Instructional Leadership in Action

It’s Time To End Principal Licensing in Favor of Real Accountability

by Stephen Fink on Sep 1, 2015

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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.

States should get out of the business of licensing and start measuring principal performance.

When it comes to training and licensing principals, states still rely on an outdated system that tries to regulate its way to success. I believe it is time to build a system that emphasizes performance and accountability by casting the authority of the state in a new role. Rather than exercising licensing control, which frankly has been a poor proxy for job performance, states can create greater leverage through the transparent provision of job performance data. I propose that states get out of the business of licensing and invest instead in robust data dashboards that measure principal performance over time on a range of agreed-upon metrics with links to their preparation program of choice.

How Our Current Licensing Systems Fails Principals and Students

Becoming a properly licensed principal today is still a matter of checking all the right boxes in a long list of regulations and requirements. In the vast majority of cases, that means enrolling in a school leadership program, completing all the necessary courses and showing an acceptable level of competency in class and — maybe — internship work. With the university’s (or other accredited entity’s) stamp on the degree certificate, states effectively declare new principals ready to lead a school.

Becoming a properly licensed principal today is still a matter of checking all the right boxes in a long list of regulations and requirements.

Unfortunately, this licensing system fails to take into account the most important factor: principal performance. This is important because we know that second only to teacher effectiveness, school leadership is the greatest school-related influence on student learning. And while there has been some improvement in NAEP scores for 9- and 13-year-olds over the last several decades, the data show that we are still not succeeding in giving all students a powerful learning experience.

Changing the way states license principals wouldn’t be so urgent if we knew that preparation programs graduate high-quality principals and that those that do not are held accountable. Unfortunately, the evidence points in a different direction. Programs vary widely in terms of quality. There is almost no data on the effectiveness of their graduates, and even if there were, it is reasonable to question if states would act on it.

A New Focus on Principal Performance

But change is coming. For the past 15 years, the public discussion has been centered on holding K-12 teachers and administrators more accountable. Now the focus is shifting to higher education. Just a few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education proposed new federal regulations geared toward assessing the quality and impact of teacher preparation programs. Increased scrutiny of principal preparation will not be far behind.

I suggest that we allow any organization that thinks it can prepare high-performing principals to establish a training program with only one requirement: As these graduates begin working, new, state-sanctioned data dashboards would measure their performance over time.

However, there is an alternative to new regulations, regardless of how well-intentioned they might be. I suggest that we allow any organization that thinks it can prepare high-performing principals to establish a training program with only one requirement: As these graduates begin working, new, state-sanctioned data dashboards would measure their performance over time. With the data made public and tied back to the preparation program, school districts would need to become smart consumers and hire from the programs that prepare the most effective principals. And of course school districts could invest in the preparation of their own principals either on their own or in partnership with an external organization. Again, the state’s role is not to license the training, but to shine a bright light on the actual after-training job performance.

Over time, as it becomes clearer which programs consistently graduate high-performing principals, this new approach would create a robust marketplace that rewards institutional excellence and helps school districts make smart hiring decisions.

It would also benefit the person at the center of all this: the aspiring principal. Becoming a school leader is not only a step up the career ladder, it is also a significant financial investment. Knowing which programs offer the best value for the money and come with better job prospects helps future educational leaders make better choices.

Clearing Roadblocks

So what stops us from building a system that rewards performance and holds those who do the training accountable? Among the myriad roadblocks are the difficult questions as to what constitutes valid performance data and then how to collect that data in an educational setting. Given the complexity of the principal’s job, there isn’t just one clear performance indicator; taken together, however, there are a variety of indicators that show if a principal is competent and effective.

There is, in fact, at least one validated instrument already in use to measure principal performance by a variety of indicators — the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education (VAL-ED). In addition, researchers have begun a preliminary validation study of the 5D™ instructional leadership proficiency assessment administered by the University of Washington. These types of instruments could be one cornerstone of a performance accountability system. The other cornerstone is student achievement. Certainly we must include disaggregated student achievement data as one piece of the data dashboard.

Undoubtedly, the transition to this system would be messy. It would take a few years to gather enough data on new principals until we could say with confidence which institutions prepared their graduates well and which did not. Plus, the question of how long a program can be held accountable for the principal’s performance needs to be answered. Most importantly, I would prefer to see states expend precious public dollars on answering these questions of performance measurement rather than on an elaborate licensing apparatus that typically measures only course content and internship hours.

Clearing these practical hurdles may be the easier part compared to the political backlash that would likely ensue. If the recent reaction from some schools of education to proposed federal regulations aimed at improving the quality and impact of teacher preparation programs is any indication, we can expect the traditional cacophony of complaints, such as “We cannot hold preparation programs accountable for factors outside our control.”

Why Principal Preparation Programs Should Embrace Accountability

This strong opposition to introducing some form of accountability reflects poorly on those training our future educators — and is not in their interest. Instead of waiting for new regulations or finding out from new public data that their graduates were not as well-prepared for their difficult jobs as promised, universities and colleges should get in front of the issue, embrace their responsibility and guarantee the performance of their graduates.

Universities and colleges should get in front of the issue, embrace their responsibility and guarantee the performance of their graduates.

A good example of this approach is the Danforth Educational Leadership Program at the University of Washington. The program offers an official, unconditional performance guarantee for its graduates with the potential costs underwritten by the UW Center for Educational Leadership. If superintendents are not 100 percent satisfied with the performance of new K-12 school leaders in certain key competency areas, the program graduate will be provided with side-by-side coaching and other professional development work at no cost to the district or the graduate.

Guaranteeing and assessing principal performance show not only that university educators stand behind their work, this approach also doubles down on a fundamental commitment: providing every student in every school a powerful learning opportunity.

The Way Forward

School leaders play a key role in fulfilling this promise to new generations. Their knowledge and instructional leadership critically affect teaching quality and student outcomes. That’s why it is not enough to prepare them in a “regulation first” system that shields real accountability and just hopes for the best.

Let’s take a step forward and build a system that prepares school leaders well, ensures that they are effective in their work and helps everybody involved make smart choices for their careers, schools, programs and most importantly — students.

Topics: School Leadership, Educational Leadership

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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