With a Great Principal, Any Program Works. Right?

Whenever I speak about proven programs in education, someone always brings up what they consider a damning point. “Sure, there are programs proven to work. But it all comes down to the principal. A great principal can get any program to work. A weak principal can’t get any program to work. So if it’s all about the quality of principals, what do proven programs add?”

To counter this idea, consider Danica Patrick, one of the winningest NASCAR racecar drivers a few years ago. If you gave Danica and a less talented driver identical cars on an identical track, Danica was sure to win.blog_8-16_18_Danica_500x333But instead of the Formula 1 racecar she drove, what if you gave Danica a Ford Fiesta? Obviously, she wouldn’t have a chance. It takes a great car and a great driver to win NASCAR races.

Back to school principals, the same principle applies. Of course it is true that great principals get great results. But they get far better results if they are implementing effective programs.

In high-quality evaluations, you might have 50 schools assigned at random, either to use an experimental program or to a control group that continues doing what they’ve always done. There would usually be 25 of each in such a study. Because of random assignment, there are likely to be the same number of great principals, average principals, and less than average principals in each group. Differences in principal skills cannot be the reason for any differences in student outcomes, because of this distribution of great principals across experimental and control groups. All other factors, such as the initial achievement levels of schools, socioeconomic factors, and talents of teachers, are also balanced out by random assignment. They cannot cause one group (experimental) to do better than another (control), because they are essentially equal across the two sets of schools.

It can be true that when a developer or publisher shows off the extraordinary success of a school or two, the exceptional outcomes may be due to a combination of a great program and a great principal. Danica Patrick in a superior car would really dominate a less skilled driver in a less powerful car. The same is true of programs in schools. Great programs led by great principals (with great staffs) can produce extraordinary outcomes, probably beyond what the great principals could have done on their own.

If you doubt this, consider Danica Patrick in her Ford Fiesta!

Photo credits: Left: By Sarah Stierch [CC BY 4.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons; Right: By Morio [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Support Your Local Principal

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In big city school districts, the average superintendent only lasts for three years. That means that most barely find out what’s going on before they’re going elsewhere. There are good and capable people who are willing and able to serve as superintendents, but political turmoil, fractious school boards, and other factors make the job virtually impossible in many cities, which might as well install a revolving door in the superintendent’s office.

Yet despite their own experiences and those they know of in other city districts, urban school districts across the U.S. endlessly and even eagerly welcome new superintendents and expect them to trot into town on a great charger and slay all the dragons that the previous twenty-seven knights failed to slay. The result is constant churn at the top, which undermines any momentum toward reform that might otherwise develop. New superintendents frequently discard reforms introduced by their predecessor, so they can replace them with their own reforms. Yet none of the reforms have time to work, and little is learned from one superintendent to the next.

The problem is the system. It vests enormous power in superintendents and school boards, which are the least stable part of the system.

Things do not have to work this way. In England, where I work part time, head teachers (principals) have far greater autonomy and power, and local authority directors (superintendents) have far less. Each school has its own governing board, which hires the head teacher. The national government plays a stronger role in England than it does in the U.S., so local head teachers pay a lot of attention to national policies, but much less to their local leadership.

Why might such a system be beneficial in the U.S., or within states? Mainly, it would reduce the churn. Unlike superintendents, principals in the U.S. spend a long time in their districts, perhaps their entire career. They may move from school to school locally, but they know about and care about their communities.

In England, students can attend any school that has room for them, so there is a competition for the best head teachers, who want to establish a strong reputation for competence and effectiveness in their area. Yet head teachers (like principals in the U.S.) are usually below the radar in city politics. A U.S. system that expands principals’ authority and independence could take schools out of the daily struggles in city politics and press.

