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Train and pay principals wisely

I believe that the leadership ability and management practices of school principals have a large effect on how well teachers teach and students learn. But I admit to being biased on the matter: my late father spent most of his career as a principal in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

Still, I base my belief on more than just filial piety. Although there aren’t as many formal studies of principal effectiveness as there are of teacher effectiveness, most of the research to date supports the following propositions: 1) the quality of principals is measurable and variable, 2) quality isn’t simply a reflection of how long principals have been on the job, and 3) principal quality is linked to educational outcomes.

I don’t work in K-12 education but I have spent many years training leaders for public service. In my experience, leadership is a bundle of knowledge, skills, practices, insights, and behaviors. Some of these can be learned in formal settings. Others can be mastered only by practice. And some of the required capabilities can’t really be learned by aspiring leaders at all — they either come naturally or are acquired in childhood.

Few missions will be as important, and as challenging, as preparing the next generation of principals to lead North Carolina’s schools. It should begin with active recruitment of promising candidates, rather than settling for whoever walks in the door. The training should be rigorous and relevant. It should include a full-time residency. And once principals are trained and placed, they should be carefully evaluated and compensated based on performance, not longevity.

As it happens, I have just described North Carolina’s emerging strategy. In 2015, the General Assembly enacted legislation to identify and fund high-quality principal-preparation programs. There are now five regional programs, each tied to a campus: North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke, Western Carolina University, and High Point University. When fully implemented, they’ll be turning out about 250 new school leaders every year.

BEST NC, an education-reform group comprising business leaders across North Carolina, has championed this new Transforming Principal Preparation program (TP3) as well as other components such as raising principal pay and tying it closely to performance. It argues that the next step should be to consolidate TP3 and the state’s other investment in this area, the Principal Fellows program — leveraging the best practices of each, expanding the number of candidates served, and further strengthening the principal pipeline.

Naturally, there are critics. Some don’t like setting high bars for either principal candidates or principal-preparation programs. Others dislike performance pay. These are big changes, so it’s no surprise to hear objections. But the previous system was manifestly ineffective. It didn’t serve the needs of students, particularly those in chronically low-performing schools.

In all candor, we should not expect any one set of policy changes to transform North Carolina education. It is a massive, complicated enterprise. Principals matter, to be sure, but so do lots of other factors. And even the studies revealing statistical correlations between principal quality and student success should be interpreted with care.

For example, a study published last year in the journal Education Economics looked at the effects of principals on outcomes in North Carolina elementary schools. It found that principals had “a large effect on students’ math and reading test scores.” However, the effect got smaller when the researchers took the performance of individual schools into consideration. In other words, “much of the principal effect we observe might be related to the match between principal and school, rather than an effect that principals can carry from one school to another.”

The authors didn’t conclude that improving overall principal quality would have no effect on educational outcomes. It would boost those outcomes. What the study shows, however, is that it is also important to study and replicate effective matches between specific principals and schools.

Sounds like a job for school superintendents — another set of leaders whose effectiveness is of critical importance.

Editor’s Note: The John William Pope Foundation supports the work of EdNC.

John Hood

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history.