A weekend interview with Gail Connelly, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals
As a part of Senate Bill 736, Florida lawmakers imposed tougher standards on school principal evaluations alongside several changes for teacher contracts. Many observers have said that principals are key to school success, and improving their evaluations could lead to better performance all around. Gail Connelly, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, gave her perspective on the pending changes during an interview with reporter Jeff Solochek.
Do principals care about this issue?
Absolutely they care about it. The research has been pretty clear that principals are second only to classroom teachers in their impact on classroom learning. So they are very much aware and there's this growing national movement of beginning to recognize principal evaluation as an important element of the school reform effort.
Our position on behalf of the 23,000 principals we represent is that any evaluation of principals must be fair, objective and comprehensive to encompass the full range of duties that principals are expected to accomplish. We are concerned that the principal's job has increased and become more demanding. ... There was a recent study that suggests ... principals engage in over 40 different tasks in one day. So beyond student achievement we know principals impact a range of school outcomes that directly affect learning, such as attracting and retaining qualified teachers, parent perceptions, relationships with district office ... and strong partnerships that engage families and communities. ...
When you see what is being proposed here in Florida, do you get the sense that is what is happening?
I can't comment on the Florida proposal specifically. I haven't seen it in detail. Any concern would be if there is an undue focus on principal evaluation tied to student achievement. Again, we believe there are multiple factors that must be included in a comprehensive evaluation for principals. Andy approach to principal evaluations that solely focuses on student performance as the key performance indicator is really shortsighted and missing the opportunity to really understand the approach to principal evaluation that could really ... help principals understand where they are in terms of their effectiveness, pinpoint areas for further development and then enable school districts to provide the kinds of supports and professional development that principals truly need to become more effective in their role. ...
What about 50 percent? That's the number we're honing in on, 50 percent student achievement, 50 percent other stuff.
We are concerned about putting a number because of the unique circumstances. Schools face challenging circumstances, many of them moreso than others, such as high mobility, poverty rates. We think every school should be judged on its own trajectory of growth and improvement, through a comprehensive wholistic review of student, teacher and principal performance. We believe one of the indicators should be the trajectory of student achievement over time, as determined by local, formative and summative assessments, student work, teacher judgment and other locally determined accountability measures in addition to standardized test scores. But we would fall short of specifying a formula that indicated the specific percentages. ...
Are you talking about value added, then?
We would not use that phraseology. We would talk about it more in terms of fomative and summative assessments. ... Some may term it as value added. We believe those decisions are best made at the local level.
What about the idea that principals are already being graded on their performance? In Florida we have the school grading system, which is taking off nationally. Principals might look at that as their grade and superintendents might say if their grade continues to suffer they might not be a principal any more. Is that system already sort of in place?
Let me think about that for a minute. I was at a session the other day with President Obama. He was encouraging the speedy reauthorization of the ESEA ... and I may not be quoting him verbatim, but as I recall he said principals are tired of being labeled as failures. I think that may be a reflection of what you just said. And generally speaking I think principals are tired of their schools being labeled as failing. All of America's schools are being painted with this broad brush stroke. A lot of our energy, effort and resources are being focused on helping our lowest performing schools turn around, and then all schools are being painted with this broad brush stroke that America's schools are failing.
I think that has created rather onerous conditions for principals to continue to create the kind of school climate and culture that is centered on learning and that can be a positive influence on their entire school community that engages everyone in support of putting their focused energy on what is needed to help our students achieve at higher levels. You know, they don't work in isolation and the finger pointing and demoralization that has become rather rampant in today's rather politically expedient agenda these days can be rather demoralizing. ...
Yet we hear so much about the schools that are in some form of improvement where one of the four choices is remove the principal.
Yes. Yes. We have serious issues with that, as you can imagine. We actually have submitted several items ... our recommendations to the Department of Education related to the need to assess the capacity of principals to sustain school improvement in relationship to the School Improvement Grant system that as you pointed out calls for the automatic dismissal. We believe that every school deserves to have a fair, objective evaluation and we believe particularly the principals in the schools deserve to have what we consider a peer-reviewed analysis to ... really evaluate the existing principals' leadership competencies and their capacity to enter into intensive school reform regardless of the time they have spent in a school building. Principals facing the challenges of school improvement have to have a deep understanding of the core skills in organizational management and instructional leadership that troubled schools require.
Once those attributes are confirmed or identified for improvement, then those principals must be empowered and given the tools necessary to enter and lead that school's transformational process. This kind of careful evaluation of the principal at the beginning of the school improvement process will help prevent one of the biggest challenges to the implementation of these school improvement grants, because we know that the turnover in school leadership can sometimes be the biggest barrier to success. So rather than just assuming that the principal is the reason the school is in distress, to really evaluate the entire environmental and contextual situation and come to the conclusion that the individual may have capacity but just may not have the support and resources. Or, if in fact the fair and objective assessment shows that the principal does not have the kind of leadership capacties that are needed, or can't gain them to be able to really be effective in the turnaround process, then and only then should they be removed.
Can that be done quickly?
We believe that it can be done within a three month period of time if there is a commitment to a SWAT team approach, where you bring in a team that is trained and developed to conduct that type of analysis. ... We have begun to engage in this whole area of principal evaluations in a more deliberate way. We haven't necessarily sought public attention but we have been working most recently with Johns Hopkins University to develop the kind of approach to principal evaluation that we believe should be considered as the ESEA reauthorization process moves forward. ...