Moving Education Forward: It Starts With School Leaders

By Diann Woodard, AFSA President
Originally on The Huffington Post

In his second inaugural speech, President Obama stated, “We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. We must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher.”

As we step forward with Obama into his second term, it is now, more than ever, time to re-evaluate our education policy, starting with the voice, tools, and support that we provide for our school leaders, the principals and administrators responsible for overseeing the scholastic
performance and physical operations of our schools.

According to a recent report published by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), “Effective Principal Effective Schools: A Synthesis of Research Evidence,” principal quality ranks second only to teacher quality as the most important school-level factor influencing student achievement. The report made clear that principals account for 25 percent of the total school-level impact on student achievement. If this is the case, why is it that legislative decisions for education so often rely on teachers and superintendents while simply ignoring the input of principals?

The report also showed that a principal’s strategies take three to five years to yield demonstrable change in student achievement, making it clear that a school cannot turn around overnight as is commonly demanded by business-model advocates of reform and School Improvement Grants (SIG). Rather than providing school leaders with necessary professional development opportunities, the four models of “improvement” (Turnaround, Transformation, Restart, Closure) require the removal of a school’s principal and up to 50 percent of the school’s staff.

Additionally, under the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), schools that do not meet the measured school performance under Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) are subject to a series of escalating sanctions. While principals are ultimately held responsible under these new NCLB measurements, the focus is on punitive measures rather than providing the resources or professional development needed to achieve them.

While making professional development opportunities must be a priority, so must addressing school, teacher, and principal evaluation systems. Many states have received relief from No Child Left Behind, but this comes in exchange for adopting policies outlined by the Department of Education (DOE), which only move schools from a test-based system unfairly evaluating schools as a whole, to one that unfairly evaluates individual educators.

Without reauthorizing NCLB, the standards of accountability are, and will be left unclear.

We must commit federal support to increasing access to early learning facilities, tools and services, which includes full Title I funding with a fair formula. Millions of children across the United States, particularly low-income children and children of color, are limited in their educational opportunities because their schools and communities cannot provide the necessary learning conditions. These children, through no fault of their own, become the victims of an opportunity gap, as they are unlikely to receive the nurture and support enjoyed by their peers from more affluent areas.

The opportunity gap leads directly to an achievement gap, evident as early as nine months of age, plaguing many students’ progress throughout elementary school and beyond.

Research shows that investing in early childhood education provides significant long-term benefits. High-quality early childhood programs for vulnerable children increase literacy and high school graduation rates while also reducing dropout, crime and teen pregnancy rates.

Finally, we must establish a national task force on school safety to ensure that the best practices are implemented consistently and that school leaders have the training and federal resources they need to ensure schools are equipped to provide state-of-the-art security for staff and students.

While the recent and horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary increased discussion over gun control and mental health policy, schools need comprehensive solutions to prepare for potential emergencies, and the necessary resources to implement them. The president’s creation of a commission addressing gun control and mental health is a step forward, but school safety must be addressed separately and immediately.

If we are to continue to compete globally, it is our moral, ethical and fiscal responsibility to commit to these priorities.