No Principal Left Behind
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No Principal Left Behind

No Principal Left Behind

(This excerpt is re-posted with permission from its  original post on The Blog of Harvard Education Publishing.)

Richard DuFour and his colleagues, in their multiple documentations of Professional Learning Communities, have . . .  revealed the anatomy of a school where all stakeholders learn and student achievement improves. The overarching frame of this literature is a principal orchestrating a culture of team-based learning, where teachers relish working interdependently in the service of heightened student performance results. Intrinsic to continuous improvement in student learning are teachers who create and execute a student performance assessment feedback loop. Student performance data is regularly used to identify ways of improving their teacher team’s instruction and providing extra help to those students who need it most.

In my observations in both metro Boston suburban and urban settings, the majority of practicing principals find it difficult, if not impossible, to create such a robust, intentional community while simultaneously assisting teachers in assembling an instructional infrastructure where teacher teams deliver quarterly improvements in learning. Yet, this is what it takes to create a Professional Learning Community and to meet AYP’s exacting improvement goals. I have anecdotal evidence of how it can be done, but principals must have more extensive skills, expanded knowledge repertoire, dedicated external resources and expert consulting than were necessary before NCLB legislation.

During a ten year period, I studied five Boston principals who were determined to raise all of their students’ academic performance in schools that at their best could be initially labeled dysfunctional. My book with Amy Stern, Real Leaders, Real Schools, published by Harvard Education Press chronicles their mistakes, changes and eventual successes in raising student achievement.

Three of the five were able to orchestrate school learning communities where school teachers bonded together in an interdependent collective to improve student learning. This was not the product of novices. These three principals experimented during their previous principalship assignments with shared leadership that subsequently proved essential to the efficacy of their successful second tenures. They did not achieve such goals without external help. By majority vote of their faculties, they took full advantage of expert and process consulting and financial resources provided by a professional development arm of the Boston Public Schools.

Another principal, the fourth, had all the right instructional hardware of assessments and data feedback in operation, but over his fifteen-year tenure was never able to mobilize his faculty to own the responsibility for quarterly increases in student learning. Held back by his leadership style, the school’s culture didn’t have, by his own admission, the emotional pull to raise student achievement to consistently higher levels. The fifth, a principal with a severely limited interpersonal repertoire, reflected lessons in wasted human resources.

It is not enough for principals to set in place the critically significant infrastructure to produce continuing improving student achievement. He or she must also have the significant instructional leadership knowledge and experience, and refined interpersonal skills to create the synergistic social combustion that gives birth to sustained student learning.

Leaving principals on their own, to ignite faculties to continually improve student learning and achieve NCLB’s AYP, is not working. Our principal talent feeder system is generating single-engine prop plane pilots when astronaut qualifications and support systems are required. NCLB legislation has left principals on the launching pad in the race to educate all students to grade level proficiency by 2014. A principal left behind seriously jeopardizes No Child Left Behind.

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