Education Reform: Focus turns to improving principals

Teachers aren’t the only ones who will soon be graded and put on a path to improve or be dismissed. A plan to evaluate the state’s 1,200 principals is also moving forward, and will likely be approved by the state’s Board of Education Friday.

“There will be a state model for principals,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said, following a meeting where educators — including groups that represent school principals, teachers unions and school boards — agreed upon the plan.

principal evaluation

That plan calls for student performance and test results to count for 45 percent of a principal’s grade. The remaining parts will be linked to superintendent observations and surveys of parent, peer and school employees. Also a factor will be whether teachers’ evaluations show that they are improving.

“This is long overdue,” said Karissa L. Niehoff, the leader of the Connecticut Association of Schools, which represents many of the state’s principals.

Determining how to measure a principal’s effectiveness is an emerging science. Niehoff said districts have spotty records in this area.

“In some districts it’s very valuable,” she said, referring to principals’ evaluations. “In others, it may just be a brief meeting at the beginning and end of the year to talk about goals.”

A 2008 survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that three of every 10 principals were not held accountable or evaluated on whether they’d reached the goals outlined in their contracts.

This new plan will change that, Pryor said, by requiring districts to implement a “meaningful evaluation married to accountability.”

Better principals, better students

This plan will largely expand the responsibilities principals embody, from manager and housekeeper to student improver.

“A principal’s job is so much more important than if the buses are running on time and if the school is safe,” said Niehoff. “They really can determine the outcome of a school.”

Research shows that an effective principal directly leads to better student performance.

“Leaders really can impact student learning,” said Mary Canole, with the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national coalition of top state education chiefs. “Before, the principal was just seen as a manager. We didn’t realize how important that principal’s vision and creation of learning-focused culture in the school had to do with how kids performed in [the] classroom.”

This new performance evaluation will allow superintendents and the state to better assess those visions and strategies and make sure they are working, Pryor said.

“We are moving toward full accountability for everyone, not just teachers. That’s so important,” said Mary Loftus Levine, the leader of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“How much learning is going on really does vary from school to school,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, the leader of the state’s superintendent association.

What’s in a grade?

The notion of using student performance data to hold leaders accountable is a relatively new trend, and leaders are struggling with how best to do that fairly, said Janice Poda, also with the national council of chief school leaders.

“There just aren’t as many solid models of leadership evaluation as there are for teacher evaluation,” Poda said.

This isn’t Connecticut’s first venture into leadership evaluation. Connecticut’s current leadership evaluation standards are based on those developed by the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium in 1996.

Canole said that those standards are too vague to be meaningful by themselves.

With the emphasis shifting to student performance and teacher effectiveness, the new standards will have to be more rigorous, and require districts follow-through. It will also change the nature of support and training for school leaders.

In Malloy’s education reform package and budget adjustments, he is proposing to spend $2.5 million to start these new teacher and principal evaluations. He is also proposing to spend another $5 million to open a principal’s academy at the University of Connecticut’s education college and to bring in national experts for additional training.

“We are moving forward,” Malloy said earlier this week at a Hartford elementary school hours after the state’s Performance Education Advisory Council came to an agreement on principal evaluations. Two weeks earlier, the same group, after years of discussions, reached an agreement on teacher evaluations.

Under state law, districts have until July 2013 to have training and evaluations in place. Pryor says the state will make the deadline.