Instructional Leadership – Now It Matters

By Jack Parker, Cohort 5 Mentor, Superintendent at Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation

 “I can remember a time when teaching was fun.” Have you heard this sentiment in your school lately? While it is not a phrase that a building principal likes to hear, it is one that captures the feelings of many teachers. It is understandable that teachers are feeling the pressure of performance. The expectations placed on teachers have dramatically increased as our society again points to public education as a solution for improving our economy and our nation. High stakes testing of students have been the norm in schools for several years. Now, high stakes evaluations pervade our professional lives as we work to meet the expectations placed upon us.

I don’t blame those who are expecting more of us. We are in a business whose primary goal is to change people. Sometimes, however, we forget that being agents of change means that we need to be open to that ourselves. If we believe that teaching is important, then the effect of what we do must be at the very least equally important. If we want to lead learning, then we must set the example and be learners ourselves. Increasing our professional capacity should be our expectation, not our yoke.

It is understandable that legislators and business leaders were looking at improving teacher evaluations as a means to improving the education of students. Research by the New Teacher Project (2007) noted several inconsistencies and disconnects in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) between classroom results and teacher evaluations. This system has since been revamped, but in 2007 CPS relied on a system that both teachers and principals viewed as arbitrary and unfair. The system identified 93% of teachers as either superior or excellent—at the same time that 66% of the CPS schools were failing to meet state standards (New Teacher Project, 2007). In one case study of a K-8 school with about 500 students, the standardized testing scores went from 45% to 27% while the teacher evaluation ratings sat at 78% superior, 22% excellent, 0% satisfactory, and 0% unsatisfactory. This, along with a plethora of other research, has been the impetus for actions taken by our lawmakers.

The dissonance between teacher evaluation ratings and student performances are certainly not solely due to teachers being rated too highly. We know that there are many factors which influence student outcomes; however, I believe that the best teachers get the best results. Good teachers do make a difference.

A follow up study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (Sartain et al., 2011) found that an evaluation system, with proper training of teachers and principals, could be both reliable and valid. Key findings of their research on validity show that there is a strong relationship between the classroom observation ratings and value-added measures (test scores). Also, it was found that in the classrooms of highly rated teachers, students showed the most growth; in the classrooms of teachers with low observation ratings, students showed the least growth (Sartain et al., 2011, p. 9).

It is not a stretch to say that an evaluation rubric, chocked full of research-proven best practices for instruction, can be a tool for the professional growth of teachers. With a strong focus on best practices, an evaluation rubric can also be an avenue for improving student learning. For these assertions to hold any water, not only should teachers and principals be properly trained, they must also be professionally developed on the elements contained within the evaluation rubric. Best practices are only “best” if teachers understand them and see a purpose for implementing them in their classrooms.

Building principals have always evaluated teachers. As an evaluator, I have needed to understand at an intimate level all of the best practices from Bloom’s Taxonomy and learner engagement to Marzano’s high yield instructional strategies. I have also been expected to help any teacher who is not rated effective or highly effective in a specific competency. As a building principal, teachers looked to me and asked me how they could get better. This is something that I readily accepted because if I was expert enough to provide judgment of a teacher’s practice based on the standards set forth by the evaluation rubric, then I should also have had the ability to professionally develop them.

One could argue that this has always been the job of a building principal, and I would agree. Now, however, the stakes have changed and teachers are seeing pay and tenure affected by their evaluation results. Not all teachers are against this. Even though much of the new education legislation is criticized as a way to cut costs and limit teacher input leading schools back to pre-union days and low pay (Wall, 2011), it is recognized by many of our best teachers that the time has come for compensation models that differentiate among levels of effort and performance (Center for Teaching Quality, 2008). The game has changed.

Most teachers want to put forth the effort to become better, and I believe it is the job of the building principal to lead that charge. While managing a building well is the foundation of a quality school, a school only becomes excellent if its teachers are continually working toward improving their craft. Teaching is an art and a science, and it is our duty as instructional leaders to take responsibility for the professional development in our buildings. Building level principals are seen as the most significant force in designing the foundation for learning, leading school and student performance, and designing school improvement efforts. The bottom line is that if we want to improve our schools, supporting and investing in principals is the key (National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2012). Additionally, there is a “sustained history” of research linking high-quality school leadership to improved school performance. (Grissom, Loeb, & Master, 2012).

The learning that happens in our school happens in the classroom, and while principals are not in the trenches day in and day out, they are certainly walking around and through them a lot. A principal’s ability as an instructional leader and evaluator goes far beyond the number of official observations that are conducted. While I am a big fan of classroom walkthroughs, it should be known that those who spend time conducting them and NOT connecting those visits to professional development activities lose any effectiveness they may have. Principals cannot simply visit a classroom, smile, pat a few students on the head and walk out. That is a drive-by, not a walk-through. Without connecting a classroom observation to learning expectations, the visit by the principal holds very little power to affect instruction. It is essential to connect classroom observations with proper coaching and professional development (Grissom, Loeb, & Master, 2012).

To do all of this—lead instruction—a principal must not only have a strong foundation of learning theory and best practice, s/he must also demonstrate their teaching prowess through instructing the teachers for whom they serve. For teachers, student learning is a must. For principals, teacher learning is a must. There simply is too much to know and understand for a principal to not have a solid teaching and learning foundation.

The time has come to invest more in principals, not less. We must have strong pre-service programs and even stronger support programs that help school building leaders to manage, lead, and instruct. The job of a building principal is too complex and too important for us to cut any corners. We should be thinking how to help principals gain capacity, not how we can make it easier for people to become a principal.