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Improving teachers means improving principals, too

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Chuck Moore, heads up Eastbrook Academy in Milwaukee. In this photo Moore (center) listens as kindergartner Amani Minor, 5, explains her school work to him. (Photo by Michael Sears/Journal Sentinel)

Charles Moore says his job is like creating a garden where teachers and students grow.

“It’s more than just strong instructional leadership,” says Moore, principal of Eastbrook Academy, a private school at 5375 N. Green Bay Ave. It’s more than just overseeing discipline or budgets or schedules or a host of other aspects of a principal’s job.

A good principal can move things a long way toward vibrant achievement among students. A bad or (more commonly) mediocre principal can stall efforts to get the most possible growth out of students and the most effective performance out of teachers.

Creating a garden can be delicate, complex and demanding. A lot can be learned through training. Some people just seem to have green thumbs. Wise choices of who should be in charge of the garden are important.

That means you can’t talk about improving the effectiveness of teachers without talking about improving the effectiveness of principals. Teachers need a good environment to thrive, and that environment – call it school culture – starts with the principal.

The amount of attention that has been given to improving principals pales next to the hot debates nationwide over teacher issues.

But the two have a lot of parallels: How to select, train, assign and develop. Whether student progress should be a factor in evaluation and pay. What to do about weak performers.

And there is one addition to the list just for principals: What their power and role should be in hiring, assigning and moving out teachers.

Some experts argue that improving principal quality not only deserves more attention, but would be a particularly good strategy for improving education as a whole.

The New York-based Wallace Foundation has been a leader in promoting principal quality, investing heavily in research and programs. At a conference in November 2009, M. Christine DeVita, president of the foundation, said, “The bottom line is that investments in good principals are a particularly cost-effective way to improve teaching and learning.”

Changes come slowly

While some states are launching innovative ways to train, select, assign and evaluate principals, change in Wisconsin has been modest.

In Milwaukee, principal development has been a sore point. However, the new leaders of Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest district in the state, are aiming to make the selection and assignment process more open, and to hold principals more accountable.

Building a Better Principal

Key characteristics of excellent principal preparation programs:

• A focus on instruction, organizational development and managing change.
• Internships in schools that enable principals-in-training to apply leadership knowledge and skills under the guidance of an expert.
• Mentoring focused on modeling, questioning and observation.
• Use of real-world situations that require linking theory to practice.
• Collaboration between universities and school districts to create coherence between training and practice, as well as pipelines for recruitment, preparation, hiring and ongoing guidance.
• Vigorous recruitment of high-quality candidates with experience as expert, dynamic teachers and a commitment to instructional improvement.
• Financial support that enables principals-in-training to complete an intensive program with a full-time internship.

Source: “Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs,” Darling-Hammond, L.; LaPointe, M.; Meyerson, D.; Orr., M.T. & Cohen, C. (2007). Stanford, Calif. Stanford University, Stanford Educational Leadership Institute.

Compiled by Justin Snider

It is not in dispute that good principals are an essential ingredient of good schools, especially if the schools enroll large numbers of students from historically low-performing populations.

An analysis of a large body of education research conducted a few years ago concluded that a third of the effect that a school had on students came from how teachers do their jobs. But a quarter of the effect – the second largest factor – came from principals.

An author of that study, Karen Seashore Louis of the University of Minnesota, said new research in which she has been involved sheds more light on that issue.

“Principals have a very strong effect on student learning, but it’s primarily indirect and it’s primarily because of the way their behaviors encourage teachers to work together on improving their professional practice.”

Instructional leadership is a hot phrase now, but it is a weak spot for many principals who are more comfortable running the business of a school rather than leading, modeling or coaching what and how to teach. Large amounts of on-the-job training for principals now focus on developing instructional leadership.

In addition, evaluating teachers is ideally a major priority of principals. In practice, it often gets short shrift. Some states and school districts nationwide are aiming to make evaluation – including dealing more effectively with weak teachers – a bigger part of the job.

Benjamin Fenton, co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, a program that has had notable success in developing principals in high-needs school districts, said a highly effective principal can make the difference between a student being fortunate to get one of a handful of heroic teachers in a given year and having a series of top-notch teachers year after year. Or the difference between a school where teachers work together on ambitious goals and one where they work pretty much on their own.

