Institute is a nonprofit foundation that explores education reform among other issues.
Most states make few connections between their principal-preparation programs and the eventual careers of program students, the study found. Fewer than half of states require principal-training programs to report what happens to their graduates, and 19 could not say how many new aspiring principals graduate each year.
Poor alignment between training programs and districts’ needs can lead to cyclical principal shortages, Ms. Moll said—a particular problem for rural districts.
While 47 states reported they have adopted standards for principal effectiveness, Ms. Moll and her colleagues found that just 17 states include learning outcomes when evaluating principal-preparation programs. Only six states—Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Washington—use some evidence of effectiveness in renewing principals’ licenses.
“There are certainly technological challenges within this, but still I was surprised at how few [states] even collected outcomes data [on principals], much less used it,” Mr. Fenton said.
Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett, who just came to the post after being defeated for re-election as Indiana’s state superintendent, said it is important for states to establish criteria to evaluate principals’ effectiveness.
Although most states do not have “value added” systems to evaluate principals, Mr. Bennett said state and district administrators still can identify whether a principal is effective by using data they likely already have on hand: schools’ achievement status and teacher-quality ratings.
“There must be fidelity between the school performance and the effectiveness of the teachers, and that is the job of the principal,” Mr. Bennett said.
For example, if a school has low overall performance but a high percentage of teachers rated as highly effective, “that’s a principal problem,” Mr. Bennett said, because the school leader either is not evaluating his or her teachers effectively or not adequately supporting them.
“The principal is responsible for the sum total of the learning in that building,” Mr. Bennett said.
Looking at Licensure
The study found more states are beginning to look at ways to evaluate principals’ effectiveness. For example, Louisiana is now requiring principals to prove they have been rated as effective three years out of the last five in order to keep their licenses.
In May, the Bush Institute plans to issue a follow-up study looking at the financial aspects of school leadership. “Principals are still responsible for multimillion-dollar budgets,” Ms. Moll said. “They’re CEOs of their campuses, and they’re not prepared for that.”
The institute also plans to conduct additional surveys and case studies on principal data collection. “I believe seven to 10 years from now, we may not be talking about teacher quality and teacher-effectiveness models,” Mr. Bennett said. “We will be evaluating schools and holding principals responsible, because then principals will hold teachers accountable and hold the values that drive student achievement at a high level.”
Mr. Fenton agreed. “When we look at the teacher-quality talk going on, it’s hugely important,” he said, “but if we don’t have an equal focus on principal quality, there’s a worry these reforms won’t have the impact on student improvement that we’re hoping for. Teacher surveys consistently report the quality of the school leader as critical to whether they are going to stay in the school and career.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as States ‘Operating in the Dark’ on Principals, Study Says