Perhaps most importantly, enhancing school autonomy could allow school leaders to make essential choices of programs, materials, software, and so on, perhaps based on evidence of effectiveness (if national or state governments encouraged and incentivized them to do so). Choices of schoolwide programs should be made by principals, teachers, and parents, according to the needs and resources of the local community. Among other things, making such choices at the school level increases the chances that school staff will implement their chosen programs with fidelity, enthusiasm, and care.

One could imagine a structure in which school staffs might select among proven whole-school reform models and then affiliate with like-minded peers in regional or national networks. Local districts might remain responsible for buildings and busses, but the key practices of the school might be based on a common philosophy and identification with high-status networks, each of which provides professional development and materials proven to make a substantial difference in student outcomes.

Evidence-based reform would work better in a system emphasizing greater school autonomy, because the people choosing proven programs are the ones held accountable for their outcomes. Principals and their staffs should have opportunities to choose among proven programs and then implement the heck out of them, affiliating with peers who serve similar communities and hold similar values, rather than being directed by one superintendent after another to do whatever each wants to do.

Principals and teachers, not superintendents, are the permanent source of professionalism, committed to the success of the children in a local area. Effective systems should build on their strengths.

Lessons from Innovators: STEM Learning Opportunities Providing Equity (SLOPE)

The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The William T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

2013-12-05-Slope2.jpgThis blog post is based on a conversation between the Forum for Youth Investment and Sharon Twitty, Project Director for the STEM Learning Opportunities Providing Equity (SLOPE) i3 project based at the Alliance for Regional Collaboration to Heighten Educational Success (ARCHES). SLOPE is a development project designed to help students succeed in Algebra in the 8th grade and to prepare for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Throughout the conversation, Twitty reflected on how relationship building and her background in communications have helped her successfully navigate a complex and geographically dispersed effort. Her reflections and advice to others working to implement and evaluate interventions are summarized here.

Set realistic goals
The SLOPE project is currently active in 17 districts around the state of California and is serving close to 3,500 students. Although SLOPE has met all of the participation targets identified in their i3 proposal, and although Twitty feels implementation has been rigorous, she notes that their three-tiered model is quite complex and that it is too early to determine whether the intervention is worthy of further expansion. Her team has learned a lot during the first year of implementation, in particular about what to expect from schools and teachers. “We know from change theory that it takes people 3-5 years to get comfortable with an innovation of this nature. The more traditional your values and the more ‘stand and deliver’ your method, the harder it is to acclimate to an intervention like this. Change is hard and people change slowly.” She suggests that building in a planning and development year for any complex change effort is important because it can help keep expectations realistic and give teachers time to adjust and prepare for new practices and tools. Twitty notes that — especially for complex projects — piloting in the field for refinement prior to implementation in the “study”-type environment is essential.

Relationships are the work
“Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Relationships are the work. You move at the speed of trust. Without relationships, any intervention, no matter how strong, is going to fail,” says Twitty. That is why she did everything she could to nurture and build personal relationships with every school and teacher involved, from big schools in a city to the single rural teacher implementing the intervention by herself. Twitty did a combination of small and big things to foster communication and engagement. She personally does a site visit at every school at least twice a year. Whenever possible, she highlights the good work of schools in newsletters, in local newspapers, and with policymakers. Sometimes she brings congressional delegates with her on site visits to highlight the project and show the schools she values their work. “I am not constantly in their face, but rather I focus on being responsive, respectful, and trying to make it as easy as possible for participants. I let them know that I need them and I thank them regularly,” says Twitty. Twitty has also learned that the more time principals spend in classrooms with SLOPE, the more they learn about the project. One strategy Twitty has used to encourage time in SLOPE classrooms is to send administrators a list of questions they can only answer by visiting classrooms and observing teachers in action. This makes participating teachers feel valued and generates useful anecdotes for communications with other sites, funders, and policymakers.

Be efficient
One concern with a relationship-intensive approach is that it may not be scalable. Twitty isn’t worried. In her opinion this just requires working smarter, not harder. “It is not that hard to build relationships. People just want to feel taken care of. Be deliberate and strategic, and watch for opportunities to do little things.” In fact, she has found that in some cases, just giving out her cell phone number and being responsive on email (which she tries to do within 24 hours), have been enough to garner support. In addition, she is intentional about making sure every school and every member of the team feels they have an important role to play. That’s why every school engaged in the project, whether in a small town or a large district where multiple schools participate, gets a site visit from someone in a leadership role. As the project grows, regional hubs can be established for personal contact and the project director can make their presence felt from a distance — through webinars, email, and Skype or other video-chat services.

Don’t forget the control group
One thing Twitty has learned directing this project is that teachers and schools are not used to participating in projects that include a randomized controlled trial. She has found that it is important to nurture relationships with teachers who were part of the control group as well as the treatment group. She has found this helps to maintain their willingness to participate in the study and provides valuable information about what happens when the intervention group is not in play. “You have to keep them engaged,” Twitty notes. “Just getting a stipend is not enough. I’ve worked hard to build community among the comparison teachers by empowering them to feel good about the project. I send them information about the intervention and how it is part of a national initiative, and explain why it is important to keep their classes ‘uncontaminated.’ I explained the What Works Clearinghouse and why it is a big deal for a little development project like ours to meet their evaluation standards. It is amazing how far a little personal attention and explanation can go.”

The bottom line in this day and age is time. People value their time and want to participate in something that is relevant and significant. Having respect for that concept and building relationships goes a long way.

Tailoring Evidence-Based Reform to Different Problems

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Not long ago, I gave a speech at the American Psychological Association’s convention in Honolulu (all right, fighting for evidence-based reform does have its pleasures). Readers of this column will not be surprised at anything I said, but I got one question that provoked some thought. My questioner wanted to know why I kept referring to such easy-to-define-and-measure problems as ensuring that children can read or understand algebra, rather than much more complex problems such as how to lead schools.

I didn’t say it at the time, but I think this is both a silly and a profound question. The silly part is its implication that if evidence can’t solve all problems, it is of little value. In fact, is there anyone out there who thinks that it is not important to identify effective and replicable approaches to teaching reading, algebra, and all the other relatively easy-to-define, easy-to-measure problems of education?

Yet solving these does still leave some very important but less-well-defined problems that may take different approaches. These approaches should still be informed by evidence, but perhaps different types of evidence from the design-build-evaluate-disseminate model that usually leads to proven and replicable approaches to reading or algebra, if anything does.

Take leadership, which was my questioner’s example. I don’t think anyone will ever develop and evaluate a “principal protocol” for all schools, but it’s easy to imagine many innovations that could help principals be more effective, if they turned out to work in well-designed evaluations. If you break the principal’s role into its components, this is easy to see. For example, principals play a key role in teacher evaluation, and if anyone designs a teacher evaluation strategy that improves teacher performance overall, this should improve students’ performance, and that is easy to measure. Principals can play a key role in such schoolwide issues as attendance and behavior problems, and solutions for these exist and can readily be implemented and measured.

Principals play a leading role in managing resources, and the impact of each resource can have its own evidence base. Given a certain level of discretionary funding, should principals hire classroom aides, reduce class size, adopt particular programs, implement after-school programs, or purchase playground equipment? There is already evidence on most of these; the principal should be aware of this evidence and take it into account, and more evidence of this kind and better dissemination would be helpful.

Principals should be able to collaborate with staff to set goals, and then motivate and enable the staff to achieve the goals and monitor progress toward doing so. This is less cut-and-dried, but professional development for goal-setting and continuous progress toward targets is available, and the use of specific professional development models can be evaluated and replicated.

The kinds of leadership skills I suspect my questioner was thinking about are perhaps harder to measure and harder to influence. For example, positive relationships with staff, students, parents, and community leaders. Or the ability to make good decisions under pressure. Or the ability to communicate enthusiasm and high expectations for learning, or to serve as a positive role model and moral exemplar. Principals are probably more likely to learn these skills from observing their own principals and through other general life experience, but I would never rule out the possibility that professional development and coaching could build these skills as well. Research might also focus on identifying and selecting extraordinary leaders and keeping them on the job and growing in wisdom and capability over time.

