Blaming Principals For Bad Grades

Larry Price
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Wednesday - March 17, 2010
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The state Department of Education is in the news again. Not only is the furlough issue still looming as a major concern, but now there is renewed interest in tying a principal’s pay to the performance of students in his/her school.

This means that a principal could be evaluated - and paid - on how well students perform.

What we’re talking about here is “incentive pay” or “pay for performance.” And while accountability for students’ test scores has long been the cornerstone of education policy in the United States, Hawaii may be the first state that wants to tie a principal’s pay to performance of students according to the latest results standards related to No Child Left Behind.

State policy that rewarded or punished schools and their staffs for test scores reared its ugly head in the 1990s. The No Child Left Behind act federalized this approach and made it more draconian. The latest interest in pay-for-performance plans would reward or punish individual teachers rather than entire schools. If this happens, not only a school’s teachers but its principal could be evaluated.

Is this an appropriate measure to use to rate a principal’s performance? In the business of managing public schools K-12, this is a dangerous and unfair approach to educational policy. The reason is simple. There are so many variables that cannot be controlled when assessing student performance on standardized tests or attaining NCLB standards.

Fist, some students don’t have the desire to perform well in classes, let alone tests. After all, what’s in it for them? Taking the test is a simple “fill in the bubble” exercise. Their motivation factor is only one variable to consider.

Second, there is a range of learning potential that is pervasive within public schools. Realistically, a student whose learning potential falls within the borderline range of cognitive functioning is probably not going to perform similarly to a peer whose learning potential falls within the average to high range.

The general public should be aware that public schools are charged with providing “Free Appropriate Public Education” to students with various levels of learning potential. The ability to perform adequately to these standards is another variable.

Still another variable is how much assistance the student receives at home to reinforce the concepts taught in the classroom. Let’s face it: Parents and guardians also are part of the learning equation.

One more thing to consider is social-economic status. Imagine this: We take the principals and teachers from a high-performing school and place them in a low-performing school.

What would happen? Would the levels of student performance jump significantly or stay about the same? There is no strong and convincing evidence the scores would change significantly. It is just not that simple.

In Hawaii, proponents of higher standards for public education have believed that teachers are supposed to increase students’ knowledge and skills. They also argue that if we manage schools as if they were private firms, and reward and punish teachers on the basis of how much students learn, then teachers will do better, and if scores on standardized tests of a few of the subjects dominate accountability systems, they will do so at the exclusion of all other evidence of performance. It may be a strong argument for enhancing teacher accountability, but as for performance pay for principals, they’d better rethink the issue.

Why? In most cases, because available numerical measures are necessarily incomplete, holding principals accountable for them without countervailing measures of other kinds most often will lead to serious distortions.

The principals need and deserve a strong staff and support from outside the school campus to perform, and that includes parents and guardians. Any model that does not do that is overly simplistic and will do more harm that good.

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