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Florida TaxWatch presses for focus on school leadership, role of principals

The organization makes recommendations after conferring with principals with records of strong academic success at low-income schools.
State leaders confer at a recent Florida TaxWatch roundtable with several principals whose schools have outperformed expectations, seeking ideas to share. [Courtesy Florida TaxWatch]
Published Jul. 24, 2018

Florida TaxWatch, the non-profit that calls out legislative "turkey" spending each year, is promoting an education agenda that would focus on the important role that school principals play in academic success.

For the past six years, the group has recognized principals whose schools, which serve low-income children, have accomplished test scores that exceeded expectations.

This year, it sought to go beyond handing out awards and scholarships. It convened some of the school leaders with state lawmakers and other leaders to discuss what they do that others might imitate to generate similar results.

"What's happening in the classroom is critically important. And all that stuff happens effectively because the principal makes it happen," TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro said. "As we have a new governor, a new Legislature, it's more important than ever that we give principals their due."

TaxWatch recently released an overview of its discussions, hoping to generate a statewide conversation about the possibilities to overcoming obstacles to effective leadership, recruiting and retaining good teachers, and related matters.

"We're trying to say education and leadership really matters," Calabro explained. "We have to find a way to benefit from the reasons why these people are so successful over time. What are they doing that is really making that kind of difference?"

Among its primary findings, TaxWatch notes that its group of principals find value in knowing all their students, and being one of the first people to greet them every day. They must be visible, active and participating in the schools, so the children and families feel welcome.

Principals stress and encourage appropriate parental involvement, including support of classroom lessons to reinforce learning, Calabro added. They also "complement and enhance great teachers," he said, helping without micromanaging.

Teacher voices must be "heard and respected," Calabro noted.

At the same time, the principals must be strong leaders, pushing for solutions, refusing to accept the barriers that might pop up in their way. They deserve as much autonomy as possible to accomplish their goals, within their district structures, he said.

As lawmakers discuss their next round of education policy changes, which seems an annual activity, Florida TaxWatch is urging them to listen to these principals, and not just district level officials, for guidance.

The Florida Board of Education also should receive regular input from the school leaders, he added. "It's really cool stuff. These principals are transformational."

At the same time, Calabro acknowledged, the work these leaders must do can take longer than the two years the state gives schools to improve, if they've received consecutive D or F grades.

The Board of Education has been particularly insistent on schools changing leadership if results don't quickly tick upward.

Calabro said that stance might be too harsh, saying lasting change can take as long as five years to take hold.

"You need to be there long enough to make a difference," he said. "Don't give up on the principal if they haven't made progress by the second year."

Other factors must come into play, such as what steps they have taken, Calabro said.

"Failure is just not acceptable," he said. "I think we're on to something really special."

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