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Sunday, December 13, 2009

School Reform beyond “Teacher Quality”: Administrative Accountability for a “High-Quality” Learning Environment

Leon I. Gordon

Current State of Education in America

Our nation’s educational system is undeniably linked to our future livelihood. In a recent report published by McKinsey & Company (2009), the authors make the claim that “the extent to which a society utilizes its human potential is among the chief determinants of its prosperity” (p.5). The authors not only articulate the achievement gap present in America’s schools; but they also demonstrate that in comparison to other advanced nations, the United States is significantly behind in educational performance- and we are continuing to decline. They show that “if the United States had in recent years closed the gap between its educational achievement levels and those of better-performing nations such as Finland and Korea, GDP in 2008 could have been $1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher” (p.5).

With our country’s education system in peril, the opinions and beliefs about “what’s going wrong?”, “how do we fix it?”, and “who’s at fault?” are many. One approach has been to place considerable scrutiny on the quality of America’s teacher workforce as a major leverage point to improving student achievement. This is apparent in the language of the infamous No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. In creating this policy, legislators sought to provide stronger accountability for student achievement, attesting that all students should have teachers who are highly qualified (U.S. Congress, 2001).

A National Focus on Teacher Quality

Seven years after its debut in legislative policy, the demand for improving teacher quality continues to grow as an integral component to the fever of political conversations concerned with improving America’s education system. Recently, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan(2009), argued that many teacher training programs are mediocre, and considerable improvement needs to be made in teacher training efforts if teachers are going to be effective in the classroom (Engel, 2009; Medina, 2009). As legislators prepare to rewrite NCLB (Duncan, 2009), we must ask ourselves: “is ensuring teacher quality the most important leverage point to improving student achievement?” After all, since the inception of the NCLB act in 2001, America’s student achievement has only declined. Furthermore, the achievement gap between rich and poor students in America remains much more pronounced than in other countries (McKinsey, 2009). Despite a focus on teacher quality, the enactment of NCLB has not proven to increase overall student achievement nor close the achievement gap (one of its primary goals). Perhaps to build a policy better suited to improve student achievement we need to reexamine the framework of our school systems to identify a better leverage point on which to focus serious efforts for improving.

A Call for Moving Beyond Teacher Quality

When we focus on teacher quality as a primary leverage point for impacting student achievement, we neglect to consider the impact that higher-level personnel or entities may have on teacher quality and effectiveness (and subsequently on student achievement). Perhaps the ineffectiveness of NCLB to substantially impact student achievement lies in the fact that it does not focus at the appropriate level. To articulate my point, consider the following analogy: If an individual had a problem with persistent headaches, would it not be best to seek to eradicate the headaches by eliminating them at the point of origin to inhibit their return? Surely, if the headaches continue to arise, the patient can take medication to alleviate the pain; however, this will not keep the headaches from returning if they are part of a more complex problem. Suppose, upon doctor consultation, the patient learns his headaches are a result of high-blood pressure caused by sensitivity to salt. The solution to this problem would be for the patient to change his diet to avoid the high-blood pressure. Now the patient can enact a plan of action to eradicate the pain by manipulating the causal factors contributing to his headache. Just like the patient’s initial inability to eradicate the source of the headaches in the latter patient scenario, our current singular focus on ensuring teacher quality is seemingly incapable of eradicating our inability to ensure sustainable student achievement. Perhaps we need of a new diagnosis to find a new pathway for treating the condition of our inefficient education system. The consistent decline of student achievement serves as proof that the focus on impacting student achievement through teacher quality (mandated by NCLB) is inadequate. Thus, we should shift our lens to focus on a new point of origin, a higher level within the school system- that impacts both teacher quality/effectiveness and subsequently student achievement: the administrative level. In doing so, not only will we identify why the previous approach (a focus on teacher quality) has proven to be limited in its effectiveness to create a sustainable impact on student learning, we will find a solution to our dilemma.

Presentation of Core Argument

In this paper I propose and explore the following idea: in order to build successful schools that promote student achievement, the battle begins with placing scrutiny for effectiveness a step up on the chain of hierarchal command within America’s schools: on the school leader (i.e.- principal, administrator). First, I outline the definition and necessity of teacher quality employed by NCLB, beginning with a brief review of the intent of its inclusion, the inadequate manner in which it is defined and measured- via pre-determined qualifications and student performance on high-stakes performance tests- which I use to elucidate how NCLB currently fails to capture the true complexity of teacher quality. Next, I outline the true complexity and definition of teacher quality to show the necessity of a more robust system that accounts for the fact that demonstrated teacher effectiveness is inextricably tied to the way administrators enact leadership. Lastly, I outline the factors that impact instructional leadership, beginning with a review of relevant theory and research- which I use to propose a framework for effective administrative accountability for teacher effectiveness. My central argument is that schools will positively impact student achievement if its administration is held accountable for providing instructional leadership; doing so will subsequently provide the school with high-levels of internal accountability (Elmore, 2005) to ensure that all students have teachers who are both “highly-qualified” and “highly effective”.

The Intentions of Focusing on Teacher Quality

To begin to understand why we must shift our focus for seeking improvement in student achievement from that of teacher quality to that of the influence of school administrators, we must discuss the origins and nature of ineffectiveness present in the current leverage point enacted by NCLB (i.e. - impacting student achievement by focusing on teacher quality). The NCLB act focused on teacher quality as a means to ensure that schools serving America’s neediest students (who typically have a shortage of experienced and certified teachers) received teachers who were highly qualified (Darling-Hammond, 2006a). While NCLB’s focus on ensuring teacher quality seem to be a justifiable and a logical inclusion, the reality of its ineffectiveness on student achievement becomes apparent when we view how NCLB defines “highly-qualified”.

Inadequacy of NCLB’s Definition and Measure of Teacher Quality

Under the NCLB act, teachers are deemed “highly-qualified” if they are “fully certified and demonstrate competence in the subject areas they teach, as well as exhibiting teaching skill” (Darling-Hammond, 2006a, p.647). According to NCLB’s standards, the essence of teacher quality is determined by a set of qualifications that are assessed remotely of actual teacher classroom performance (i.e.-via subject matter tests and teacher training programs). In this sense, these pre-requisites merely serve as a predictor of teacher quality and cannot guarantee the actual demonstrated effectiveness a teacher may enact once they are placed in a classroom. Enacting effective practices in the context of a real-life classroom is a major difficulty many teachers face after satisfying training that certifies “highly qualified” status (Darling-Hammond & Synder, 2000). I find it troublesome that we deem teachers “highly qualified” (based on a set of pre-requisites) while they can very well remain ineffective at demonstrating “quality” performance. This is indication that the true nature of teacher quality is a much more complex entity than NCLB currently employs (discussed later).

Aside from meeting pre-requisite standards that validate the status of “highly effective”, the only monitoring of teacher effectiveness (i.e.-quality) employed by NCLB is measured by student performance on high-stakes student achievement tests. I propose that student performance on high-stakes assessments is an inadequate measure for teacher quality and effectiveness. The true nature of demonstrated quality and effectiveness of teachers (to be discussed in detail later) is rather complex and it encompasses measures of teacher performance that are not capable of being assessed via student performance on achievement tests. For example, a teacher can have the capacity to construct meaningful learning activities in a classroom yet lack the ability to control student behaviors that interfere with instruction. Of course, a teacher’s inability to control student behavior will make learning in the classroom difficult, which- in turn, could contribute to poor student performance results. In looking at the poor achievement scores, one would have no way of knowing that this teacher possessed such highly-valued pedagogical content knowledge and that one of the main things preventing him from being effective is the cultivation of behavioral management skills. The qualities of effective teacher classroom performance are tacit when looking at student achievement scores. These test scores do not show the kinds of knowledge (e.g. - pedagogical, content, curricular), the purposeful planning (e.g.-unit/lesson planning), and emotional/motivational support teachers use to facilitate learning in the classroom. Looking at teacher quality via student performance on achievement tests mutes these essential teacher qualities necessary for efficacy when, in reality, these qualities are teacher actions that can be observed. Thus, monitoring of true teacher quality cannot be limited to the results of student performance on achievement tests. Instead, teacher quality should be monitored in ways that elucidate teacher action(s) that lead to the results of student performance.

Another reason that performance on high-stakes assessments is an inadequate measure for teacher quality and effectiveness is due to the fact that student performance is impacted by a vast array of variables that go beyond teacher influence. A study of elementary schools in Chicago revealed that administrators in low-performing schools often respond to high-stakes accountability tests by enacting protocols that focus on improving the performance of certain students and within benchmark grades (Diamond & Spillane, 2004). To be more specific, school administrators from these low-performing schools enacted measures they felt would allow their schools to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP). These measures included targeting and providing additional assistance primarily to students at benchmark grade-levels (to reduce school reported retention rate) and to students whose performance was very close to the threshold of making satisfactory progress (improvement in these students would provide the “jump” the school needed to meet AYP). These measures provided limited assistance to the lowest-performing students and resulted in the continued lack of academic improvement for these students.

The decision to enact such school-wide instructional protocols extends beyond teacher control and, as research has shown (Diamond & Spillane, 2004), can cause continuously poor performance for students (especially those that are low-performing). Student performance on achievement tests is the sole means by which NCLB measures proof of teacher effectiveness in the classroom. However, as demonstrated, the outcomes for student achievement on these exams can be confounded by many other variables that lie outside teacher control; hence, student performance on high-stakes assessments fails as an absolute measure of teacher quality. This conclusion, in conjunction with the suggestion that the nature of teacher quality and effectiveness is much more complex than NCLB acknowledges, calls for a more accurate measurement of teacher quality. A more accurate measure will need to employ a much more comprehensive and dynamic approach than what is currently capable through NCLB’s usage of student performance on achievement tests. NCLB’s current approach to ensuring teacher quality as a viable leverage point to improving student achievement is ineffective on two fronts: (1) it suggests an incomprehensive definition for teacher quality that does not account for the reality of its multi-faceted complexity (2) there are limitations to the validity of its singular approach to measuring teacher quality or efficacy through student performance on achievement.

Qualified vs. Quality: A Case of Misinterpretation

The inadequacy of the definition and measure for teacher quality employed by NCLB are clear. To remedy this inadequacy, we must recognize its point of origin. I argue that the discernment of quality for teachers calls for specific attention to the degree to which teachers are capable of demonstrating effectiveness in the classroom. In this sense, teacher quality is a demonstration of performance; it is an “active” measurement. On the other hand, NCLB promotes a definition of teacher quality that is “static” in nature. Under NCLB, being “highly-qualified” is a status: it shows verification that one has completed a set of pre-determined standards selected by experts in education and educational training programs. These experts agree upon a set of pre-requisite standards that they believe, upon completion, will translate into successful teacher practice (Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002). Studies conducted of the predictive validity of teacher performance measures (as cited by Darling-Hammond and Synder, 2002) have found that performance on standards determining the “high-quality” status of teachers has shown little evidence that such measures are correlated with demonstrated teacher effectiveness. Darling Hammond and Synder (2002) suggested that, “one reason for [this] may be that the ability [of teachers] to recognize information presented in a list of responses is significantly different from the ability [required] to produce the same kind of analysis or to enact corresponding ideas in practice” (p.525). They suggest that the evaluative measures for determining teacher quality are too decontextualized from the reality of the classroom setting, and teachers who may be deemed “qualified” will find it difficult to manage the complex reality of classroom practice. While experts believe that teachers will be effective, this cannot be guaranteed: the standards of “highly-qualified” are, in large, assessed remotely of teacher performance (i.e.-via subject matter tests and teacher training programs). Thus, “highly-qualified” only serves as indication that a teacher has completed measures to prepare for classroom practice. Here we see an apparent disconnect between being considered qualified and demonstrating quality performance. NCLB’s preoccupation with ensuring that teachers meet qualifications does not ensure the quality performance necessary to be effective in the classroom. Hence, a focus on what constitutes quality teacher performance is essential.

Defining Quality Teacher Performance as a Measure of Effectiveness

While NCLB mandated that students should have “highly qualified” teachers, it does not provide the means to ensure that this is so (Darling-Hammond, 2002). Simply put, NCLB fails to ensure quality teacher performance. How can this piece of legislation be rewritten or revamped to ensure that students have highly-qualified teachers who, by definition, should demonstrate quality performance? Further, how do we determine and measure what constitutes quality teacher performance? The discernment of quality teacher performance can be determined by the degree to which teachers are capable of demonstrating effectiveness in the classroom. A teacher can be deemed effective or ineffective by the degree in which he or she proves capable of providing and facilitating a learning environment that is attuned to the learners under his or her supervision and direction.

Providing and facilitating a learning environment is a complex process that has many dimensions. The ultimate goal of a learning environment is to prove effective at providing the necessary supports and procedures that support student learning such that students prove capable in demonstrating mastery of a presented subject matter. In this sense, teacher quality is a demonstration of capability to promote student learning and achievement. NCLB measures teacher effectiveness by student performance on achievement tests. By looking at student performance on achievement tests, we are able to see how “effective” the constructed learning environment (provided by a teacher) has been in enabling students to demonstrate the mastery of a given subject matter. While student performance on achievement exams can be confounded by many factors beyond teacher control, they also provide insight into many elements that can be traced back to teacher practices within the classroom (Diamond & Spillane, 2004). However, the complete complex nature of what it takes to be an effective teacher is not capable of being measured by student performance on achievement tests.

Achievement tests provide a summative report of student progress. The observed output of student performance (in relation to teacher impact), is an aggregate measure of all the teacher actions (or lack thereof) that may have contributed to (or hampered) student achievement. Some of these teacher actions (e.g. - instructional decisions) can be traced from disaggregated data on achievement exams (Diamond & Spillane, 2004); however, as mentioned above, there are many teacher actions that promote student achievement that remain tacit when looking at achievement tests. In proposing that teacher quality is a demonstration of capability to promote student leaning and achievement, I am saying that a measurement for teacher effectiveness must provide a way to examine all observable teacher actions that promote student learning and achievement. Evaluating teacher effectiveness by student performance on achievement exams only measures a teacher’s ability to ensure positive student achievement when, in fact, the steps that teachers take to promote student learning and achievement are pre-requisites to ensuring positive student achievement. In a perfect world, all teachers would secure positive results for student achievement at all times; however, the reality is that improvements in learning (both for students and teachers’ responses to novel obstacles to student learning) are not instantaneous, nor do they progress linearly (Elmore, 2005). Student achievement lies in a continuum of ecological change, where many obstacles to student learning will arise. An effective teacher will provide an environment that is responsive to these obstacles that may arise to learning. A more accurate measure for teacher quality will be one that can examine the qualities associated with a teacher’s ability to create an environment that “[engages] in sustained and continuous progress toward a performance goal [(demonstrated achievement)] over time” (Elmore, 2002, p.2).

The Qualities of Effective Teaching

The qualities and skills that dictate teacher classroom effectiveness are many. The practices of effective teaching require constant reflection, strategy and planning. These “behind the scenes” practices guide the observable actions enacted by teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2006b). I propose that these qualities or skills are divided into two categories: professional aptitude and social discernment. These categories are not mutually exclusive and have much over-lap. The nature of teacher professional aptitude characterizes the construction and embodiment of knowledge particular to instructional delivery. More specifically, this category refers to teacher acquisition and enactment of content, pedagogical, and curricular knowledge (Shulman, 1986). The dimensions of these necessary strands of teacher knowledge can be very intricate and both grade level and content specific. The other category of observable teacher qualities, social discernment, characterizes the embodiment of socio-emotional perspective and aptitude. These qualities enable teachers to facilitate learning for individuals who embody diverse socio-cognitive practices that may demand attention (if understanding and demonstration of instructional goals is to take place). For example, teachers must be capable of facilitating learning for students who may very well embody differing cultural tools of thinking (Rogoff, 2003). This implies that teachers must be responsive to student culture if they are to create an effective learning environment (Gay, 2000). The collective, demonstrated effectiveness of a teacher can be seen his or her ability to manipulate and draw from these capacities of professional aptitude and social discernment to make decisions that will promote student learning. Bransford and Darling-Hammond (2005) offer this comprehensive analysis:

