Thursday, March 15, 2012

Struggling with the Principalship

I am currently in my fourth year as the principal of a K-5 school with great students, an outstanding faculty and staff, and academically involved parents. A great situation, no doubt. As we continue to work hard to improve our school's performance on our district's primary (and, unfortunately, only) measure of achievement for K-5 students, the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK), I continue to struggle with how to lead our school as an organization to continue to improve on this accountability assessment.

As I've discussed with my superiors when our 2011 NJ ASK scores indicated that we did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP), if our sub-par performance was due to lack of effort by faculty and staff, then that would be an easy fix. We would get the under-performers off the bus in classic Jim Collins fashion, and we would seek out those teachers and support staff members who are dedicated to improving NJ ASK scores. This, dare I say fortunately, is not the case in our school, though. So, you might be asking yourself at this point, "Well, why didn't you make AYP?" My response is simply - reality.

In keeping with the intent of this blog, there is a solid research base that indicates schools with higher concentrations of poverty and English language learners, larger class sizes, and heterogeneity with regard to ethnicity typically do not perform as well as those schools with lower concentrations of students in these categories. More specifically for our school, we did not make AYP due to under-performance in the language arts/literacy (LAL) content area, and in New Jersey at certain grade levels, as much as 80% of the variance in student socio-economic status and LAL scores is accounted for by the other variable. So, the evidence (i.e. reality) suggests that our school should not have performed as well as some of the other schools in our district and state-wide district factor group. This is not an excuse. It does, however, cause me to struggle with how to lead our school to improve on the upcoming 2012 NJ ASK. Well, the only option I have is to look to the evidence, otherwise, some of my colleagues might start referring to me as a "huckster."

It is clear in the literature that leading a school with a focus on improving school culture and climate, trust, efficacy, and emphasizing academics is related with improved student outcomes. I continue to lead with these variables in mind and am mindful of the influence of my every decision on each of these. Obviously, this hasn't been enough due to our failure to make AYP in 2011, which contributes to my struggles.

Luckily, I've learned of yet another school-level variable that researchers have found to help previously low-achieving students perform at higher levels. These scholars, Silva, White, and Yoshida (2011), from Lehigh University discussed how principal-student conversations can help students set goals for performance and help to motivate them to realize improved results. So, our school counselor and I plan to implement this approach in the upcoming weeks to, hopefully, take the next step in terms of improving student performance on the NJ ASK.

As I continue to struggle with the principalship as it relates to improving our school's accountability test performance, I will always turn to the evidence. Some of my colleagues and superiors have other perceptions of the utility of this approach, but I would rather struggle as I practice evidence based school leadership than to become a data-proof principal.

Please share your thoughts.

Silva, J. P., White, G. P., and Yoshida, R. K. (2011). The Direct Effects of Principal–Student Discussions on Eighth Grade Students’ Gains in Reading Achievement: An Experimental Study. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47, 772-793.


  1. In England our AYP was based on an annual year test and our leveling of students. There were no grades..but linked, incremental learning levels in all subject areas. A student could 'see' where they had strengths and challenges.

    I have started to really look at the Florida benchmarks to see if I can design something similar. A 3rd grade student we might consider 'emerging' would fit on the grid, let's say level 2b..and the goal would be to improve by two steps...level 2a and then level 3c. (within each level there are 3 sub levels)

    I felt that was really powerful because students 'see' where they are and can show improvement focusing on the progress rather than the 'grade' and the rubrics were strong and tight enough to help focus where the instruction was needed and if mastery was occurring. You'd see patterns in your grid.

    Anyhow...that's my idea. I am going to start with writing and math...because I think it's easier in those two subjects for teachers to 'see' really progression.

    The I'll tackle an area of reading at a time...but the grid would have to reflect fluency, decoding, all separately and through the developmental levels. (hopefully I'm making some sense).

    Essentially, to me, assessment is key...good, thoughtful Assessment for Learning :) Used well and with children and you set the next 'target' naturally, research shows strong results. However, if everything is based on one state test..I read it might not actually show learning gains as much as proficiency in that grade level. So that is touch.. good luck!


    1. You mention a critical point...any one test can show proficiency in a grade level, but does it reflect learning? An assessment that measures growth is, in my practical opinion, much more useful to educators. The polymakers seem to be stuck on this single accountability test approach. I like your approach and would like to learn more about it.
      Thanks for sharing!