Friday, April 6, 2012

The Key to Education Reform: "Principal Teachers"

As Americans debate education reform, there is a great deal of discussion surrounding teacher improvement through more rigorous and valid teacher evaluation. While a crucial component to improvement of education, enhanced teacher performance is only half of the equation. How can we expect to have great teachers without first having great "principal teachers" who are true educational leaders? After all, who will be conducting the majority of teacher evaluations that will help weed out ineffective teachers as well as guide good teachers to greatness? The answer is school principals. Unfortunately, many principals are unprepared for this critical component to real education reform.

Several expert research and education associations like The Measures of EffectiveTeaching (MET) project and The Wallace Foundation have studied and identified the essential knowledge and skills that school principals need; however, the level of competency for existing principals in these critical areas varies widely. Some principals are real school leaders who help teachers enhance classroom routines, plan and prepare dynamic and effective lessons, select great instructional resources, assess students, evaluate data, and provide interventions that lead to enhanced learning. Other principals were never comfortable in the classroom as a teacher or wanted to make more money, and so they went into “administration.”

I truly believe that much of the angst that surrounds teacher evaluation reform comes from teachers who are afraid to be evaluated by principals who they know cannot identify great pedagogy as well as from principals who are unsure about what they are supposed to do once they are in classrooms to conduct the new evaluations. Are they supposed to be looking for evidence of bad practice so they can begin the process of removing ineffective teacher? Are they supposed to be looking for ways to help good teachers improve? Again, how can we expect principals to accomplish either task if they are not master teachers themselves?

One of the most powerful books I have read in recent years was Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools by co-authors Karin Chenoweth and Christina Theokas. The book examines 33 principals who are leading high-achieving and/or rapidly improving schools that have a significant population of children living in poverty. Not surprisingly, the authors found that all of the principals studied have one major commonality: each leads great instruction as a "principal teacher" and “school leader” and not as a "school administrator." An administrator, by definition, is merely an operational manager within an organization; however, a leader is someone who guides or inspires others. Schools need leaders.

Molly Bensinger-Lacy is one of the principals described in the book. As principal of Graham Road Elementary, a high-poverty school serving mostly the children of new immigrants in Fairfax, Virginia, Bensinger-Lacy led the school from one of the lowest performing in the district to become one of the highest performing schools in the entire state. She has since left the school, and now she coaches other principals to help them transform from administrators to leaders.

Here is Bensinger-Lacy’s list of the essential skills and knowledge of great principals and real school leaders:

  • Unshakable moral purpose
  • A strong sense of urgency
  • Courage to stand up for what is best for kids
  • High efficacy
  • Personal responsibility for outcomes
  • The ability to be directive and collaborative
  • To be achievement drive
I would also add Earnest Hemingway’s definition of courage: grace under pressure.

Bensinger-Lacy also knows great principals must:
  • Stay abreast of research and best practice
  • Implement initiatives with fidelity and rigor
  • Provide descriptive, rapid feedback that feeds forward
  • Build shared leadership capacity
I would add understand curriculum content as well as know and be able to model effective pedagogy and classroom practices.

To accomplish real education reform, we must focus on ensuring principals develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become school leaders. Make no mistake: leading schools is an arduous task that is as rewarding as it is tough, and for principals, it is only going to get tougher. However, when I accepted my privileged position as a school leader, they never said it would be easy; they said it would be worth it.

Trust me. It’s worth it.