A major focus in education reform over the past decade has been teacher quality, and rightly so. After all, we’ve all heard the research: teachers are the most important school-based factor in determining student achievement. In fact, students of great teachers make 5-6 months more learning gains than students of poor performers. And it makes sense given our own experiences; we all remember that one teacher who went the extra mile…the one who stayed after school late to help students finish a project, the one who held one-on-one tutoring sessions before school, and the one encouraged mediocre students to take advanced classes the next year, when no other teacher did.
We believe in the importance of teacher quality so much, in fact, that we have entirely transformed the way we evaluate and retain teachers. In Florida, and in states across the nation, we now hold teachers accountable for the progress of their students. We no longer recognize teachers as “widgets” in a factory, like interchangeable, mindless machines. The great ones are being validated for their efforts, and the poor performers will ultimately be weeded out of the system.
But what about principals?
I’ve previously discussed my concern about the lack of pressure on principals (based on my own experiences with a few), but I have come to realize that principals are getting plenty of pressure…it’s the lack of support that is really the problem.
Florida’s major teacher quality overhaul legislation in 2011 also included accountability provisions for principals. Just like all K-12 teachers, school leaders in Florida are held accountable for the progress of their assigned students. But principals also have another evaluation every year (one that has been around for over a decade)–their school’s grade.
And when that school grade suffers, whose fault is it? The obvious answer is the guy (or gal) in charge; he’s the CEO, head honcho, man-in-the-big office.
And yet…the principal has almost no autonomy within his own building. He has little flexibility within his budget. Even with a new evaluation system, he lacks authority to hire and fire his own staff. He is required to abide by district discipline policies, implement district reading programs, and use district-approved textbooks and assessment schedules.
We have increased the role of principal from building manager to chief instructional coach, data analyst, and personnel manager. But we still treat principals like widgets, in a sense.
Teachers are asked to raise student achievement in their classrooms, and there is an incentive by school leaders to support them in this endeavor, since ultimately the school leaders are responsible. School leaders are asked to raise student achievement in their schools, but who has an incentive to support them? Who is being held accountable for the principals?
It comes down to this: we ask principals to come into these schools and perform incredible feats, with few tools or resources to do so. When they flop, districts give them the boot (or at least pass them off to a different school), and move on. If we want to hold them accountable entirely, we need to give them enough leash to make the changes necessary. Additionally, we need to look at accountability within the school district.
I think the question we need to ask is two-fold: What are we doing to ensure school leaders are prepared for the job they are given, and what are we doing to hold their employers accountable?