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The Principal’s Perspective

March 03, 2011 By Valerie Ong, Education Fellow

We constantly hear that our schools are “failing” because student success is quantified by test scores, courtesy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates. Educators are increasingly blamed for school “failure.” Principals, in particular, are being held largely responsible for not providing good leadership.

“Principals need to be held accountable, but held by reason and data,” says Joann Knuth, executive director for the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. Knuth believes that principals should be evaluated on a variety of factors, not only test scores.

A handful of distinguished Minnesota principals describe the challenges they face in establishing successful schools. NCLB is included, but principals reveal other factors.

Principals support high math and reading standards as long as test scores are not the only measurement of student and school success. Still, until another measurement system emerges in Minnesota, principally acknowledge it’s their job to prepare students for academic success on high-stakes tests.

Added to NLCB, funding cuts are squeezing resources. Monticello Middle School Principal Jeff Scherber notes how schools are being asked to do “more with less.”

“This year there is money, next year this is none,” says Efe Agbamu, principal at Park High in the South Washington County district. “One year I am releasing teachers, the next year, I am hiring teachers.” Such unstable funding mechanisms are a huge challenge.

Principals also have to find and maintain a balance between various individuals, what Esko High School Principal Gregory Hexum refers to as “people work.” Hexum believes that “successful principals are continuously balancing the interests of all parties for whom they work, while maintaining a focus on the common denominator—student success—that brings all of those parties together.” But it’s difficult keeping a happy balance when the various individuals he works for hold opposing perspectives and expectations.

Some principals also shared the challenges of working with a variety of students facing personal difficulties at home. For Redwood Valley High School Principal Don Yrjo, this takes place in the form of changing demographics that bring cultural and language barriers. Yrjo works to ensure that his students’ families are on the same page, but that can be hard when parents are unavailable or unable to participate.

The challenge for Poplar Bridge Elementary Principal Gail Swor comes when students have inconsistent attendance. This presents difficulties for her teachers to build on previous learning. While Swor strives to provide the best education to her students, her capabilities are limited when her students are not present at school. Given the current economic climate, Swor also works with students who are constantly moving from school to school. This often negatively affects their learning and can be a tough for her teachers to fill learning gaps.

As you can see, principals cannot create a successful school by relying solely on their own abilities. While their leadership skills are essential, phenomenal teachers, staff and supportive parents are key assets. “Any school with just one leader is bound to be less effective than it could be. Good principals are striving to cultivate shared leadership amongst staff,” says Hexum.

Effective principals build shared leadership through close knit administrative teams, collaboration, and shared accountability and achievements, not through directives and mandates.

For example, Yrjo rewards teachers in leadership by calling attention to good work to inspire others. Some principals determine best practices through data collection and find ways to share it with staff in an effort to provide useful training tools and professional development.

Principals have numerous roles and a wide variety of resources to manage. Hexum summarizes this well, saying principals “deal with too many variables in children and their families to compare and evaluate students, teachers, schools, states, and countries with one another based on standardized tests. Doing so is a shameful oversimplification.”

These principal narratives represent dedicated Minnesota educators committed to everyone in their buildings, with students at the forefront. Principal leadership must not be measured in student achievement based exclusively on test scores. We need to switch gears from unconstructive criticism to useful conversations on how we can support our principals and their mission to give every teacher the best tools available, and every student the best education possible.

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