Paths to leadership

As with teaching, one of the keys to improving the overall work of principals is improving the paths that lead to the job. Traditionally, principals emerged from the ranks of teachers. A handful of organizations, such as New Leaders, are aiming to cast the net wider, seeking talented individuals, some of whom may not have conventional backgrounds.

In a 2005 report, Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, said many programs for training administrative leaders were engaged in “a race to the bottom” in which they lowered admission standards to admit more people who paid tuition, while making it easier to obtain degrees quickly.

In Milwaukee, where there are so many low-performing schools, the subject of higher-quality principals is both urgent and frustrating. Private and charter schools pick their principals, and the results range from star performers to total incompetents. In MPS, which picks principals through a centralized process, results are also uneven.

William Andrekopoulos, who retired as superintendent in June, championed bringing the New Leaders organization into MPS several years ago. Somewhat similar to the popular Teach For America program, New Leaders aims to select top candidates to lead high-needs schools, give them four weeks of intensive summer training, and then a year of additional training and coaching while working in the field, often as assistant principals. Ideally, they become principals after that, while continuing to work on improving how they do the job.

But New Leaders has encountered frustrations in Milwaukee for reasons that include resistance from managers within the system and a drying up of principal hiring because of financial and enrollment trends. Only a handful of New Leaders are leading MPS schools, and several alums of the program are in charge now of local charter schools outside MPS.

Madison-based education consultant Sarah Archibald called principal quality “a huge issue in Milwaukee.” Bad experiences with principals are a big reason many teachers leave MPS, she said.

“We’ve got bad bosses in (some schools in) this district,” said Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. “If there’s one thing that really makes it difficult for a school to attract and retain quality teachers and getting people to work effectively together, it’s a bad principal.”

The new MPS superintendent, Gregory Thornton, has begun posting notices of principal vacancies, a change from recent years, and wants to work with higher education institutions on better ways to prepare people.

John Weigelt, executive director of the Administrators and Supervisors Council, which represents MPS principals, said, “We have to redevelop a process where principal applicants are screened in an arduous manner so we can get the best person at that desk.

“We have to be more rigorous in determining who isn’t doing the job, and we’re not doing that very well,” Weigelt said. “We need to have a comprehensive professional development program for our administrators. . . . Currently, there is virtually nothing.”

Pressure job

The principal jobs are grueling and pressure-filled, and have gotten more so in recent years. Pay isn’t bad – many MPS principals make more than $100,000 a year – but Thornton admits it is hard to attract people.

Principals such as Don Wojczulis, of MPS’ Grant School on the south side, can describe how many directions they can be pulled in the course of a day. Wojczulis is in his second year at Grant and his ninth year as a principal, and he has seen the job change from basically managing the business of the school to one emphasizing instruction and achievement.

A big challenge is time management, he said. The school has more than 700 students and the only other administrator is a half-time assistant principal. From dealing with misbehaving students to filing mountains of reports to his bosses, Wojczulis is busy. And the life of a school frequently brings things he can’t put off. (“The day happens,” as Wojczulis put it.)

It’s hard for Wojczulis to carve out time to observe teachers leading classes so he can offer feedback.

“In a perfect world, I’d be in there much more than I currently have been,” he said.

Minnesota’s Seashore Louis said it is hard to increase the number of dynamic principals when there are so many conflicting demands from above. Principals are under pressure from national and state political leaders to get better results. While at the same time, money is tightening and school districts are cutting management jobs.

In MPS, a growing number of smaller elementary schools have part-time principals. More than 20 assistant principal jobs were eliminated in the last year.

In the Race to the Top grant competition this year, the U.S. Department of Education awarded points for proposals to improve principals as a notable part of the way to win (or, in the case of Wisconsin, not win) hundreds of millions of dollars.

No one has any idea what kind of price tag there might be on efforts to improve principals. Better selection and development of school leaders may not be financial matters as much as matters of commitment and follow-through.

After all, you don’t hear too many people talk about how much it costs to grow a garden. But they do talk about the back-breaking work it takes.

Richard Lee Colvin contributed to this story.

This piece originally ran in the Journal Sentinel on December 19, 2010.

About this series

For the series “Building a Better Teacher,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s education reporting team of Amy Hetzner, Erin Richards and Becky Vevea collaborated with staff of The Hechinger Report and Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at the Marquette University Law School.

Over eight Sundays, the series will spotlight challenges to the way teachers are trained, evaluated, paid, promoted and dismissed – and how all of it comes to bear on student success.

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