Breathing space for principals
Call it "No Principal Left Alone."
It may not be a federal law, but the pattern of burdening principals with mandates and measuring their performance to the smallest decimal point is just as constrictive as the heavy regulations of No Child Left Behind.
In national surveys, principals say bluntly that mandates are killing them. Nearly nine in 10 principals said they have experienced "an enormous increase in responsibilities and mandates," made worse by lack of money to implement them, according to a school administrator survey by Public Agenda and the Wallace Foundation.
Just as they are being prodded to lead educational change and be bold innovators, principals are also being told more specifically than ever what must be taught, what will be tested and what the standards of success are, for both themselves and their students.
As many principals themselves would tell us, that kind of structure may be just what weak or inexperienced principals need. But the best principals see state standards as a floor, not a ceiling, and have higher hopes for their students than passing standardized tests.
Want to fundamentally change American education? Want schools that challenge children not just to master and understand, but to reflect, create, lead? That will take school staffs and especially school leaders who are willing to take a risk.
Easy to say but increasingly harder to do as locomotives like No Child Left Behind bear down on principals. Their students' test scores determine their own future employment - a boost to accountability, pragmatic observers say, but a death knell for bold innovation.
So is there a way to hold back the currents of NCLB enough to give able principals the room to still be innovative and creative? Yes, with care.
The most savvy and principled of principals have already figured out how to use the new mandates for accomplishing the greater good. They've known all along that some children weren't adequately served, but lacked the collective will to push forward changes. NCLB gives them a platform.
Now they can - and must - question who's missing from Advanced Placement classes, whether tracking kids by ability really works, why after-school intervention programs are essential.
A second layer of empowerment for them is superintendents and central office staff who, although feeling pressured to make quick, unilateral changes, continue to include principals in key decisions. It may be tempting for curriculum directors, for example, to simply call principals in and tell them what reading curriculum to use, but it shrinks their role and diminishes their initiative.
Far better are efforts to widen principals' influence, such as giving them more power over their own budgets, more say in technology purchases, and more flexibility in scheduling or staff development.
The very best schools run in a collaborative way, with wider roles for all staff. Still, it's the principal who articulates the vision for the building - and the best deserve a wider berth to dream big and boldly.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES