Mar 20, 2012

What about principals? (Or, Let Me Make Some Unsupported Claims)

Michelle Jahnke is a 2011-12 StudentsFirst Teacher Fellow. She has taught for 25 years in a rural school district at the elementary, middle school and high school level and has focused on at-risk learners. She is now Dean of Students at a high school.

A conversation about school reform inevitably leads to a discussion regarding the importance of effective teachers. Research finds what many intuitively know -- that the teacher is the most important in-school factor in ensuring student learning. However, what is often not discussed is the role of an effective principal in relation to student achievement.

As an educator of twenty-five years, I’ve seen my fair share of principals. Like my colleagues, I have witnessed the transformative power an effective principal can have on a school.

A former principal of mine comes to mind when I think of an effective leader. This principal had a vision for our school and built a collaborative culture amongst the entire teaching staff that allowed us to develop goals together in moving toward that vision. He set up teams of teachers that would work together to attain a set of goals. He developed a timeline for when the teams were responsible for completing and turning in products that reflected our achievement. He was positive and supportive of our staff, finding solutions to problems when they arose. When the goals were attained, we celebrated our shared success.

Of course, when this principal first suggested changes, several of us were uncomfortable and skeptical. But through his clear expectations and collaborative approach, he managed to build a transformative culture within our school. In the end, the principal and the school were successful in large part because the staff felt that our school leader was committed to our school’s success and was supportive of us to make it through the changes that needed to occur.

Research has shown a correlation between an effective principal and student learning. Ask any educator or parent if this is true, and there would be no end to the number of stories they could recount about how essential a principal is to a school’s success. The leadership of a school affects its entire culture and influences the teachers, who in turn, impact student learning.

With the positive wave of accountability and focus on student achievement, the role of the principal is even more critical now than ever before. Teachers today are being asked to educate all students to high levels of learning. This requires a new way of thinking and a new way of schooling. Because no single teacher has all the knowledge and all the skills to reach all the students, teachers can no longer work in isolation, but instead need to collaborate to guarantee every child a great education. The principal is no longer a manager of learning, but an active participant in this new environment.

As we understand and appreciate the critical role a principal plays supporting teacher success, we have to develop accurate ways to evaluate and hold principals accountable, just as we do for our students and just as we do for our teachers. As these evaluations are developed, several important factors should be considered. We should measure the ability of the principal to set a culture of high expectations and to put into place clear procedures and support to make sure that all students reach high standards. Student achievement growth, as measured by standardized test scores, must be a significant component of any principal evaluation.

We must evaluate the principal’s ability to serve as an instructional leader. Principals must be able to support teachers by developing action steps and product outcomes. Along with each new step, the principal demonstrates his or her support by attending the meetings and working with the teachers to overcome any obstacles. This includes providing time during the school day for teachers to meet. The principal demonstrates the importance of the new procedures through ongoing communication and various checkpoints along the way. Teachers feel supported through the change process by a leader who communicates regularly, learns along with the teachers, and provides clear targets and goals and the support and resources to help.

Lastly, any evaluation measuring principal effectiveness must include a principal's ability to identify teacher leaders and work to build leadership capacity. The principal is no longer only a visionary or manager; today he or she must be both. Principals must be able to develop their teaching force through recruiting great teachers, supporting and developing teachers to continually improve, and utilizing excellent teachers to serve as role models and leaders in the school.

To help increase student achievement we do need effective teachers. However, we also need effective principals that will set the wheels in motion for sustainable change. The principal is a key factor in the school reform effort and no reform effort can survive a principal’s indifference or opposition.

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