By Ben Velderman
DALLAS – Up to now, education reform efforts have mostly focused on improving the quality of teachers in the nation’s K-12 classrooms.
BigpencilBut a new study by the George W. Bush Institute suggests it might be time to cast the spotlight on America’s school principals, too.
The study –“Operating in the Dark: What Outdated State Policies and Data Gaps Mean for Effective School Leadership” – argues that while school principals have a direct impact on student achievement, most states lack up-to-date, research-based policies to ensure building leaders are being adequately trained or evaluated.
“Principals are no longer the building managers of yesterday – the ones you went to in order to borrow a master key or get supplies ordered,” said Kerry Ann Moll, director of the Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, during a recent conference.
“Principals are the instructional leaders of the campus. They’re responsible for managing multi-million dollar budgets, ensuring there’s an effective teacher in every classroom … and creating a campus culture where each child thrives and will graduate prepared for success,” Moll said.
The study notes that school districts are responsible for hiring individual principals, but it’s the responsibility of each state to oversee how the school leaders are recruited and selected into principal preparation programs, as well as how they are trained, licensed and evaluated.
It’s a job most states perform without any kind of “coherent strategy,” according to the Bush Institute study.
“Twenty-eight states report that neither the state nor (the) principal preparation programs are required to collect any outcome data on … graduates to know if they secure jobs, retain them, show impact on student achievement, or earn effective ratings on principal evaluations,” notes the study.
Equally surprising is the finding that 19 states have no idea how many individuals are graduating annually from state-approved principal training programs.  
There’s already a shortage of high-quality principal candidates in the nation’s urban and rural school districts, according to the Bush Institute. And that “supply crises” is only going to get worse, as an estimated 40 percent of current principals are expected to retire by 2014.
“Failure to collect and monitor the outcomes of principal preparation and licensure investments leaves states making haphazard decisions and operating in the dark,” reads the study.
Readers of the 36-page study are left to conclude that improving the quality of the nation’s school principals should be a top priority of the education reform movement. 
Better training programs are essential
One way this can be achieved is by having education leaders demand better results out of their state’s principal preparation programs. 
There are 978 such programs in the nation, and 84 percent of them are operated at the university level. Many of these programs are based on “out-of-date notions of the principal role,” the study notes.
The “traditional” approach to principal preparation involves low admission standards, course instructors who have little or no experience as a principal, limited school-based learning opportunities, and a “reliance on theoretical and abstract coursework without the opportunity to practice and apply leadership skills in real-life situations,” Bush Institute researchers note.
The study calls for training programs to focus on “relevant” coursework – simulations, case studies, role plays – and to require “performance-based assessments.” Training programs should also provide candidates with “authentic learning experiences in real school settings” over a six-month period.
The study’s authors write that alternative, non-university institutions should be allowed to offer principal training, too.
“By states only allowing university-based programs to gain approval, they are restricting innovation and the proliferation of other types of programs that have demonstrated effectiveness,” the study reads.
Researchers note that several alternative programs – operated by the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), New Leaders, and the New York City Leadership Academy – have produced principals who outperform their peers from university-level programs.
Alternative training programs – run by school districts, non-profits, and charter management organizations – are on the rise in 10 states, the study notes.
Another way states can increase principal quality is by redesigning how individuals earn and keep their principal’s license.
According to the study:
Current principal certification exams “test basic knowledge rather than measuring the more complex skills (that) research shows effective leaders need to have, such as problem solving in complex situations and developing a plan of action; observing and coaching teachers; managing change in a school and inspiring adults to have high expectation for themselves and their students; and analyzing data to identify school strengths and weaknesses.
“Unless exams are rigorous, well-designed performance-based assessments, it is unlikely that passing an exam is a valid predictor of principal performance on the job.”
Since state officials oversee the principal training programs, as well as the licensure process for principals, these reforms seem easily within reach.
Do principals really have the power?
Anyone who has ever read a teacher union contract knows that a principal’s control over his or her school is limited by numerous “Thou Shalt Not” work rules written into labor contracts.
Teacher unions use collective bargaining to place restrictions on teacher evaluations, work hours, classroom assignments, transfers and professional development.
Is it really fair for the Bush Institute to ramp up expectations for principals when so many school leaders are handcuffed by union labor agreements?
Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center, says states such as Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin have placed limits on the issues over which teacher unions can collectively bargain. As a result, principals in those states now have considerable authority over how their schools operate.
“It’s a new era,” Van Beek tells EAGnews. “A lot of things that reduced the ability of principals to be effective leaders of their schools are now gone.”
Even principals in states with strong collective bargaining laws may have more power than they realize.
Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies with the American Education Institute, says America’s school leaders have “far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed.”
In a recent AEI article, Hess writes that while some teacher contracts limit the authority of school leaders, most contracts offer principals and district officials a lot of room in which to maneuver.
The more serious problem, according to Hess, is the “culture of can’t” mindset among public school officials that treats “ankle-high obstacles” as “absolute prohibitions.” He says it’s the product of uninformed school leaders and overly cautious school attorneys who are desperate to avoid legal headaches.
“Much of what leaders say or think they cannot do—or simply do not do—are things that they are already able to do,” writes Hess.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy agrees.
“Most people see the contract as a steel box,” Deasy tells Hess in an interview. “It’s not. It’s a steel floor with no boundaries around it. You’ve just got to push and push and push.”
All of this supports the Bush Institute’s position that America’s principals-to-be need better training and that current principals should be held more accountable for student learning.
“Principals are a critical force in school improvement,” and states must demand better training programs and enforce stricter licensing requirements “to validate and confirm that principals are indeed ready for the job and effective once employed as campus leaders,” the Bush Institute study concludes.

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