By Pati Montgomery
Schools and districts have responded to AYP and increased accountability with professional development for teachers that aligns to data, is specific to student needs, and focuses on increasing academic achievement through teacher effectiveness. All attempts to increase student achievement by focusing on educator effectiveness should be seen as a step in the right direction. But in our attempts to focus on the frontline, have we forgotten to enhance the effectiveness of those leading the charge—our
With a conglomerate set of consumers and demanders—including the federal government, the state and its initiatives to meet federal mandates, and not least of all the local community, whose knowledge base of “what good educators do” has grown exponentially in the past decade—principals are besieged with paperwork, demands, and little spare time to increase their own efficacy. Yet their impact is significant; it is second only to teaching among school-related factors in its impact on student learning.
School leadership training has changed little over the past 20 years. The focus has been on school management practice and not leadership reform. Preparation programs for school leaders are usually led by former school principals who haven’t recently stepped into school buildings, with the exception of seeing their student-interns. Usually they have not had recent experience in high-need school cultures—an area desperate for well-trained, exceptional school leaders. Their training or leadership experience can only be characterized as theoretical or hypothetical.
Beyond leadership preparation, the story appears to worsen. After a principal is placed in a building, little or nothing takes place to enhance his/her skills. Quality professional development for principals seems to be an oxymoron. Districts are recognizing this and doing their best, but recognition is coming at the same time as extraordinary budget constraints. Public schools have budgets so tight that little is left for anything except mandatory expenditures. District leadership is further overburdened because of fiscal constraints; there are no extra personnel resources to tend to earnest, quality professional development for school leaders.
Is it a hopeless situation given the economic current in public education?
Frankly, school reform will not occur unless leadership reform occurs. The best professional development for teachers cannot be sustained and supported unless there are knowledgeable principals supporting teachers’ efforts. Further, the population within our schools is changing dramatically from year to year. Principals who were in a school with a 30 percent poverty rate just three years ago may now be facing a poverty rate of 60 percent in the same school. Focused, quality professional development is critical to create the right skill sets to meet changing student needs.
Perhaps by rethinking what good principals need in order to be effective—and then creating a resourceful way of delivering the information—we can find the answers we seek. In an age of accountability and reform, school leaders need to have the following skills:
- The ability to foster high expectations in school communities: Successful school leaders have developed skills that engender high expectations for both teachers and students in a caring environment. They establish school structures that are safe and welcoming with effective communication systems. Principals rarely receive these “how-to’s” in principal preparation programs.
- Instructional knowledge: School leaders need to be able to use data, especially data specific to their school. They must be able to understand the instructional implications that align with that data, support the development of adult and student learning, and model effective teaching practices. They need to know how to continually evaluate curriculum and resources that will ensure sound practices. They should have an understanding of a standards-based instructional system that recognizes good instructional practices and motivates students to increase their achievement.
- Implementation of evaluation systems that support teachers and encourage the exit of poor teachers: Principals need to become evaluation specialists by understanding and utilizing good teaching practices. They need to be able to provide teachers with specific growth-producing feedback and be able to handle honest, difficult conversations with teachers who are failing our students.
So how can we provide principal development in a fiscally responsible manner?
- Problem-solving opportunities: Schools are not stagnant entities, and principals need authentic problem-solving opportunities that mirror situations they face daily. School leaders should have the opportunity to come together with their peers from like schools to solve problems, receive feedback, and reflect on their learning.
- Mentorships and coaching: Principals, particularly in the first several years of their practice, need to have quality mentorships. These mentorships, comprised of accomplished retired principals in similar types of schools, meet on-site with principals weekly or biweekly to offer coaching and just-in-time feedback on real-life situations.
- Cooperative learning situations: In large school districts, school composition varies greatly. In light of such diversity of student populations, districts should form cooperative learning groups of principals from like schools to discuss similar situations. These cooperative learning sessions should give school leaders the opportunity to learn new procedures and consider how to apply that learning before being faced with a situation requiring implementation. These situations also give school leaders a chance to network with their peers and foster a sense of community within their own district. Districts that are using peer observations and feedback within leadership roles are showing positive results. Further, districts could develop instructional leader teams for principals. These teams would be comprised of district leaders who come to schools, or meet with leaders in like schools, with an eye toward developing skills applicable to current situations.
Principals are like the students they lead; they want to be successful. However, the fabric of our schools and the age of accountability require learning new and different skills from those that were obtained in “principal school.” Districts and states must recognize this, and principal development must become a higher priority if our schools are truly to reform.
Written by Pati Montgomery. Ms. Montgomery received a B. A in Elementary Education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Special Education from the University of Northern Colorado and Ed. S. certificate in school administration from the University of Denver. She has been both a regular education teacher and a special education teacher and has taught students in grade levels from Kindergarten to seniors in high school. Ms. Montgomery has been with Jefferson County Public Schools for 20 years and taught in Denver Public Schools for 5 years. She has been a special education administrator; an elementary school principal; and a middle school principal. Currently she is the Project Director for a Strategic Compensation Teacher Incentive Fund Grant in Jefferson County, Colorado. Ms. Montgomery spent one year as an editorial director and staff developer for an educational publishing firm.
Book by Pati Montgomery: A Principal’s Primer for Raising Reading Achievement, Whole School Leader