Principal effectiveness tools fall short on instructional leadership

iStock_000021923625XSmallGood leadership is difficult to describe, let alone measure. But that hasn’t stopped school districts from forging ahead with measuring principal effectiveness in their quest for school improvement and gains in student achievement.

According to a new study in The Elementary School Journal, many of the principal effectiveness instruments currently in use in urban districts may not be measuring what counts the most in improving school performance–leadership behaviors that set the bar for the curriculum and quality instruction.

While a principal plays many roles in the course of the work day–disciplinarian, social worker, human resources officer, chief financial officer, cafeteria manager and registrar–the principal’s role as instructional leader got short shrift in assessments, the authors found.

“Alarmingly, our analyses indicate that current principal evaluation documents do not focus on some of the most important factors related to improving student learning: ensuring rigorous curriculum and quality instruction,” write the researchers after their review of current principal assessments.

“As much as curriculum and instruction are considered to be classroom teachers’ territory, it is the responsibility of the school principal to ensure that challenging academic content is provided to all students in core academic subjects and that teachers use effective instructional practices that maximize student academic and social learning.

For their study, researchers reviewed 65 instruments used by 56 urban districts and 9 states. The sample included the districts of the Council of the Great City Schools and districts participating in the Wallace Foundation’s Leadership for Educational Achievement in Districts (LEAD) project.

Learning-centered leadership

The researchers coded the instruments to identify what qualities they measured in principals. They also compared what the instruments measured against the 6 core components of the “learning-centered leadership framework,” a conceptual framework the authors developed several years ago with a grant from the Wallace Foundation and which is based on research that has been shown to lead to student academic achievement.

The 6 core components of the “learning-centered leadership framework” are:

  • high standards for student learning
  • rigorous curriculum
  • quality instruction
  • culture of learning and professional behavior
  • connections to external communities
  • performance accountability

The researchers also identified 6 companion key processes: planning, implementing, supporting, advocating, communicating and monitoring.

Only 25 of the 65 instruments (38%) in use by districts and states covered all 6 core components of the learning-centered leadership framework, the researchers report. Twenty-six instruments (40%) had no items on rigorous curriculum, 19 instruments (29%) had no items on quality instruction and 10 instruments did not have any items on performance accountability.

However, there were some instruments that did put a lot of focus on these areas. One instrument had 50% of its items on quality instruction and others devoted as much as 43% of their items to performance accountability.

Core components

The 3 components that received the most attention were:

  • high standards for student learning
  • culture of learning and professional behavior, and
  • performance accountability

The 3 components that received the least attention were:

  • rigorous curriculum
  • quality instruction, and
  • connections to external communities.

In general, more items focused on school and instruction than other categories. School and instruction coverage ranged from 23% to 85% of an assessment instrument. They averaged 53%.

“Broadly speaking, more attention is given to school and instruction than to the categories of management, personal characteristics, and external environment,” the researchers write. “However, probing more deeply by examining content compared to the learning-centered leadership framework reveals that the assessments have limited focus on curriculum, instruction, connections to external communities, and specific accountability measures.”

Two vital areas for learning-centered instructional leadership–ensuring that the school has a rigorous curriculum and quality instruction–account for a relatively small percentage (5% and 7%, respectively) of the items on the leadership assessment instruments, they write.

The core component of ensuring that the school has a culture of learning and professional behavior receives more attention than many of the other components, they write. Schools with effective principals tend to have a greater professional community, they add.

“Studies have shown that school leaders help develop professional community through their attention to individual teachers’ development and by creating and sustaining networks of conversation in their schools around issues of teaching and learning.”

Bird’s eye view

The study gives a bird’s eye view of what current instruments measure. A majority (75%) of the instruments had fewer than 50 items, but some had no more than 10 and others more than 180, the authors write. They identified 4 broad categories of assessment items.

The 4 broad categories were:

  • Management (manages school facilities, follows fiscal policies, follows rules and regulations)
  • External environment (promotes the school, engages with parents)
  • School and instructions (creates school climate, implements vision, monitors instruction)
  • Personal characteristics (ethical behavior, listens, uses conflict resolution)

Within those 4 broad categories, the researchers identified a total of 36 subcategories: 4 in management, 3 in external environments, 21 in school and instruction and 8 in personal characteristics.

The most frequently assessed subcategories across the current instruments were:

  • general management
  • implementing vision
  • relationship with parents and communities
  • data-based decisions, and
  • communication skills

The least-assessed subcategories were:

  • alignment of curricula among grades
  • maximizing time on task
  • encourages risk taking and creativity
  • managing change
  • focus on achievement gap”Our study provides a timely update on the state of principal assessment in urban districts,” the researchers write. “More importantly, it makes a case for the urgent need for researchers and practitioners to sharpen the conception of school leadership with a learning-centered focus and to operationalize such a conception through an assessment process characterized by desired psychometric properties.”
    “The Evaluation of Principals: What and How Do States and Urban Districts Assess Leadership?” by Ellen Goldring et al., The Elementary School Journal, Volume 110, Number 1, 2009, pps. 19-39.


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