Advocacy Update: ESSA and How the New Law Empowers Principal Leadership

By Kelly D. Pollitt Communicator January 2016, Volume 39, Issue 5

By Kelly D. Pollitt
January 2016, Volume 39, Issue 5

Over the past several years, NAESP has worked aggressively on Capitol Hill and with the Obama Administration to help lawmakers understand a very important facet of the educational ecosystem: the importance of school leadership. Without recognition and support for principals as the catalysts for continuous school improvement, it is virtually impossible to improve school conditions that lead to better instruction in the classroom and student learning outcomes. In addition, our efforts focused on showing the detrimental impact of a shortsighted, stick-driven approach to accountability on schools, which did nothing to uphold schools that were showing student progress, but not meeting arbitrary bars. As we sort through the provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we are pleased to say that our persistence paid off.

Principals have many good reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the potential of ESSA to usher in necessary changes to state and local systems. The law’s intent seeks to reset and refocus state accountability systems, with an option to include student growth and multiple measures of school performance, as well as to provide schools with greater flexibility to direct resources to meet the needs of students. However, this will require intention, time, and much discussion between educators and state and local leaders to determine how to more holistically shift systems with the least amount of disruption to school operations, planning, and student learning. Many states may already be headed in the direction that ESSA offers, but work will need to be done to meet any new regulations the U.S. Department of Education plans to issue.

The majority of principals that we’ve talked to trust that their state will approach ESSA with good faith and full transparency and, as a first step, establish formal and informal groups of educators, including principals, to draft new plans for accountability and assessment systems. Ideally, states will also have an eye towards establishing capacity-building systems to recruit, prepare, and support principals as a part of measuring educator “engagement.” As these important discussions between state and local policymakers and educators get underway (we hope), principals should note three important areas of the law that empower school leadership.

  1. Defining Terms. The law includes a definition of school leader as the principal (which could also mean the assistant principal), or the designated school official responsible for the daily managerial and instructional leadership inside the school building. There have been a lot of questions about what this term “school leader” could mean, and NAESP worked hard to clarify that it should mean the principal.
  2. Collaboration on Setting State and Local Plans. The law clarifies that state and local entities will drive accountability, assessment, and other major areas from the bottom-up—not as a one-size-fits-all approach. But, state and district implementation plans must be determined in collaboration with educators—including principals—who must weigh in on issues ranging from sample sizes to how growth models should work in an accountability system. Now is the time for principals to speak up on issues that are important for subgroup accountability –specifically those related to English-language learners.
  3. Dedicated Funding for States on Principal Professional Development. The law differentiates professional learning for principals from that of teachers, and permits states to use 3 percent of Title II Part A funds (supported at around $2 billion annually) to develop better systems of support and a pipeline of principals who are prepared for the profession. This is an important distinction and a slight improvement from current law where principals were lumped together with teachers related to activities under this section of the law. Now, states can focus funds to create mentoring, induction and performance measures to attract and retain effective principals.

As ESSA moves forward, NAESP will provide additional information on how to use the new law to empower principal leadership. Over the coming weeks, the advocacy team will gather telling data from the field, and will provide resources and presentations. In the meantime, email if you have questions about ESSA and how it supports success for schools and principals.

Kelly D. Pollitt is NAESP’s Chief Strategist, Policy and Alliances.

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