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Public School Principals Need Autonomy to Improve Student Performance

By Carolyn DeRaad

A little over a year ago Irv Moskowitz, Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, made news by firing principals at schools in which the academic performance of the students remained flat or fell. Again this year principals were fired or reassigned in an attempt to bring some academic rigor to the schools. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) was the measure used to indicate success or failure.

Standardized tests such as the ITBS are not perfect, but they allow comparison between performance at local schools and those across the nation in the essential areas of reading, writing and math computation. Dr. Moskowitz’ hope was that students entering third grade could, “when they see the word B-A-L-L, they are not only able to sound it out, but to understand what it means.” In short, his concern was that ACADEMICS weren’t happening in many of the Denver Public Schools.

Firing principals, Goals 2000 and Standards, each is an attempt to reform the educational morass we’ve achieved in our country. So which, in the final analysis, can bring real academic reform for our children’s public schools?

Goals 2000 sets out broad goals for schools. Standards are an attempt to ensure that some common knowledge and skills are acquired by students. But the rubber meets the road in each of the school buildings around the state. In each of these buildings are people either pulling together for a common goal or working independently. Principals are the people charged with focusing the efforts and making a motley group of teachers into a school with a goal, a purpose, in short, a mission.

So, how responsible is the principal for his or her students’ performance? The Brookings Institute’s report Politics, Markets and America’s Schools claims that strong principals are very responsible for performance. Other more anecdotal accounts lead to the same conclusion. The most academically effective schools are led by principals dedicated to teaching, possessing a clear vision of education, and able to inspire both parents and staff to embrace the same vision.

How high do the public schools in your area score on the leadership test?

1. Can the principal clearly articulate a vision of education?

2. Does he possess a clear educational philosophy? Is that philosophy known and understood by teachers, students and parents?

3. Does the principal know the curriculum used in each of the classrooms in his building, or do teachers “wing” it? Is the curriculum evaluated by objective standards?

4. Is the principal the academic as well as the administrative leader in the building?

5. Is academic competence the criteria used in the hiring of teachers?

Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) groups, site-based management, and consensus building are common words used by the education community today. Do those efforts mean that strong principals are no longer needed? Have such efforts in the schools led us to improved student performance? No. In fact, such efforts probably increase the need for strong, principled people to be leading schools. We can no longer afford the common practice of hiring people who merely implement the “vision” of a district, but cannot lead or cannot inspire others because they themselves lack an educational vision.

Once hired a principal must have the freedom to select a staff which supports and can deliver the educational program agreed upon. He must form his carefully selected staff (whether inherited, or newly hired) into a vigorous team supporting the focus of the school and capable of implementing it. He must inspire the staff to work with him to implement the vision he has planned. He must set a tone of cooperation and harmony among the staff. At the same time the principal must allow his teachers the autonomy necessary for them to do their jobs well while supporting the direction of the school. To do these things well, he needs the freedom to plan teacher training to most benefit his staff and his programs.

This strong principal needs control over the dollars within his building. He may even need more of the total education dollars delivered directly to his building so that he can allocate the resources within his school to accomplish the goal of best educating the students in his charge. In some schools that may mean having control over all of the Federal money following poorer children within his school. He must have the freedom to prioritize his needs and his budget to place the greatest number of dollars in the classrooms. He must be able to select and purchase the additional textbooks, technology, or maps, for example, without having someone else prioritize those dollars.

The strong principal should be able to explain and defend his program to parents and others interested in his school. He should have the freedom to share his vision without fear of retribution from the district or the teacher’s association. As long as students in his building are performing well by objective standards, and parents are interested in sending their children to his school, he should be given autonomy.

Outstanding principals are noteworthy. We applaud Dr. Moskowitz’ efforts to improve his schools by hiring principals of principle. It is within each school building that cultures of excellence flourish or wither, and that student performance rises or falls.

Carolyn DeRaad is director of the Parent Information Center at the Independence Institute.

This article, from the Independence Institute staff, fellows and research network, is offered for your use at no charge. Independence Feature Syndicate articles are published for educational purposes only, and the authors speak for themselves. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action.
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