Of course, if principals and school staffs chose and effectively implemented proven classroom programs, proven attendance and behavior programs, proven programs for struggling students, proven parent involvement programs, and so on, then the job of being principal would be a lot easier, and a lot more fulfilling. So rather than worrying about areas in which develop-evaluate-disseminate models don’t directly apply, it might be a good idea to use what we already know how to do, expand the range of proven approaches, and establish incentives and supports to create a school culture that respects and seeks proven solutions.

This may not solve every problem faced by every principal, but it would be a heck of a start, and then we could use different research and development methods to solve the remaining problems.

NOTE: You can obtain my APA address at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peiZVIJ0Gaw. I’m sorry you couldn’t be in Hawaii to hear it!

What Makes an Effective School Principal? Reality-Based Principal Assessments

Note: This is a guest post by Steven M. Ross, Professor in the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. The post originally appeared on the Bush Center Blog.

Evaluating the effectiveness of school principals is in everyone’s best interests–students, teachers, parents, and arguably principals most of all. But what are fair and valid measures of success? Unfortunately, past practices in defining and evaluating principals raise concerns about consistency and fairness. A few months ago, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals released a report, “Rethinking Principal Evaluation: A New Paradigm Informed by Research and Practice,” which I co-authored with Mathew Clifford. We hope that this report stimulates thinking at the federal, state, and district levels about using principal evaluations to support two essential functions: (a) judging principals’ effectiveness and (b) helping principals to increase their effectiveness. Below are some of the main points we raised:

  • For schools to be effective in raising student achievement, it is imperative that prospective principals with strong leadership potential be identified, recruited, trained, and supported. This goal needs to be a key focus of every district and state.
  • Principals must be held accountable for ensuring high student achievement. Yet expectations for success need to be tempered by realities. First, principals affect student learning only indirectly through the school environments they create, educational programs they bring in, and the teachers they recruit and develop. Second, improving conditions for instruction and developing faculty take time. Therefore, evaluations of progress and feedback for improvement are needed regularly and frequently. Schools and school districts also differ considerably in the types of students and communities they serve. Principals who are placed in more challenging contexts may need more time and resources to raise achievement to the high levels desired. Evaluation criteria that that put too many eggs in one assessment basket, expect positive change to happen immediately, and ignore contextual variables seem likely to misclassify many principals, boosting some who are ineffective and downgrading others who are doing good things that simply need more time to work.

To increase the validity, utility, and fairness of evaluations, multiple indicators should be used.

  • Student Growth and Achievement: The degree to which the principal succeeds in fostering school-wide gains and high performance in student achievement, behavior, and personal growth and development.
  • Professional Growth and Learning: The degree to which the principal has followed through on professional development or learning plans to improve personal skills and practices.
  • School Planning and Progress: The principal’s success at managing the school planning process to achieve school improvement goals and increase student learning.
  • School Culture: The principal’s development of a positive school culture that promotes safety, collaboration, high expectations for teachers and students, and connectedness with the community.
  • Professional Qualities and Instructional Leadership: The principal’s leadership knowledge, skills, and competencies.
  • Stakeholder Support and Engagement: The principal’s ability to build strong support and involvement by teachers, parents, and the community.

None of these domains is difficult or expensive to include in a district or state evaluation. Of course, the risks of basing judgments of principals and feedback to them on insufficient or invalid information would likely be far greater.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Sputnik-Blog-Moving-Truck 01072013.jpgSputnik is moving! Follow Robert Slavin to the Huffington Post, where he’ll continue to write about evidence-based reform in education. See you there! And don’t forget to follow Dr. Slavin on Facebook and Twitter.