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The Principalship, Teacher Observation, and Professional Learning in the Era of Accountability (4/5/14)

In a 3/25/14 Education Week article titled Principals Pressed for Time to Lead Instructional Change, Lesli Maxwell cites some provocative research regarding the dynamics of teacher observations by principals and their actual impact on instruction.  In her article, Maxwell cites research that indicates that the time that principals spend in teachers’ classrooms has a negligible impact on student achievement. The research, which was conducted in the Miami-Dade, school system further indicates that walkthrough observations, one of the more common tools used by administrators to monitor instruction, actually showed a negative impact on student achievement, especially in high schools. According to the Miami-Dade study cited in Maxwell’s article, the most impactful practices by principals for improving student achievement were instructional coaching and work to improve school curricula. Maxwell’s article also cites the recommendations of national principal organizations in promoting professional development for principals to help them improve their practice.

When viewed at a surface level, the results of the Miami-Dade study are counter intuitive. They indicate that close monitoring is not associated with improved instruction, which results in increased student achievement. However, when considered in the context of the role of the principal and understanding that monitoring through walkthrough observation in the Miami-Dade study was not associated with support for instruction, the results make sense. Make no mistake though; the chief role of the school principal today is instructional leadership. Moreover, it has been the chief responsibility of school principals in the United States since the inception of the position in the early 1800s, when principals were known as principal teachers. One cannot be the principal teacher of a school if he or she does not have a deep understanding of content and pedagogy, and is able to assist coworkers in their development in these areas. The current era of accountability in education has brought this fact to the forefront of the discussion on education reform in the United States.

The problem in current practice for many principals is that there are many duties that compete for the time that they should spend planning, coordinating, and executing effective coaching for teachers along with working on methods to more efficiently and effectively assess, organize, and deliver the curriculum to students. One of the main duties that impact this fact is that principals serve as the administrative heads of their schools as well, and at some level must attend to all the day-to-day operational business of the school. Competing interests, administrative duties, and operational business aside, however, there is another factor that has as much impact on the ability of principals to effectively coach their teachers and lead curriculum reform as all the other factors combined, deep knowledge of best instructional and administrative practices.

The previous statements are not to suggest that overwhelmingly, school principals lack the knowledge to be effective in their jobs or that they should not occupy the posts that they hold. For indeed, there are many factors that make a good principal and different principals are good for different reasons based on the contexts in which they work. Instead, I submit that many who struggle with the time factor cited in Maxwell’s article are struggling because they have problems implementing effective monitoring, coaching, and curriculum reform practices. Why? They have not been properly mentored.

The principalship is a job that you learn by doing. The duality in this fact is that you only know to do what you know to do. You learn what you know to do during the time leading up to your principalship, including your time as a teacher and as an assistant administrator/principal. This is critical because to be an effective principal you have to have worked with/for or be closely networked with an effective principal or principals and have observed and reflected on their practices. If you are to be an effective principal, you must first know what effective practice is and then be able to add your own persona to the practice. The good news is, there are many ways for a novice to access the mentorship that is needed. For now though, we will return to the discussion on instructional coaching which is one of the practices that would be learned through experience and effective mentoring.

Regarding instructional coaching, it is important that principals know that effective coaching begins with addressing relevant teacher needs that impact instruction. The first step is to determine what those needs are. This is where the walkthrough observations in Maxwell’s article come into play. The walkthrough represents one data source, direct observation.  The walkthrough must also be recognized as a tool that identifies effective and ineffective instructional practice and be used as such. Also, there are three other data sources that indicate teacher needs; these include student achievement data, educational research, and needs expressed by the teachers themselves. The principal must take a measured view of all the data sources and determine which factors revealed by the data will have the greatest impact on student achievement at the school and department levels.

Once appropriate needs have been identified, planning for teacher support can begin. There are many approaches for delivery. The main factor that makes any effective however is the context in which the support is provided. Effective teacher support and professional development must clearly recognize teacher expertise and successes while definitively highlighting the identified need for growth. Teachers must share the vision for improvement if they are to truly change their practice. It is the job of the principal to build this shared vision. Also, the support that is provided cannot be an isolated incident. Areas of practice important enough to warrant coaching are also important enough to warrant follow up. The topics must be revisited in multiple formats so that staff members know that they are important and are able to track and celebrate their progress along the way.

To close, school principals occupy a daunting position. The job calls for the fulfillment of a multitude of responsibilities. In meeting these demands, principals cannot forget their chief responsibility, instructional leadership. Evaluation systems, even those seen in new models that require principals to spend increasing amounts of time observing each individual teacher, are tools to help improve instructional leadership by principals through focused teacher development. To improve their effectiveness in using these models principals need not only additional training on the models but true mentorship on best practices in their profession. The mentorship can be acquired in a number of ways, which is another discussion in itself. No matter how it is acquired though, it must be secured, because it is the backbone of what makes effective principals. When properly trained, principals can then use their leadership skills to build a shared vision of improvement throughout their schools. With the shared vision in place, staff support/professional development can occur in impactful ways that result in authentic teacher learning and increased student achievement. The success of education reform in the United States depends on principals having or acquiring and using the skills needed to promote the professional growth of staff consistent use of best instructional practices to improve student achievement.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO