Education Policies Operating In The Dark

As a principal in an economically troubled city, I learned to expect the unexpected each day when arriving at school: hearing the children buzzing about a horrific incident that occurred over the weekend; checking the faculty list to see the high number of teachers absent and the lack of class coverage their absences created; seeing an irate parent entering the front office; learning the buses would be late; or discovering one of your students had run away from home.

There were more uplifting times as well: celebrating the days when we won the big game; walking through the hallways to find classrooms humming with engaged students; watching your students perform at school assemblies; participating with pride in graduation days; or finding no students waiting for discipline, no phones ringing for once and no new messages in your e-mail box.

Every day was like riding a roller coaster–one moment your hands are flaying in the air with excitement, and the next there’s a sinking feeling fluttering deep in the pit of your stomach. Yet, no matter the circumstance, the school’s doors opened the next day, the bell rang and the roller coaster ride began all over again. By returning each day, we weren’t acting as martyrs. We were completing our part of the equation to ensure learning takes place in the building for each child, every day.

All school principals are keenly aware of this leadership role and its relevance to student success. Unfortunately, a recent report, “Operating in the Dark,” published by the George W. Bush Institute, makes it clear policy makers are oblivious to the fact that “25 percent of a child’s academic success is linked to the principal.”

All too often policy makers forget our role as instructional leaders and see only our role as managers. This oversight apparently blinds them to the knowledge that highly effective principals need quality training and preparation, the same as teachers.

“Principals manage the teaching force and they are the ones that are best positioned to ensure that every student has a great teacher year after year and thus the continued learning needed to be college and career ready,” the Bush report acknowledges. Given this critical need, why then do the president and his secretary of education continue to push Race to the Top (RTTT) and the school improvement initiatives that call for the removal of principals, rather than training to strengthen their roles as school leaders?

Instead, the administration invokes a simplistic, Donald Trump-like policy of ham-handed firings that create instability in the schools and cause chaos and uncertainty among students, teachers and the community.

Everyone wants to stay in schools they perceive have good leadership that involves them in the decision making process and cares about, values and understands quality instruction. However, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan do not call for investment in school leaders. Instead, they perpetuate the notion that schools are businesses and principals are akin to corporate CEOs–no talents uniquely suited to school and community environments required!

Equally troubling is the fact Race to the Top has tinkered with the states, forcing them to accept many Draconian initiatives to qualify for federal funding, despite the fact these initiatives have failed to yield results.

The policy makers also have tinkered with teachers by imposing merit pay and other such standards–again with no results. There has been no substantive report concluding that merit pay, the loss of tenure or the increased use of test data for evaluation have resulted in increased learning or improved teachers.

The initiatives also have tinkered with the curriculum. Forty-five states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. The standards seemingly are a good thing, but they, too, require an investment in thoughtful planning and training before being attempted, let alone before being fully implemented. Indeed, AFT President Randi Weingarten has called for a moratorium on their implementation.

“Making changes without anything close to adequate preparation is a failure of leadership, a sign of a broken accountability system and, worse, an abdication of our moral responsibility to the kids we serve,” Weingarten rightly points out.

Now, the Obama administration is beginning to head blindly down the same path with newly proposed policies on school leadership, bereft of data on which to base these policies and little, if any, hands-on knowledge of how school systems relate to school leaders at either the local or state level.

Absent the critical data the Bush report points out is essential for policy planning, new legislation is being proposed that will continue the practice of operating in the dark, including the School Principal Recruitment and Training Act of 2013 and the Instructional Leadership Act, which awards competitive grants to develop and implement programs and sites to train principals in instructional leadership, in addition to requiring the secretary of education to establish a definition of an effective principal.

“Districts hire; however, the states control the entry point to the principalship, overseeing the preparation and licensure,” the Bush report points out. “States are not effective[ly] using their authority and are failing to collect and monitor the outcomes of principal preparation and licensure policies. In too many cases, we found states making decisions without using current research or critical data and essentially operating in the dark.”

If states are operating in the dark, then how do they hope to train and recruit the highest-quality principals? Most preparation programs require an aspiring principal to take a number of university courses to receive certification, a test, and in some instances require a candidate to attend an academy. But after completion, aspirants were placed on a list and waited for an appointment. After receiving that appointment, every three to five years, a principal had to renew those credentials. The issue at hand becomes: Was this sufficient training for the role of principal?

Principal preparation programs simply are no substitute for on-the-job experience. In addition to coursework, the training of a principal should involve working with a qualified, seasoned professional who can mentor and work with the principal for the first two to three years. Much of what makes a successful school is the process of creating continuity in leadership along with continuity in instruction for students. Instead, policies are being pursued in which tough language is imposed in each new political season that does nothing but bring on more and more instability.

These chaotic circumstances are exacerbated by the current highly partisan atmosphere in Congress. There now are numerous bills in the House and Senate designed to impose more tinkering that will undermine the possibility of better school performance in one way or another. The current sequestration, for example, has clearly put the education community in harm’s way. Because Congress failed to repeal or replace sequestration by March 1, 2013, all federally funded education programs, i.e., Head Start, Title 1, IDEA and career tech and adult education, were subject to a 5 percent automatic, across-the-board cut in Fiscal Year 2013.

These cuts continue to take effect as the president and the secretary of education keep talking “a good game” about the virtues of early childhood education, making children college and career ready, and closing the achievement gap, yet do nothing to prevent these initiatives from being destroyed.

More enlightened awareness of what is required in training and preparing school leaders and less simplistic rhetoric would go a long way toward getting education policy out of the dark and on the path of improving how schools are run, teachers are mentored and children are given the opportunities to learn, goals to which we all aspire.

Diann Woodard is president of the 15,000-member American Federation of School Administrators, AFL-CIO.