Want better Texas schools? Improve training for principals

The picture of students completing graduation

by  Eva Myrick Chiang, Michelle D. Young and Steve Tozer

Texas continues to lag nationally when it comes to educating our children, especially in reading. Only 28 percent of Texas 8th graders met the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) proficient standard in 2017, and only 71 percent met the basic standard. This is lower than the national average of 35 percent of students meeting the proficient standard and 75 percent meeting the basic requirement.

Texas State Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) data confirms NAEP’s findings. A whopping 20,217 Texas 8th graders, or 79 percent, are not able to read on grade level. Lags like this will negatively impact the futures of thousands of young Texans and the state economy.

A closer look at the scores reveals most children from low-income neighborhoods cannot read at grade level and are well behind the state average. For example, of the 20,217 8th graders who did not pass, 16,877 — or 83 percent — were considered economically disadvantaged.

The Texas Legislature cannot ignore these trends, and neither can we as parents, educators, researchers and Texas residents. The solution: better-prepared school principals.

Principals are central to ensuring high-quality instruction in every classroom; safe and supportive school culture and climate; hiring, developing and retaining strong teachers; and engaging teachers in collaborative problem solving for continuous improvement in student learning outcomes.

Broad agreement prevails in the research community — and among higher achieving school districts — that high quality school leadership is an essential ingredient in improving school outcomes, regardless of a district’s economic standing. Surprisingly, a recent national study makes clear that students from two school districts with the same demographics, but different principals, can be as much as three grade levels apart in student achievement.

The Wallace Foundation has supported research on the impact of school leaders for two decades, and researchers have yet to find an example of a significantly improving school without a strong school leader at the helm. The George W. Bush Institute is wrapping up the first year of a three-year project supporting four school districts to improve how they find, support and keep the best principals. It has already become clear that school principals are a key lever to school improvement.

Notice, we did not say we need more principals; we need more quality principals who demonstrate improvements in student learning outcomes in their schools. So, what can Texas do?

For one, stop overproducing educators with principal credentials. In 2016, the state graduated 2,910 people with educational leadership preparation master’s and/or education specialist degrees. According to a report by the University Council for Educational Administration, this overproduction could potentially leave Texas with a surplus of almost 5,000 certified principals this year alone.

Quantity is not quality. Texas should work to improve the quality of principal preparation. We know quality preparation programs align their curriculum to leadership standards, and they provide authentic, lengthy residency experiences. We also know that quality programs partner closely with the school districts they serve. Programs that graduate great principals are highly selective, and they ensure that aspiring principals produce evidence of their ability to lead schools.

The leaders at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) have taken some first steps in improving how principals are prepared. TEA recently announced the second cycle of their residency grant program. This grant encourages districts to partner with preparation programs to provide high-quality residency experiences that helps future principals get the needed leadership experiences in a supported environment.

While this grant program is a good start, Texas can learn from other states that have successfully improved the quality of their preparation programs. The state of Illinois, for example, has adopted state policies that support quality leadership preparation features such as rigorous candidate selection, university-district partnerships and clinically rich internships. In fact, Illinois state leaders went so far as to sunset all principal preparation programs in Illinois and required them to re-apply for accreditation to demonstrate that their principal preparation curriculum was based on more rigorous standards.

Illinois state policy followed the example of Chicago, which partnered with re-designed principal preparation programs to improve student learning over the past decade. Chicago Public Schools now ranks in the top 5 percent of the nation in student achievement gains. As a result, Illinois improved the quality of its leadership preparation programs, reduced its production of leadership certificates by half and still has a projected surplus of candidates through at least 2021.

If we want to see significant educational improvement in Texas, then prioritizing leadership and principal preparation is key. The Texas Legislature has a significant role to play in ensuring programs authorized to prepare leaders are of high quality by putting into place high-leverage policies that support effective preparation. Texas has the potential to use school leadership as a lever to improve student outcomes. Do our state elected officials have the will?

Director of Evaluation and Research, George W. Bush Institute

Michelle D. Young is a Professor, executive director of the University Council for Educational Administration, University of Virginia

Steve Tozer is the Founding coordinator, EdD Urban Education Leadership program, University of Illinois at Chicago