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There is growing evidence that, of all school resources, teachers have the largest impact on student achievement. Principals arguably play the most important role in ensuring that excellent teaching occurs in their school. How principals hire teachers, assign them to specific positions, evaluate them, and provide growth opportunities for them likely have major ramifications regarding teacher quality. For this reason, New York City, Washington D.C., and numerous other districts have undertaken large reforms to enable principals to hire higher-quality teacher candidates and use teacher evaluations to fire poorly performing instructors and identify and reward exceptional ones. Influential stakeholders such as the Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Aspen Institute have launched human capital initiatives aimed at developing talent in public schools and districts. And states have increased their focus on the work of the principal in large part due to Race to the Top and other funding priorities initiated by the U.S. Department of Education and supported by Congress. Despite this interest from practitioners, grant-makers, and policymakers, there has been little research regarding how principals attempt to raise teacher quality at their school site.
This report provides key findings from a study of 30 principals working in charter and conventional schools in two northeastern states. In doing so, it aims to inform policymakers regarding how principals could exert a more positive influence on teacher quality.
This report focuses on the following questions:
1. What influenced how these principals carried out the tasks of hiring, assigning, evaluating, and providing professional development to teachers?
2. What constraints and opportunities affected the ways in which they carried out these tasks?
3. Do the ways in which principals carried out hiring, assignment, evaluation, and professional development differ by context?
Overall, three key findings emerge from this research.
- First, principals in the sample reported more latitude on some human capital functions than others. Specifically, they reported having more freedom to expand teachers’ skills through professional development or induction than to hire, assign, evaluate, or dismiss teachers. Principals described constraints on their ability to perform the latter that ranged from economic influences and cultural barriers to interpersonal challenges and contractual limitations.
- Second, some principals felt more constrained than others in their efforts to hire, assign, evaluate, dismiss, and develop teachers. Interestingly, charter school principals as a whole did not report substantially fewer constraints on their ability to carry out these human capital processes. In fact, principals who reported fewer barriers included both charter and conventional school leaders.
- Third, whether charter or conventional, schools that were smaller, enrolled elementary students, exhibited a strong identity according to principals, and were supported in key ways by their districts seemed to offer principals fewer barriers to conducting these important human capital processes. Often these factors were intertwined such that principals of schools that exhibited all of these characteristics reported the fewest barriers to making key decisions regarding teacher quality and leaders of schools featuring none of them reported substantial obstacles to this important work.
These findings suggest that policymakers would be wise to address four major barriers to principals’ ability to improve teaching quality in their schools:
- Economic influences
- Contractual limitations
- Interpersonal challenges
- Cultural impediments
Additionally, policymakers should address:
- Rethinking resources for professional development and teacher compensation. State and district policymakers should consider supporting bonuses and salary increments to help attract and retain teachers to remote regions, hard-to-staff schools, and shortage assignments. They should also improve the quality of professional development and reduce its dependence on unreliable funding sources. This may involve rethinking the way districts and schools currently use professional development dollars.
- Decreasing contractual limitations to raising teacher quality. State and district policymakers should work with union leaders to ensure that seniority does not govern important personnel decisions at the expense of other important considerations such as the quality of a teacher’s instruction. This change should be balanced by the introduction of greater career opportunities and rewards for individuals who have dedicated their life’s work to teaching. They should also work to ensure that teacher evaluation systems reflect teachers’ typical instruction.
- Reducing cultural and interpersonal impediments to efforts to raise teaching quality. Policymakers should address principal preparation and in-service training to ensure that principals develop an ability to act strategically as human capital managers. In particular, principals need to develop vital skills in how to assess instruction and communicate effectively regarding instructional quality.
The report is organized as follows: It begins by grounding the study in select research findings. It then describes the methods employed to identify the sample and collect and analyze data. It then presents the study’s findings regarding hiring and assignment; evaluation and dismissal; and professional development and induction. It concludes by discussing these findings and laying out implications of this research that policymakers might consider.
Morgaen L. Donaldson is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education and a research affiliate at the university’s Center for Education Policy Analysis.
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