Here’s the good news: The field of education has the knowledge to make schools better. Not just a little better. A lot better.
I know that sounds a tad Pollyana-ish, given that the United States lags behind the rest of the developed world and that many students struggle to meet even basic academic standards.
But it is true.
There will always be more to learn about how children learn, of course. But we know plenty—and when people who run schools believe deeply in the capacity of their students, understand the existing research and evidence, and have had carefully supervised practice applying research in real situations, schools improve and students learn—a lot. I have seen this over and over in years of visiting and learning from schools.
Here’s the bad news: Most school principals don’t fit the above description.
Don’t blame them. They were never really expected to. Within the field of education, principals were not thought of as critical to student learning, until very recently.
I should say that teachers, parents and students have always thought of principals as important. But outside their buildings, principals have too often been thought of as interchangeable middle managers—and they’ve had the training to match.
Even today, after a huge amount of research and experience that argues for making principal training the center of any attempts to improve education, the process of becoming a principal is pretty willy-nilly. In most states, any teacher can get a principal license and many do so in order to get what is called the “master’s bump.” That is to say, teachers with a master’s degree get a pay raise, and typically teachers get a master’s degree in counseling or administration because those are relatively easy and convenient—even when they have no intention of becoming counselors or principals.
As a result, most people who hold principal licenses have no interest in running schools. That in turn means that districts struggle to hire principals, particularly for schools that primarily serve children from low-income families. Many of the principals who are hired end up being—unsurprisingly—completely unprepared for the complicated demands of the job and leave after just a few years, leaving their schools worse off than when they arrived.
It Sounds Bad But There’s a Solution
As bad as this all sounds, this is a manageable problem.
We as a nation know how to ensure that people are well trained, understand current research and get supervised practice. We do that for engineers, for plumbers, for surgeons—for lots of other professions.
We can ensure that principals understand the job and have the kinds of experiences and support that helps them—and thus their schools, their teachers and their students—be successful.
But getting from here to where we need to be is a complicated process that involves states rethinking the way principals are recruited, trained, hired and supervised. In some cases, it requires new laws. In some cases, it requires changes in university curricula and practices, as well as new accreditation processes. In some cases, it requires reorganizing districts’ central offices. I am happy to say that there’s a lot of important work going on along these lines all over the country.
Of course, these things require money—not necessarily a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. But even small amounts of extra money are hard for states to come up with, which is why federal support for school leadership has an outsized importance.
Only recently was any federal funding targeted specifically for leadership development, but the tiny, $14 million School Leader Recruitment and Support Program spurred some interesting approaches before it was cut this year. Those experiments really need to continue to see which yield the best results and should be continued and imitated by other states. To do that, the program should be revived.
Even more important is the $2 billion Title II A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is aimed at improving instruction and allows states to set aside 5 percent their Title II funds for leadership development. If this were to be cut, as was requested by the administration, it would almost certainly set back important efforts to do what we know will improve schools.
Because we do know what will improve schools. We need to ensure that the people running schools do as well.
(For an example of a large district that has used school leadership as a lever of improvement, listen to Episode 4 of Ed Trust’s podcast, ExtraOrdinary Districts: Chicago, Illinois: The Work of a Generation, found wherever you get your podcasts.)