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Porsches and Principals: Both Need the Freedom to Perform

Article by Kerry Ann Moll February 1, 2013 //   6 minute read

You can’t put a Porsche on a dirt road and expect the same performance as on the autobahn.

The same logic holds true for well-prepared principals who possess the ability to significantly raise student achievement – even (and especially for) our Nation’s lowest performing schools.   In order to reach their full potential, school leaders must be given conditions that allow for efficacy – authority over staffing decisions and budgetary discretion, to name a few.  To raise student success, well-prepared principals who have been developed with specific care like a high-performance sports car, need a smooth, free road, as opposed to a bumpy, restrictive track that will almost surely lead to them being stuck in the mud. The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) upholds this general philosophy on school leaders and believes that finding, preparing and supporting the next generation of principals can significantly raise student achievement throughout the country.  Recent reports have noted that it is “the combination of highly effective teaching with highly capable school leadership that will change outcomes for students in our schools (A New Approach to Principal Preparation, 2010).  But if the next generation of school leaders is to significantly impact student performance, forward-thinking principal preparation programs must be supported by the schools, districts and states that employ their graduates.  These entities not only cultivate their own current teacher leaders, but also recruit school leaders from effective principal preparation programs, and employ their graduates.  In order to maximize the full benefit of a well-trained principal, conditions primed to allow for an increase in student achievement must be enacted. Give a Porsche an open-road and it will amaze.  Give a principal the right decisions and she will better prepare her students for success.  This AREL core belief, crafted by The Bush Institute’s Director of Education Reform Kerri Briggs, was central to a recent school leadership roundtable, hosted by President Bush at KIPP Explore Academy in Houston.  Highlighting the importance of district and state conditions including principal discretion over the things that are important for individual campuses, were several school leaders, superintendents and education reform leaders.  Among this group was Dr. Grier, HISD Superintendent, who echoed AREL’s sentiments when he noted to President Bush that state law gives charter schools like KIPP more decision making authority than districts like Houston ISD.  Neither HISD nor its school leaders can set specified start dates for the first day of school, nor can an individual with great leadership potential become a principal without first having received a teacher certificate - a few of the many barriers for Porsches driving on a hypothetical dirt road. Void of illogical regulations, KIPP and its leaders can make campus and community based decisions, instead of having to fit into a one size fits all model.  This is a factor why well-trained leaders like Principal Frank Cush of KIPP Explore are achieving dramatic student achievement results such as one year or more of academic growth for 83% of the schools elementary students in Reading. (An even more impressive statistic when considering the school is only in its fourth year). Continuing the theme of “Cage Busting Leadership,” President Bush agreed that empowering principals, many of whom oversee multi-million dollar budgets, staffs often upwards of 100 and more “management” responsibility than some small sized companies – is good for America’s schools and its students. And even though HISD does not have the same power to make campus decisions as its charter school counterparts, Dr. Grier and Marla McNeal Shephard, a successful HISD principal, explained that HISD is doing everything it can to provide for better conditions for well-trained principals.  For example, Dr. Grier has given principals across the district great amounts of control over their budgets, personnel and specific programs they offer on campus to support each of its own student community needs.  Started under former HISD Superintendent and former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, these programs provide a starting point for the decision making authority our Nation’s principals need to be effective leaders, who ultimately prepare our children for higher education. Uniting an amalgamation of charter and district leaders, principals and teachers, as well as principal preparation programs and a former Secretary of Education, it was clear that our Nation needs to better empower its school leaders by imparting more discretion over campus-based decision making to succeed. AREL is excited to delve deeper into this work with its partner New Leaders on the conditions necessary for principals to be successful in the coming months.  This is difficult, but important work.  On the surface, however, one fact is clear: well-prepared leaders can best raise student achievement when they are empowered by their districts to do so.  Let’s treat our principals like Porsches and give them the conditions they need to perform.  

This blog was written by Dr. Kerry Moll, Director for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute, and Patrick Kobler, Program Coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute.