Teacher Performance, Instructional Leadership, and Data Stories

This morning I read in the USA Today that doctor visits are down in the country and 66% of Americans say their health is “excellent” or “very good.” Add the additional 24% who report their health is “good” and you have 90% of the population feeling pretty satisfied about their health. Two pages later in the same paper an article on extreme obesity states the number of adults 100 pounds or more overweight has nearly doubled since 2000, and that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. What??? The data just don’t make sense. Something is askew. We live in a sea of data, and so much of it misconstrue the truth. Take instruction and student achievement. In a 2009 report from the New Teacher Project, 99% of teachers were deemed proficient or higher by school administrators (This will/should change dramatically through teacher and principal evaluation measures under Race to the Top), yet the 2009 Averaged Freshman Graduate Rate was 76%. If virtually all our teachers are proficient, shouldn’t the same hold for our students?

Data tell stories, and oftentimes, those stories are fictional. In terms of instructional quality, we have a talented teacher workforce misunderstood by the public. Fiscal challenges, school reform, and public vilification of educators are burdens the profession carries. Confounding all this is a dearth of instructional leadership, particularly at the high school level (hence the disconnect between teacher performance and student achievement). To be fair, we are asking principals to do the impossible. Besides conducting evidence-based teacher observations, implementing common core state standards, and managing school reform, we expect principals to manage bus schedules, monitor cafeterias, meet with parents and district office personnel, handle discipline issues, respond to community crises, manage state and local testing schedules, address cyberbullying, implement response to intervention, conduct annual professional performance reviews, and the list goes on. We’re placing superhuman expectations on our school leaders, and it’s time to rethink how we define, develop, and distribute instructional leadership.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, we need to reevaluate our instructional leadership definition.  Partnerships, leader licensure, leadership preparation programs, and educator roles and responsibilities need rethinking if we hope to improve the instructional leadership within our nation’s schools. In terms of partnerships, state education departments, institutes of higher education, and school districts need to work together on increasing support for existing principals, raising the rigor and authenticity of principal preparation programs, and cultivating teacher leadership pathways. At the local, state and national levels, we must change our lens on teachers and their role as instructional leaders. We’re presently implementing major reform in the areas of curriculum, assessments, and professional evaluations, but we’ve yet to adequately transform the manner in which instructional leadership occurs.

We’re still holding on to the “Captain of the ship” model of leadership, which in this era of school reform is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. We need teacher leadership to help implement and sustain the important reforms of Race to the Top. Unfortunately, few states have gone down the teacher leadership path at the policy or licensure level.  Exceptions include Tennessee’s Teacher Leader Endorsement Codes (441, 442, 443) and Ohio’s Teacher Leader Certificate/Endorsement that offer career pathways for teachers to become instructional leaders. For those individuals seeking building leader certification, licensure tests must be more rigorous and performance-based. In New York, new school building leader assessments scheduled for release in 2014 will require principal candidates to demonstrate skills in school improvement (ie. leading data inquiry teams), have clinical leadership experiences, and participate in school improvement teams tied to raising student achievement.

We have a leveraged opportunity to transform the system, and the data suggests anything is possible. If we truly value and want instructional leadership in our schools, then the system must change. Otherwise, the data stories of our schools will remain status quo.

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