Principal Accountability Begins with Developing Expertise

on May 24, 2011

Two foundational ideas guide our work at the Center for Educational Leadership.  First, we believe that quality teaching matters: if students are not learning, they are not being afforded powerful learning opportunities. Second, quality instructional leadership matters:  if teachers do not afford students powerful learning opportunities, this is ultimately an issue for school leaders.

The key question is this: How do we know what quality teaching and quality leadership look like?  Earlier in the year, we focused our newsletter on teacher evaluation. This newsletter edition will focus on what we are learning about principal evaluation and effectiveness.

It is important to state our belief that in the spirit of reciprocal accountability a quality evaluation system must embody the concept that if we are going to hold you accountable for something, we have an equal and commensurate responsibility to ensure you know how to do what we are asking of you. In short, district central office leaders have a responsibility to develop principals’ instructional leadership capacity before holding them accountable for the quality of their leadership. As with high-quality teaching, high-quality instructional leadership requires a deep body of expertise.

We think of this expertise in two parts:

  1. The extent to which principals have a shared vision and deep understanding of high-quality teaching is the extent to which they can lead for instructional improvement. The corollary here is that leaders cannot lead what they don’t know.
  2. The extent to which principals learn how to seize upon their emerging understanding of quality teaching to differentiate support to teachers and  orchestrate teachers’ professional learning is the extent to which they can help teachers improve their practice.

We know that successful principals must draw on a wide range of knowledge, skills, and attributes that include both instructional leadership and management. With respect to instructional leadership, we hope that any evaluation system addresses the following:

  1. Ability to analyze classroom instruction.
  2. Ability to use evidence of classroom instruction and student performance to guide teacher support and evaluation.
  3. Ability to strategically utilize resources based on evidence of classroom instruction and student performance.
  4. Ability to create a reflective and intentional staff culture.
  5. Ability to guide and lead data-based decision making.

The above “abilities” come from the central office transformation work we do with district leaders to understand and differentiate support to their principals as instructional leaders. Here again, in the spirit of reciprocal accountability, it is not enough for district leaders to simply evaluate a principal’s performance.  District leaders must learn how to gather evidence about principals’ instructional leadership abilities and use this evidence to evaluate and support the principal.  Each one of these abilities can be unpacked to reveal the knowledge, experience, skills, and actions that make up a principal’s expertise. The ability to analyze classroom instruction alone represents a deep body of work requiring disciplined study and action over many years.

In the final analysis, we need to see principal evaluation, just like teacher evaluation, as a means to support improvement – not an end in itself. While the quality of the evaluation tool will be important, I would argue the quality of the tool is actually less important than who is using the tool and how he or she is using it. The best tool in unskilled hands will not be a good tool.

In that spirit, I hope our policymakers — along with everyone taking part in the development and implementation of principal evaluation systems — remembers that, just like with our students and teachers, if we want our principals to do something, we have to first teach them how to do it.

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About the author

At the Center for Educational Leadership we partner with courageous leaders in classrooms, schools and the systems that support them to eliminate educational inequities by creating cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading. Our vision is transformed schools empowering all students regardless of background to create limitless futures for themselves, their families, their communities, and the world.
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