On June 30, 2018, Dr. Stephen Fink, executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), transitions leadership of the Center to Max Silverman, currently the organization’s deputy director. In this interview, Dr. Fink reflects on the past 17 years and the continuing mission of teachers and leaders everywhere to eliminate the achievement gap.
With 2017 drawn to a close, I hope you can pause for a moment and celebrate a year filled with inspiration, growth and success in your practice.
The New Year brings a time of transition here at the Center for Educational Leadership. I will be officially stepping down from my role as executive director on June 30, 2018. After 17 years at the helm of CEL, it’s time for me to pursue some other life adventures. It’s been a deeply rewarding journey, and I have been blessed to have worked with so many incredibly smart, dedicated and passionate educators along the way.
You might have noticed that that there is an election going on. So far, it has been surprising, convention-defying, outrageous, at times downright mean — but above all, it has been a spectacle full of dubious declarations and light on real world compatible policy proposals.
I’m a lifelong political observer and I think I have a good grasp of the state of education in this country.
After hearing so many patently false statements on the campaign trail, I wonder if we, as citizens, are able to evaluate the credibility of claims so that we can make an informed decision at the ballot box. And, do we even care to?
When the scathing opinion pieces started rolling in, and the angry protest signs went up, Common Core, at first, couldn’t understand the fuss. Why should kids not achieve at higher levels? And who could deny the fact that the previous system of 50 different standards for what students should learn in school left many kids behind and put the United States on rank 35 (out of 57) in mathematics in the 2006 PISA tests?
Used to being an applause line in speeches, Common Core now found itself at the end of angry complaints and partisan sniping. Something had changed — and the life of Common Core was never going to be the same again.
This year, one in five New York state students in grades three through eight did not take the state’s standardized test. In Washington state 53 percent of 11th-graders opted out of the new Smarter Balanced Common Core exams. If this trend continues — and the coming election year will certainly fuel the fire around Common Core and testing — the future of recent school reforms will be called into question.
As much as I can understand some of the motivations behind opting out of standardized tests, I think it complicates the goal of helping all students to achieve at higher levels and close long standing academic achievement gaps.
So how did we get here and what can we do to lower the pressure around the issue and focus on improving student learning?
It is no secret that the role of principal has changed fundamentally over the past 15 years. Gone is the idea of the principal as building manager and disciplinarian. Today’s successful principal is also a public relations professional, curriculum expert, data specialist and — most importantly — an instructional leader.
Despite all these new responsibilities and becoming a central figure in our nation’s continued effort to improve teaching and learning, one thing has not changed: how principals are deemed qualified and ready to fill this important role.
School’s out but the backlash to the relentless drive to hold educators responsible for results still reverberates through schools, districts and legislatures nationwide. Recent news tells the story: Revolt against high-stakes standardized testing growing. Thousands of students opt out of Common Core tests in protest. Inside the Mammoth Backlash to Common Core.
The backlash has been fierce, widespread – and entirely predictable. That’s because our nation’s intense focus on accountability was misguided from the beginning.
Supporting principals as instructional leaders
Increased federal and state expectations, angry parents, discipline issues, bus problems, lockdown drills, and daily challenges are just some of the issues principals face on a daily basis. Clearly, their responsibilities have multiplied since many generations ago when they served as the "principal" teacher.
But what about the responsibility of instructional leadership? We know that principal leadership is second only to teaching quality when it comes to improving student achievement. Yet the most recent research shows that principals spend an average of 8 to 17 percent of their time (Jerald, 2012), or three to five hours per week (Supovitz & May, 2011), in instructional leadership activities. This same research suggests that some of the work principals are spending in instructional leadership lacks the focus needed to improve instruction. Much of the challenge lies in figuring out why this occurs and how we can address it.
Last week in the span of 36 hours I was confronted with the oddest juxtaposition of visual images; in total, a poignant manifestation of powerful events gripping our country.
The first event was another in a long series of school shootings. This time a high school in Washington state fell victim to gun violence. However this one was more than just close to home. I have been to Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington. Our faculty and consultants at the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership have worked extensively with the high school as well as the school district at large. In short, the faculty and staff in Marysville are our friends and colleagues. This is our home! Yes, gun violence can strike at anyone’s home.
Increased accountability and scrutiny for school districts across the county has put renewed focus on an old problem: the persistent achievement gap dividing students along the lines of race, class, language and disability.
It's widely understood that principals play a pivotal role in the improvement of teaching and learning. But only few districts offer the right tools and support they need to succeed. Instead, principals often struggle with a lack of coordinated professional development, not enough time to work with teachers on instructional improvement, and a missing consensus on what the day-to-day work of a principal focused on teaching practice should look like.