[This article first appeared in the Orange County Register on January 13, 2015.]
As I waved good morning to my third-grader’s school principal – who typically starts her school day as a traffic cop in the congested drop-off area before moving on to nurturing and cultivating a high-performing learning environment – I could not help but reflect on her level of dedication and the enormity of her responsibility.
Today, in the United States, you are seven times more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree if your parents are wealthy than if they are poor. And the gap starts to manifest itself in our K-12 schools, where recent studies from the Office of Civil Rights and The Education Trust have laid bare what we all intuitively have known for decades, but have failed to correct: that in schools with more minority and/or low-income students, the funding is less, the teachers less experienced, the expectations lower and the teaching minimally effective.
Clearly, our school communities – teachers, parents, students, policymakers – must work together to improve this state of affairs. But research suggests there is one group that has a disproportionate impact on student outcomes: principals.
A recent six-year study that monitored 180 schools in 45 districts across nine states confirmed that student achievement and effective school leadership are linked and that principals are largely responsible for shaping the “collective leadership” environment that characterizes high-performing schools. Indeed, the authors of the study, funded by the Wallace Foundation, state they did not find a school that had improved student achievement without the benefit of having talented leaders.
Indeed, the Department of Education has recently recognized this and has put forth a series of programs and initiatives – School Leadership Program, Teach to Lead Initiative and the Turnaround Leaders Program – designed to help school districts invest more in the professional development of existing and aspiring school principals and place better-prepared principals in schools that need them most.
The power of school principals to harness the time, talent and energy of their school communities to improve student achievement cannot be understated. One of the most impactful experiences I had when working at The Education Trust, prior to joining Cal State Fullerton, was meeting Mary Haynes-Smith when she traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive a “Dispelling the Myth” award for her school.
Right after Hurricane Katrina, Haynes-Smith was asked to become principal of Bethune Elementary School in New Orleans. She later described her experience:
“We didn’t think the building could ever hold a school again. But the district said the community needed a school in order to survive. They came in and painted and put up new sheetrock. And it was open to every student in the city: children who hadn’t been in school for six months. We forgot that a few had ankle bracelets and had done robberies. It was our job not to judge them, but to teach them. They had no better place to be.
“We were in survival mode. And my main goal was to build a team and get them to buy into the vision I had that this would be the best school.
“So today, Bethune Elementary’s sixth-graders score similarly to the state as a whole in most subjects. In reading, though, every Bethune sixth-grader reads at least at a basic level, compared with only 69 percent of the state’s sixth-graders. Not only that, but 50 percent of Bethune’s sixth-graders are above basic, compared with only 21 percent in Louisiana.
“You know what defines a successful student? One who achieves as much as he is capable of achieving. One who can articulate his feelings, who is not afraid to ask questions, who will challenge you in a positive way. One who is learning what he is capable of learning – and we know they are all capable of learning.”
The story of Bethune Elementary and the myriad studies on effective K-12 education suggest the most promising approach toward expanding opportunity, heightening the aspirations of our students and preparing them for the rigors of life is to develop and empower better practitioners. In addition to supporting effective teachers, engaged parents and enlightened policymakers, we need to encourage and provide for school principals who can lead the way. Let’s remember this the next time we encounter one.