Voices in Education

No Principal Left Behind
The failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation and the inability of schools to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements have prompted an avalanche of public commentary, but a significant population has escaped attention: principals have been ignored. Principals have not been adequately screened, prepared, coached or supported to lead schools which can continually achieve higher levels of student academic performance, the essential requirement for AYP.

As the founder and director for the past eight years of a principal preparation institute that has licensed over one hundred graduates, I have observed over sixty suburban metro Boston schools where my administrator candidates teach and serve their practicum, and they assume directorships, assistant and full principalships upon graduation. These schools were relatively unscathed in the early years of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts NCLB AYP assessments. Their own standards and their students’ performance exceeded those dictated by NCLB AYP. Within the last three years, however, the scores of subpopulations which exceed forty students in primarily middle and high schools have jeopardized their school’s aggregate AYP performance. These schools have fallen below the steep AYP performance trajectory dictated by having all students at grade level proficiency in English language arts and mathematics by 2014. Principals’ remedial efforts cover a spectrum with varying degrees of efficacy. However, aside from three or four exceptional schools, I have not observed any attempt by schools in suburban metro Boston districts to implement a reform strategy which would have promised to mimic the NCLB AYP escalator climb to 100% proficiency. Why not?

One of several explanations points to the radical, paradigm-altering change in the scope of principals’ work and the accountabilities demanded by their position. They were unprepared to incorporate the vastly increased accountability demanded by NCLB’s AYP. A principal’s own report card has always reflected the academic record of his or her students. The public nor the media or even the district administration, gave much attention to these results. Principals had been judged by parents on the quality of their teacher hires and school decorum, but in the absence of accepted measures of student academic performance, they were not held accountable for their schools’ performance. Schools were implicitly viewed as, and most frequently were, assemblages of classrooms linked by corridors. Principals had no direct role in mediating student achievement.

The 1998 administration of the high stakes MCAS test, which Massachusetts would use as its performance measure on 2002 NCLB legislative requirements, sent a wakeup call to all principals in the state. Principals, not just the teachers in their schools, were accountable for their students’ academic achievement. A school’s performance has always been a function of good and poor teaching, but now the alignment of the curriculum with state standards and the degree of instructional integration could be measured. The whole could, and now must be, greater than the sum of the parts and that outcome could be attributed to the leadership of the principal. Not surprisingly, the current generation of principals is befuddled by having to manage a total enterprise for demanding AYP-measured results. This is completely uncharted territory for them, and they are without a map or compass.

The Best Practice literature has recently come to the rescue and is yielding the defining characteristics of a school community that can quarter after quarter, upgrade its students’ academic achievement and thus also, define the profiles of successful principals. Early extensive work by Mike Schmoker and more recently by Karin Chenoweth in “It’s Being Done” have chronicled schools that demonstrate this capacity. Richard DuFour and his colleagues, in their multiple documentations of Professional Learning Communities, have also revealed the anatomy of a school where all stakeholders learn and student achievement improves. The overarching frame of this literature is a principal orchestrating a culture of team-based learning, where teachers relish working interdependently in the service of heightened student performance results. Intrinsic to continuous improvement in student learning are teachers who create and execute a student performance assessment feedback loop. Student performance data is regularly used to identify ways of improving their teacher team’s instruction and providing extra help to those students who need it most.

In my observations in both metro Boston suburban and urban settings, the majority of practicing principals find it difficult, if not impossible, to create such a robust, intentional community while simultaneously assisting teachers in assembling an instructional infrastructure where teacher teams deliver quarterly improvements in learning. Yet, this is what it takes to create a Professional Learning Community and to meet AYP’s exacting improvement goals. I have anecdotal evidence of how it can be done, but principals must have more extensive skills, expanded knowledge repertoire, dedicated external resources and expert consulting than were necessary before NCLB legislation.

During a ten year period, I studied five Boston principals who were determined to raise all of their students’ academic performance in schools that at their best could be initially labeled dysfunctional. My book with Amy Stern, Real Leaders, Real Schools, published by Harvard Education Press chronicles their mistakes, changes and eventual successes in raising student achievement.

Three of the five were able to orchestrate school learning communities where school teachers bonded together in an interdependent collective to improve student learning. This was not the product of novices. These three principals experimented during their previous principalship assignments with shared leadership that subsequently proved essential to the efficacy of their successful second tenures. They did not achieve such goals without external help. By majority vote of their faculties, they took full advantage of expert and process consulting and financial resources provided by a professional development arm of the Boston Public Schools.

Another principal, the fourth, had all the right instructional hardware of assessments and data feedback in operation, but over his fifteen-year tenure was never able to mobilize his faculty to own the responsibility for quarterly increases in student learning. Held back by his leadership style, the school’s culture didn’t have, by his own admission, the emotional pull to raise student achievement to consistently higher levels. The fifth, a principal with a severely limited interpersonal repertoire, reflected lessons in wasted human resources.

It is not enough for principals to set in place the critically significant infrastructure to produce continuing improving student achievement. He or she must also have the significant instructional leadership knowledge and experience, and refined interpersonal skills to create the synergistic social combustion that gives birth to sustained student learning.

Leaving principals on their own, to ignite faculties to continually improve student learning and achieve NCLB’s AYP, is not working. Our principal talent feeder system is generating single-engine prop plane pilots when astronaut qualifications and support systems are required. NCLB legislation has left principals on the launching pad in the race to educate all students to grade level proficiency by 2014. A principal left behind seriously jeopardizes No Child Left Behind.

About the Author: Gerald C. Leader is a Boston University Professor Emeritus and the Director of EDCO’s Educator Leadership Institute, an educational administrator preparation and licensure program. He is the author, with Amy Stern, of Real Leaders, Real Schools: Stories of Success Against Enormous Odds (Harvard Education Press, 2008).