Washington State Can't Waive Need for Strong School Principals

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Washington State Can't Waive Need for Strong School Principals

Washington has become a national curiosity as the first state to have its No Child Left Behind waiver revoked. Last week Washington State was forced to announce that more than 400 schools haven't met their progress goals for five years straight.

Without taking sides in the fight between Olympia and the feds, it is safe to say that these schools aren’t giving kids what they need, and the state isn’t doing enough to change that. These schools (and many others that are making just a little progress) need strong principals who will make dramatic changes that motivate teachers and lead strong improvement efforts.

Yet the state of Washington and local districts aren’t doing much to groom or recruit capable new principals. Our recent survey and report on hiring school leaders found that Washington superintendents want principals who can improve student achievement, but they rank the ability to turn around a school—what our most struggling 400 schools need—as among their lowest priorities.

Why would superintendents rank turnaround leadership as seemingly unimportant? Maybe it’s because we just don’t see failing schools as a problem—no one really believes in NCLB ratings, and the state accountability system has never had any teeth. Or maybe it’s because we just don’t believe that these schools can turn around. That’s a fair debate, given the many current constraints on staffing, budget, curriculum, and calendar that traditional school leaders have to work under.

But if we really believed that these schools could be excellent and there were real consequences for not improving, we would probably approach hiring and supporting their school leaders as if our lives depended on it. When Kaya Henderson took the job of Deputy Chancellor in D.C. Public Schools, it was known as one of the worst districts in the country. But she got her recruiters to aggressively poach talent from outside of the district, scanning data on other districts (with an emphasis on a 250-mile radius from D.C.) to identify schools that had seen sharp increases in performance. They sent these principals a letter of congratulations—and a pitch to work in D.C. A number of these turnaround principals came to work in D.C., later remarking that no one had ever acknowledged their accomplishments before and that they liked the energy and focus they saw enough to join the work.

Strong leaders are out there and new ones are learning the ropes. We just need to get serious and make hiring them a priority. Waiver or no waiver, we know we have schools that urgently need our attention.

Tue, 08/08/2017

Focus on policies that help families choose the right school for their children’s unique needs, write Robin Lake and Sivan Tuchman.

Wed, 06/21/2017

Betheny Gross offers a reality check on the limits of choice and the burden on children of hours spent in transit.

Thu, 06/15/2017

Robin Lake and Alice Opalka discuss the importance of cross-sector cooperation when it comes to replacing low-performing schools.

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