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Politics or Policy?

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By Gail Connelly, Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)

Will politics or policy characterize the national discussion about education during the presidential campaign?

I'm concerned that the answer seems to be politics, as Congress fails — again, for the fifth year — to complete the legislative process to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), still officially known as No Child Left Behind.

Five years of talk about "education reform" but no clear blueprint for action.

Five years of mandates that punish educators and push education down the wrong path.

Five years of measuring student proficiency largely based on single-dimensional standardized test scores.

Five years of too many strings attached to too few dollars.

Five years is too long to wait for action.

This week, elementary and middle-level principals from throughout the country are amassing on Capitol Hill with one message, which they're saying with one voice, loud and clear: Reauthorize ESEA, reinvest in principals to build their capacity and strengthen their instructional leadership, and return to policymaking instead of political one-upmanship.

The Department of Education's waiver program provides some much-needed relief from a few of NCLB's most egregious requirements — such as 100 percent of students reaching proficiency in math and reading by the end of the coming school year. Still, participating states must sign on to yet another set of mandates: Create school improvement plans that focus on college- and career-readiness, target resources to low-performing schools, and strengthen teacher proficiency, among them. These requirements are no substitute for sound federal law.

NAESP and the elementary and middle-level principals who are fanning out on Capitol Hill this week are advocating that Congress complete the important work of ESEA reauthorization so every state can build the capacity of principals and advance school improvement. We have six specific recommendations:

  • Support principals by recognizing the core competencies of effective school leadership in Title I and as a definition in the law aligned to each program;
  • Set the basis of high-quality professional development opportunities for principals in Title II on core competencies of effective school leadership — and require states and districts to provide capacity-building supports for principals and other school leaders;
  • Encourage and support state and local efforts to develop fair, objective, and comprehensive principal evaluation systems for principals that use appropriate measures of performance, not standardized test scores;
  • Ensure that principal review and evaluation be conducted as the first step of any school improvement plan and align the evaluation of a principal to high-quality professional development;
  • Expand accurate and robust accountability systems that value growth and multiple measures of student performance; and
  • Support innovative models to help improve academic achievement, including prekindergarten through grade three alignment (P-3) strategies.

This necessary emphasis on the role of principals in school improvement builds on decades of research that has produced reams of reports: Principals are second only to classroom teachers in influencing student achievement. A teacher can create a great classroom, but only a great principal can create and sustain a great school.

Reform of public schools has been high on our nation's domestic agenda for as long as I can remember, resulting in a patchwork quilt of well-intentioned improvements that had temporary, if any, positive impact on education. To their credit, most principals I've known in nearly 30 years have worked hard to adhere to seemingly endless mandates even while questioning the wisdom of doing so.

It's time we invested in the school-improvement strategy that's been staring us in the face for decades: If we want great schools, we must support, strengthen, and invest in great principals.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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