We need great principals in all of our schools

In all our efforts to improve public education, we’ve overlooked the people who arguably have the greatest impact on student learning: principals.

Effective organizations have skilled leaders focused on results. In education, student learning is the bottom line, but we’ve paid scant attention to providing effective school leadership even though we have the tools to do so. I believe we need to use those tools more effectively.

Since the Washington Education Reform Act was passed in 1993, we’ve debated certain issues endlessly: Teach to the standards or teach to the test; WASL or no WASL (soon it will be the national Common Core Standards and new testing); hold teachers accountable; hold the Legislature accountable for funding basic education for all children; and charter schools, defeated at the polls three times, but here they come again. Yet we’ve talked very little about the need for excellent school leadership.

For the past 11 years, I’ve done strategic consulting work with education advocates, digital learning, education reform and scholarship organizations, and school districts. My team conducted research, interviews and focus groups in the 16 Washington high schools where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded college scholarships paired with school improvements. I’ve worked with superintendents, principals and teachers in rapidly improving schools and produced a series of educational television shows on state standards and assessments featuring teachers and then Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson.

I’ve met great teachers, principals and superintendents. Among them was the late Keith Morris, the principal who led a complete turnaround of 93 percent Hispanic Mabton Junior/Senior High School to the point where 98 percent were graduating on time and 96 percent were accepted for post-secondary education.

Every successful school I’ve been in had a principal who created a culture of constant instructional improvement focused on student learning. They were instructional leaders who brought their teachers together to work as teams and learn from each other. They had excellent relationship skills and integrity that led the entire school to a focus on student learning.

A recent research paper, “Gateways to Principalship,” published by the Center for American Progress, shows how Washington and other states could ensure better preparation for principals. The authors cite research showing that principals account for about 25 percent of educational results and suggest their impact is probably greater because they also hire and manage teachers who account for about 33 percent of educational outcomes.

The paper highlights several program requirements needed to produce effective principals: partnerships with school districts, targeted recruitment, rigorous selection, practical and applied coursework, substantial clinical field experience, performance evaluation during the program and the ability to track data on principal effectiveness. The researchers judge Washington to be lacking on these elements of principal preparation. The recently passed teacher and principal evaluation bill addresses only the last requirement.

So, first we should refine the state requirements for principal preparation programs. Then, with higher standards in place, only programs that meet the standards would be certified to train principals. Upon completing an approved program, candidates should be required to pass a test to obtain initial certification. Ongoing evaluations should be required for principals to retain their certification and to measure and improve the effectiveness of preparation programs. The infrastructure to make these improvements is in place at the state level. What’s needed now are stronger principal preparation requirements, expectations and evaluations. We also need to develop a process to update training for current principals of struggling schools.

I believe teachers want to teach effectively. They need school leaders who create a culture focused on student learning. Let’s be certain principals are instructional leaders, using data, observation and mentoring to help their teachers be effective. That’s what Keith Morris did. His leadership and mentoring skills are what we should want in every school. We’re holding our students to high standards, so surely their school leaders should meet standards that ensure student learning.

Terry Surguine is the managing partner at Eos Strategic, a Seattle-based strategic communications consulting firm focused on education. He also served as policy staff director for Gov. Mike Lowry.

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