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Principals Matter: Strong Leadership is Key for Struggling Schools

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Educators face the “twin challenges of raising the bar overall and closing the achievement gap,” said Cynthia Brown, Director of Education Policy at the Center for American Progress, at a CAP event today. New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit that works to improve education in urban schools by recruiting and training outstanding leaders, has been examining these challenges in order to drive academic achievement in low-income schools through strong leadership and professional development.

“Principals are crucial,” said the Honorable George Miller, Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, to both raising the standards of excellence and closing the achievement gap. They set “the vision about what has to take place in [the school] environment.” Principals have a unique understanding of the problems facing low-income and under-performing districts, and strong leadership makes a difference between a poorly performing district and one that is constantly improving.

The quality of a school’s principal matters tremendously, but putting a high quality principal in every struggling school is a difficult proposition. Out of the 100 districts most in need of help, more than 35,000 schools currently need high quality principals. Additionally, research has lagged behind the need for leadership, leaving the question of how the New Leaders project can be scaled up. Nonetheless, “we have to have high expectations,” said Michelle Pierre-Farid, Principal of Friendship Southeast Academy, and in the end, research can provide a roadmap for school turnaround.

Jon Schnur, CEO and Co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, arranged a longitudinal study with the Rand Corporation to assess the success of the New Leaders Project. The study focuses on five key areas: achievement-based teaching and learning, school culture, putting the right people in the right roles, management operations, and personal leadership. While not a check list, these focus areas will help principals achieve success with proven methods.

Funding is another key component of acquiring quality principals, particularly for the most desperate schools. Schnur recommended that 10 percent, or approximately $300 million, of Title II funds from the No Child Left Behind Act, which currently focuses on teachers’ funding, support principals. Requiring schools of education to track outcome data on student achievement in schools where principals work would provide accountability for this funding by looking at principal effectiveness. Byron G. Auguste, Managing Director of the Social Sector of McKinsey & Company, advocated using this funding to systematize immediate feedback for principlas and ensure levels of pay that attract top principals.

This combination of funding and accountability standards will help both educators and policy makers understand the “three dimensional gain” seen in the New Leader-led schools. Doug Mesecar, Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement at the U.S. Department of Education, concluded by saying that the time to act is now. We ought not “waste a single minute” getting stronger leadership in the nation’s poorest and most under-performing schools.

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