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The evolving principal's office

As accountability intensifies, the role of secondary principals expands
Matt Saferite, principal at Ramay Junior High School in the Fayetteville Public Schools, meets with ninth grade teacher Susan Whitley, using a new teacher evaluation system to start beneficial conversations with teachers.
Matt Saferite, principal at Ramay Junior High School in the Fayetteville Public Schools, meets with ninth grade teacher Susan Whitley, using a new teacher evaluation system to start beneficial conversations with teachers.

As secondary school principals guide their schools and teachers through a myriad of changes, it’s becoming necessary for these leaders to reinvent themselves. No longer can principals succeed by operating only as a manager—the evolving school environment requires a more extensive approach.

More rigorous Common Core testing and accountability measures mean principals must become instructional guides and teach teachers how to be effective in the classroom. And school security concerns mean principals must develop safe environments and the skills to quickly manage crises.

“It’s getting increasingly difficult to attract professionals to the principalship, especially at the high school level,” says Richard Flanary, deputy executive director of programs and services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). Districts regularly call NASSP to ask for help finding qualified candidates to fill principal positions, and many say the pool of applicants is much smaller than it once was and the quality of applicants is lower.

“Most of tomorrow’s principals are in high school classrooms today and they see what principals have to deal with and decide they don’t want to take that on, especially when the pay scale for principals, who work more hours, is not much different from teachers at the top of the scale,” Flanary says. “But those who take on the challenge say they feel like they’re really making a difference in kids’ lives.”

Dan Stephens, principal at Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh, says he has spent more time in the classroom guiding instruction. But, he adds, new accountability measures also require him to spend an increasing amount of time on paperwork. “It has become more difficult to balance time,” he says. “And I believe that the role will become more and more difficult.”

To be successful, secondary principals must rethink their approaches in school improvement, teacher evaluation, crisis communication planning and legal matters, among other areas. Each of these issues will be discussed at the NASSP conference in Dallas on Feb. 6-8.

School improvement

Turning around low-performing schools has always been important, but the consequences of not improving are now more dramatic. Beginning in 2014-15, federal funding, like Race to the Top, will be closely tied to school performance on the Common Core. “Instead of slow and steady, turnaround now has to be quick and drastic,” says Daniel Duke, professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. Duke is speaking about school turnaround at this month’s NASSP conference.

Many low-performing schools often seem “adrift,” meaning teachers, students and parents don’t sense a clear commitment to success. These schools also may seem “detached,” meaning teachers and leaders are demoralized, Duke says.

To overcome such environments, principals have to create a delicate balance—they must “cultivate a sense of urgency” for change, “but they can’t panic,” Duke says. In addition, principals “must establish a sense of order but they can’t make it seem prison-like. They must blend discipline with caring,” he says.

To change culture quickly, principals also must be able to delegate responsibility effectively, Duke says. They must give leadership roles to teachers and assistant principals who understand the vision for the school and who can motivate students and other teachers to believe they can succeed.

Being more involved in the classroom also may mean picking highly qualified teachers to lead instruction in certain subjects, Duke says. “Because high school principals may have expertise in only one or two content areas, they have to function more like the head of a community college,” he adds.

Teacher evaluation

To qualify for federal Race to the Top dollars, many states and districts have adopted new teacher evaluation systems. Among the advantages of the new systems are that they give principals structured ways to communicate more clearly with teachers about performance. This type of interaction can, in turn, build principals’ human relationship skills.

But principals also risk getting caught up in the administrative burden of switching to a new evaluation system, says Sharon McCarthy, owner of ENVISION: Breakthroughs in Learning, a New Jersey consulting firm that specializes in quality teaching and leadership. McCarthy, who is an expert in personality styles, is also a speaker at the NASSP conference in February.

“Principals are spending a lot of time getting schooled in the evaluation models themselves, which are data collection tools,” McCarthy says. “If we invest all those resources just to be compliant, we won’t see a lot of growth. But if principals also learn the human relations and communications components that are behind the tools, then we have the potential for true growth.”

Matt Saferite, a former NASSP principal of the year, is, like many principals around the country, getting used to a new teacher evaluation system recently adopted by his home state of Arkansas. But rather than getting buried in the paperwork, Saferite says he is focusing on using the tool as a way to start beneficial conversations with teachers.

On its own, the evaluation system cannot “improve teachers’ abilities,” says Saferite, principal of Ramay Junior High School in Fayetteville Public Schools. Instead, the system should be used as a launching point for peer coaching and conversations that are the best ways to improve teachers’ abilities, he says.

Saferite recommends principals think of evaluations from the perspective of being a “coach rather than a referee.” Rather than seeking to blow whistles on bad behavior, principals should look for areas to suggest improvements and be available to help guide teachers in making those improvements.

Legal concerns

New teacher evaluation systems and accountability measures tied to the Common Core are likely sources of legal problems, says Robert McCord, an educational policy consultant. McCord, a former professor of school law, will speak about legal issues at the NASSP conference this month.

“The reality is that, for most states, 15 to 20 percent of assessments for teachers and principals will be based on assessments that are aligned with the Common Core,” McCord says. A side effect is that teachers who teach in non-tested disciplines, such as physical education or Spanish, will be held accountable for core areas in which they don’t provide instruction. This will likely lead to more court cases, he says.

Florida’s new evaluation system lumps broad measurements of all students’ success into the evaluations of all teachers in a district. And in April 2013, seven Florida teachers filed a lawsuit, claiming teachers were evaluated based on the test scores of students they had never taught.

To prevent such lawsuits, McCord recommends that principals spend significantly more time coaching teachers in the classroom. And principals should assemble “a cadre of master teachers” to assist in mentoring and training their peers.

Principals also should be aware of potential legal issues involving intellectual property, McCord says. The Common Core relies on teachers using open source materials in class, but legal challenges could follow if copyrighted materials are used. Principals, therefore, must ensure teachers are informed about proper uses of copyrighted materials and that teachers have access to content to which the school has rights.

Another source of lawsuits is the disproportionate number of black males who are suspended or disciplined. “It is not an isolated event, and every principal should look at his or her own school,” McCord says. “If you have disproportionality, you need to change the culture.”

Crisis communications planning

Principals have had crisis communication plans for years, but as technology has changed, so have the expectations of parents and community members. If a school has a crisis, parents expect to get instant communication, says Bill Bond, NASSP specialist for school safety.

Bond was principal of Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., in 1997, when a student shot and killed three students and injured five more. When that shooting occurred, TV was the fastest way to communicate news.

Today, however, “parents want to look at their phone and get information through a text message, a tweet, or on Facebook,” Bond says. “Generally, schools haven’t kept up with what parents expect. Many schools don’t even have parents’ cell phone numbers, much less have a way of sending out a blanket text.”

District leaders are now slowly creating extensive alert systems that use text messages and social media. And they are developing plans to enact and establish instant command centers where leaders and emergency responders can gather to manage a crisis at a particular time. Command centers also can be used to brief the various media outlets, Bond concludes, so accurate information, not rumors, can be distributed to the public.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer in Alabama.