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Want Common Core to Succeed? Don't Forget the Principal!

During the last few months, I've had several opportunities to engage with school principals. From rural New York state to inner-city Chicago to suburbs in Arizona (and many points in between), a common theme emerged: Principals are feeling overwhelmed and under-supported. This is particularly true as they prepare for Common Core implementation and the accompanying assessments. One principal stated, "We are putting up the good fight...working 80 hours each week just to complete our classroom observations and the necessary paperwork. We just don't know how much longer we can keep this up."

Principals, like teachers, are working harder than ever and often in environments where they receive little support. In some cases, they assume the position without a full understanding of what the job actually entails; perhaps their training didn't prepare them or there wasn't an accurate job description. This can leave new leaders feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

If we want successful schools, we absolutely need to address this issue. Research from The Wallace Foundation reminds us of the critical role of the principal in contributing to overall school improvement. First, we know the effectiveness of the school principal is second among all school-related factors that contribute to how well students perform. We also know good teachers are more likely to remain in schools that have effective principals.

Last month, Wallace released its most recent Perspective on the principalship, titled Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need. This piece is particularly timely given the pressures those in the seat are feeling. In making the case for the critical role of districts in supporting the principalship, the Wallace Perspective argues two main points:

1. First, (districts must) build a large corps of well-qualified candidates for the principalship:
  • Create job descriptions that clearly spell out what principals need to know and do to drive better instruction.
  • Improve "pre-service" principal training.
  • Establish selective hiring procedures that identify the most promising future leaders and match them to the right schools.
  • Ensure that hard-to-staff schools get top-quality leaders.-
2. Second, support school leaders on the job:
  • Develop fair, reliable performance evaluations that hold principals accountable for student progress and inform their ongoing training.
  • Offer mentoring to novice principals and professional development to all principals, so school leaders improve throughout their careers.
  • Provide school leaders with timely, useful data and training on how to use it.
  • Enable principals to devote sufficient time to improving instruction and to making the best use of that time.
  • Plan for orderly turnover and leadership succession.

These practices are illustrated throughout the Perspective with real-world examples from districts. Readers meet district leaders like Denver's Ivan Duran who supervises principals in 17 of the city's elementary schools. "I see my job as helping our principals navigate systems and structures to support the best learning environments for their teachers and students," Duran declares. Principals need someone like Ivan Duran to help make their jobs manageable. Learning Forward's own brief from a couple of months ago reminds us of the importance of the principal's role in standards implementation as well — see Meet the Promise of Content Standards: The Principal.

These are exciting and hopeful times for education. For the first time in the history of the field, states are having common conversations about what students are expected to know and be able to do in order to be college and career ready. Districts are adopting models of effective teaching that provide its teachers and leaders with visions for what good teaching looks like. If we want all of these strategies to succeed, then we absolutely must pay attention to what our principals are telling us.

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development
Learning Forward

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The opinions expressed in Learning Forward's PD Watch are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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