A New York Times article about the shortage of people prepared to lead our schools reminded me of the value of the College of Education’s principal certification program and Ed.D. degree in educational leadership. Our colleagues in WSU’s Department of Human Development also offer a graduate certificate in early childhood leadership and administration.
But solid university programs are only part of the solution to inadequate school leadership. For a faculty perspective, I turned to Assistant Professor Chad Lochmiller of our Tri-Cities faculty, whose research interests include support for school leadership. The comments that follow are Chad’s.
The Obama administration’s emphasis on removing principals from failing schools rests on the assumption that principals alone drive student learning improvement. Yet we know from extensive research that there are many other factors, including ineffective instructional practices, lack of accountability, and absence of meaningful student supports.
In some cases, changing a principal can disrupt reforms already under way and cause the school’s best teachers to leave. As research in Washington state has shown, classroom teachers cite support from their school principals as one of the most important factors influencing their decision to stay in their buildings. If the goal is to stabilize the school and refocus its efforts on instruction, then removing a principal may not only prolong that effort but derail it altogether.
The administration’s approach also assumes that the problem is inadequate principals, not inadequate support for those educators. Principals will tell you that they are in desperate need of support given the plethora of new initiatives and reforms being thrust upon them. They need supervisors who understand and advocate for the specific needs of their buildings. They need access to data, instructional strategies, and other professional development to help them acquire the skills needed to support classroom teachers. They need opportunities to reflect on their practice, identify areas of growth, and target ways in which their leadership can best help students.
The administration’s focus on school leadership challenges universities to make a stronger investment in preparing principal certification candidates. We must provide principals with the knowledge and skills to effectively improve classroom instruction starting in their first year on the job. This may require prep programs such as WSU’s to develop a much tighter relationship with K-12 educators. We must take shared responsibility with school district efforts to improve failing or under-performing schools.
While I have several concerns about the administration’s approach, I do credit federal officials for their willingness to be creative. I’m hopeful that they will see the professional development of all educators—teachers, principals, and superintendents—as part of the solution to improving the nation’s schools.