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As the Olympics Close, Lets Go for the Gold in America’s Schools

February 1, 2013 by Patrick Kobler

What do Olympic Champions Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin and Kevin Durant have in common?  The obvious: each has at least one gold medal to wear around their neck, is in perfect physical condition and maintains a Twitter account far more popular than the average American.  The not so obvious and more significant commonality is that each champion was developed by a great coach who specialized in a particular sport and had the ability to transform individuals with great potential into beloved sports figures who can now call themselves the best in the world. 

As America goes back to school, we need to recruit, prepare and empower principals who can have that same impact on their teachers - school leaders that will develop instructors with great potential into educators who will raise student achievement and principals who can create a cultures of success that will allow for every U.S. school to go for the gold this academic year. Similar to the sport’s world placing a heavy focus on athletes, efforts in education reform have placed a majority of emphasis on improving teacher effectiveness.  Like athletes on the field, teachers are the most visible players in a child’s education. 

According to the oft cited Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain study, “top-quartile teaching instruction four years in a row could effectively eliminate the profound achievement gap between white and non-white students.”   But for teachers to reach the “top-quartile,” they must not only have the capabilities to do so, they must also have a principal who can cultivate them into the change makers we need in America’s classrooms.  Michael Phelps had the tools necessary to be a champion, but he would not have become the greatest Olympian in history without Bob Bowman, and his mother, a former principal in Baltimore.  A teacher with the ambition and intelligence needed to raise student achievement will unlikely reach their maximum potential without a quality principal focused on their development. Like a coach who builds a winning team, principals are best positioned to ensure successive years of excellent teaching for every child.  They have a direct impact on their teachers and have the ability to provide influential feedback that elevates a teacher’s instructional quality.  If our Nation’s schools want to go for the gold, America must change the role of its principals.  They must be transformed into leaders who focus on ensuring achievement, developing teachers and delegating tasks to the appropriate staff. According to new research, school leaders are second only to a teacher in terms of impact on student achievement, accounting for as much as 25% (Marzano et al., 2005). 

This number may be even higher considering the impact of a principal on his or her educators.  A recent report by TNTP, found that 50% of “Irreplaceables” – those teachers best suited to raise student achievement – left their schools due to a lack of culture, respect, trust and rigor.  A principal has a direct influence on each.  Additionally, the report noted that two-thirds of irreplaceable teachers who left their schools were not even encouraged by their principals to stay.  Imagine Kevin Durant wanting to leave a team and not being begged to stay.  It would never happen, so why are we not treating our best teachers with the same urgency.  Principals have a profound impact on teachers and such influence merits education reform begins to consider the promise of a strong principal. America must change the way it prepares and places principals. 

Think about it this way.  Would Gabby Douglas have won gold if she was trained by a coach who specialized in baseball?  Similarly, how can we expect teachers to excel if they are not lead by principals who are trained to be experts in instruction, teacher development and establishing successful structures that allow for a school to flourish.  The answer is we cannot and, as such, must alter the manner in which principals are trained and the systems by which they are placed into schools. As it stands, America’s schools would land nowhere close to the podium. 

The Global Report Card shows that American students rank 25th out of 34 industrialized countries in mathematics achievement.  Even students who attend schools in the 50 wealthiest districts are performing at half the rate of their international peers.  America has never accepted anything but greatness and we must apply this attitude to our schools.  We need to go for the gold this academic year and it begins by recruiting, training and empowering principals who can hire, retain and develop teachers who raise student achievement.

This post was written by Patrick Kobler, Program Coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute.  Patrick is a Teach For America alumnus and former student body president of Southern Methodist University.