Less Heat, More Light
Gail Connelly, NAESP Executive Director
Communicator, Vol. 33, No. 3, November 2009

The late Sam Sava, executive director emeritus of NAESP, once described Washington, D.C., as “the 50-yard line of the world.” As the political debate heats up this fall, I’ve often been reminded of just how insightful and accurate Sava’s long-ago observation was. In politics—like hard-fought football games—gains are measured in inches, the players emerge bruised and battered, trash talk drowns out respectful sideline chatter, and the middle ground gets muddy.

NAESP has had a seat at this 50-yard line for nearly three decades, and over that time, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that education leaders of all stripes and from all types of organizations have their eye on the wrong game plan, namely, which team is winning and which one is losing. Consequently, the teams become more polarized, the debate more shrill, and the rhetoric more heated. Our national conversation about education needs less heat and more light.

Let’s shine a light on our most important shared goal: Improve all schools, focusing first on those that are under-performing. Who would argue with such a sensible approach? Beginning where the need is greatest sets the right priorities and tone. This course of action goes adrift, however, when federal policymakers propose so-called reform guidelines that assume all under-performing schools are beset by the same flaws—ineffective leadership and teaching—and so require the same remedy: replace all principals and most teachers.

This “ready, fire, aim” approach wrongly assumes that a replacement principal alone will transform a struggling school and cultivate a new culture for learning—all with the same resources. Plucking the existing principal from this environment and plopping in a new one can no more transform an under-performing school than assuming that swapping the captain of a ship that’s navigating choppy water with a new skipper will somehow calm the waves. The seas will still be turbulent.

The better solution is to afford existing principals at under-performing schools the time, talent, and tools they need to succeed. They should have the same presumption of expertise and be given the same opportunity to succeed as replacement principals. Only then can we truly determine if these principals have the skills, ability, and will to turn around schools and improve academic performance. Anything less damages—not strengthens—our collective effort to shape a new vision for struggling schools.

Let’s remember that we all care about measuring what’s important—but we must recommit to measuring everything that’s important. Applying a single measure (standardized test scores) to a complicated enterprise (educating children) paints a one-dimensional picture.

Children succeed in a hundred important ways; we must measure all their achievements: emotional and social behavior, language fluency and comprehension, creativity, adaptability, and critical thinking and problem-solving, just to cite a few examples. Measuring these factors—and the many others—helps draw a complete, multifaceted picture for which a standardized test score can only provide a rough sketch. It’s no surprise that when we assess academic performance using a single metric, we get a flat, shallow view of the child, the teacher, the principal, and the school. We can and should do better. NAESP’s gold standard for what principals should know, Leading Learning Communities, provides a ready blueprint for educating the whole child.

Let’s act on our shared mission to put children first. By profession and by nature, elementary and middle-level principals put the needs of others first. NAESP’s most recent 10-year study reveals that you and your colleagues invest a growing number of personal hours to your job, you arrive at school early and leave late, and you work on the weekends. Despite the time pressures, an ever-increasing workload, the stress, and the lack of an assistant principal (for most principals), nine out of 10 of you say you’d make the same career choice again. For you and your colleagues, the principalship is more of a calling than a job.

Principals are optimistic problem-solvers, practical collaborators, more interested in what works than theoretical doctrine, and committed to serving kids and teachers, not themselves. You are champions for kids, often those who have few other champions in their lives. As such, you protect every child’s best chance for personal success, and you are front-line guardians of our nation’s best hope for continued prosperity. Principals are everyday heroes and heroines.

And so as the political debate pushes too many educators onto one sideline or the other—often leaving children in a kind of no-man’s land—NAESP will continue to serve the needs and interests of principals because they serve the needs and interests of children. As we move this vital mission forward, we will strive to engage in enlightened discourse, not heated rhetoric.
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