February
29th 2012
Taking a Few Leaps to Promote Excellent School Leadership in Colorado

Posted under Denver & Independence Institute & Innovation and Reform & innovation schools & International & PPC & Principals & School Accountability & School Board & State Legislature & Teachers & Urban Schools

Since today is February 29, I’ll take a timely leap from some of my usual fare to point you to two new podcasts produced by my Education Policy Center friends. In the first, Gina Schlieman explains how school-level autonomy has empowered some positive changes in Britain. In the second, foundation president Tom Kaesemeyer highlighted a program rewarding high-poverty Denver-area schools that are getting good results, and observed that exceptional principal leadership was at the top of the list of common school factors.

Next, a recently published op-ed by Ben DeGrow, who hosted both of the aforementioned podcasts, explains one of the key merits of Colorado’s 2010 educator effectiveness legislation:

Principals as instructional leaders will share accountability with classroom teachers for promoting student growth, which must make up at least half of educator evaluations.

In an unusual step, legislators and Governor Hickenlooper recently ratified some of the details for the state’s coming new educator evaluation system. It’s by design, not by accident, that the policy holds principals to similar standards as teachers. Such a system gives school instructional leaders more reason to retain or remove teachers based on their professional effectiveness at helping students learn. Will it be perfect? No. Are there any devils in the details? Maybe. But I’ll do my part to keep things focused in the right direction.

Which apparently puts me on the same wavelength as the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, who makes a terrific point about the problems with trying to implement teacher evaluation systems from the top down:

…it’s time for education reformers to get out of the business of trying to improve the civil service rules of our broken education bureaucracies and get back into the business of empowering educators—including school leaders—to get results for kids. For principals, that means holding them accountable for school-level student achievement, and giving them the power to make evaluation and related staffing decisions.

Another side of the coin to help ensure principals make the best and wisest use of their evaluation authority, with fewer frustrations, is to give them greater control over budgets and programs and all staffing decisions. This is partly the power of the vision behind Colorado’s Innovation Schools Act and the great work of the group Get Smart Schools. It’s also the vision of putting schools in charge and re-thinking the role of school boards and district offices, as Falcon School District 49 has done.

At the same time, maybe strong and heroic principals have more authority in the current system than they realize. In announcing his upcoming new book, AEI’s education guru Rick Hess seeks two different kinds of real-life stories from school leaders:

A] the ways in which you’ve been hemmed in by federal/state laws or regulations, district policies, employee contracts, IT/HR/finance operations, established routines, or stagnant cultures, or

B] the ways in which you, or your colleagues, have found ways to escape or explode those constraints.

Nothing like a little education crowd-sourcing, huh? Colorado principals, here’s your chance to chime in on an important debate and be featured in the next Rick Hess tome.

So… a bit of a leap to connect them all? Perhaps… perhaps not. But the issue of creating the best incentives to ensure high-quality school leadership can be a difficult one to entangle. Colorado has made some small progress, both in terms of increasing accountability and autonomy for principals.

As we continue thoughtfully in this direction, another major change that would make a difference is a “backpack funding” system where dollars follow the student to the school, courses and programs they choose. More educational leaders who have student customers rather than captive audiences means greater opportunity for innovation and effective instruction.

Some may read my conclusions and want me to take a flying leap off a tall bridge, but that’s their problem. I’ll keep sharing my ideas all year round.

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