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Operating in the Dark: Using Data to Improve State Policies about the Principalship

February 6, 2013 7 minute Read by Kerry Ann Moll

Excerpts from this blog were originally posted at Data Quality Campaign.

Principals matter in the lives of our children.  As a teacher and administrator in public schools for ten years, I know this well.  As the mother of three daughters attending public schools and the Director of the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute, I still see it daily through a variety of lenses.  Principals not only oversee the hiring, development, and management of teachers who account for the largest share of a school’s impact on student learning, they are also responsible for creating a positive campus culture. Because principals are responsible for leading a school’s professionals, they are the ones best positioned to ensure that every student has a great teacher year after year and thus the continued learning needed to be college and career ready. This is a significant fact when considering we know that four years of effective teaching could essentially eliminate the profound achievement gap existent within our country’s education systems (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain).  

Even though research shows that 25% of a child’s academic success is linked to the principal, the United States faces a challenge.  We do not have enough quality principals to serve our Nation’s students.  While districts hire principals, states control the entry point to the principalship and the eligibility of leaders for the job, overseeing the preparation and licensure of school leaders.  Yet, few states can tell us much information about how many principal jobs they need to fill, how many principals are in preparation programs, how many graduates of those programs pursue certification and licensure, and if those trained principals are successful once they are responsible for leading campuses.     

AREL believes the thoughtful collection, reasoned analysis and effective use and communication of data is paramount to improving educational outcomes for our children.  States have a key role to play in collecting and monitoring critical data to help improve the quality of our nation’s school leaders.

Like principals, data matter. 

This is why data are a focus of the George W. Bush Institute’s recent policy release Operating in the Dark: What Outdated State Policies and Data Gaps Mean for Effective School Leadership, a first-of-its-kind report on all 50 states and the District of Columbia’s policies affecting principal preparation, licensure, tenure, and data collection.

Operating in the Dark explores how states are (and in many cases are not) using their authority to increase the supply of effective principals focused on raising student achievement.  Based on self-reported data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia,  the complete release of information  includes an interactive state policy map, a snapshot of each state’s policies, a comprehensive data set of all the states’ reported information, an executive summary and a policy report analyzing the key findings.  All of these can be found at www.bushcenter.org/education-policy.

One of the most significant points in AREL’s report on state principal policies is that it is imperative for states to have the right information to make informed decisions about principals.  At AREL, we were encouraged to learn that 40 states include as part of their state-wide standards a requirement that principals have the skills to implement data-driven instruction.  Much credit for this surely goes to DQC and their tireless work! However, we were surprised to learn the following:

  • 19 states were unable to report how many people graduate from state-approved principal preparation programs on an annual basis
  • 7 states could not report how many principal licenses were granted by the state each year
  • 28 states reported that neither the State Education Agency nor principal preparation programs are required to collect ANY outcome data on graduates, including if they secure principal positions post-graduation, if they retain those positions, and if they are able to show effectiveness based on student achievement or a positive evaluation.
  • 17 state report that they consider at least one type of this program graduate outcome data when re-approving preparation programs to work in the state, but this leaves 34 not considering any outcome data for re-approval.

And perhaps most importantly, only 6 states report requiring principals to prove that they are effective school leaders to renew their licenses, allowing principals of all effectiveness levels to continue on the job.    

This comes at a time when even our country’s 50 wealthiest school districts perform behind half of their international peers (The Global Report Card). 

Our goal from the start for creating and disseminating the important information in Operating in the Dark was to provide a baseline of information, as no comprehensive data set on state principal policies existed in the field before.  However the findings were so surprising, that we believe it is imperative for states to pay attention to the polices that affect the quality of leaders in their schools. 

States must begin to thoughtfully collect, analyze and use data about their principals and principal preparation programs in order to not only improve the effectiveness of principals, but also to communicate to parents, teachers, students, aspiring principals and districts that leaders are an important part of the student success equation. 

By focusing on data gaps and outdated policies, juxtaposed with promising efforts by states to improve the supply of high-quality principals, Operating in the Dark will help states make data-informed decisions that will raise the bar on school leadership and ensure every school in the nation is led by an effective principal who can produce student gains.

It is the Bush Institute’s hope that you will become a voice in this important conversation on the state policies that impact successful school leadership by visiting www.BushCenter.org and interacting with this first-of-its kind data.  You may also provide insight about AREL’s findings by using #IntheDark on Twitter.  Use this hashtag in the coming weeks to join the movement to strengthen our states’ efforts in recruiting, preparing, licensing our nation’s principals and collecting data on these policies and practices.

This blog was written by Dr. Kerry Moll, Director for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute, with contributions from Patrick Kobler, Program Coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute. You can follow them on Twitter @KerryAnnMoll and @PatrickKobler

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