“On a daily basis, teachers confront complex decisions that rely on many different kinds of knowledge and judgment and that can involve high-stakes out-comes for students’ futures. To make good decisions, teachers must be aware of the many ways in which student learning can unfold in the context of development, learning differences, language and cultural influences, and individual temperaments, interests, and approaches to learning ” (p.1-2).

This grocery list of factors and concerns that impact student learning provide light to show that a teacher’s ability to provide an effective learning environment is a multidimensional and complex task. In this light, we can deduce the true complexity of what it really means to define and measure teacher quality (something the NCLB act fails to do). Every school community in America has distinct factors contributing to the unique nature of what is necessary for a teacher to be effective in facilitating learning, leaving us with differing qualifications that define teacher quality in different contexts. Rogoff (2003) argues that “the variation in teacher quality is driven by characteristics that are difficult or impossible to measure” (p.2). While I agree that it can be difficult (and at times impossible) to measure the characteristics that drive teacher quality, we should remain dutiful to identifying and examining observable teacher actions that significantly impact student learning. In doing so, we increase our ability to ensure that all students have effective teachers (who possess the necessary skills that respond to the given ecological context in which they teach).

Teacher Effectiveness is Inextricably Tied to Administrative Leadership

Having made clear the true complex nature of teacher quality, I return now to address the second inadequacy of NCLB’s approach to improving student achievement through a singular focus on ensuring teacher quality: the need for a systematic means to measure what is truly teacher quality. As discussed, current evaluative measures of teacher efficacy (i.e.-high-stakes achievement tests) are lagging and incapable of measuring the true complexity teacher efficacy. Furthermore, improving student achievement by focusing strictly on teacher quality is a very limiting approach. This approach focuses directly on one component of the school system when, in fact, the operation and demonstration of that one component (teacher quality) is subject to the operation and functionality of a superior hierarchal entity. The current evaluative measures for teacher efficacy place a great deal of pressure on teachers to prove they are effective at positively impacting student achievement when, as mentioned above, being able to do so is not solely within teacher control (Diamond & Spillane, 2004). The ways that school leaders enact leadership influences what teachers do and are capable of doing; thus, demonstrated teacher effectiveness is inextricably tied to the way leaders enact leadership (Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2001). Thus, an accurate and effective measurement for teacher quality should reinforce administrative accountability for teacher effectiveness; this would place principals in the role of instructional leader. Despite the fact that principal actions influence teacher effectiveness, “providing instructional leadership” typically eludes principals’ lists of responsibilities (Elmore & Burney, 2000).

Validating Administrative Accountability for Instructional Leadership

Why should we place so much scrutiny on administrative accountability for instructional leadership? After all, public school operation extends beyond the control and influence of the principal. In fact, as Elmore (2000) outlines, the role of principal is but one of five components within a larger system of school reform (in which the principal is subject to superior influence). This system includes: (1) policy makers, (2) researchers and program developers, (3) superintendents and district-level staff (4) principals, and (5) teachers. Why am I placing the emphasis on principal leadership in the midst of these other factors of influence? The answer becomes apparent when we acknowledge that principals are the internal chief executors of day-to-day school-site operation while policy-makers, researchers, program developers, and superintendents are external influences who do not make the critical, in-the-moment, or routine decisions (both instructional and non-instructional) essential to student achievement.

To explain, when an external policy is enforced it, at the most, provides a general direction for schools to follow; however, the actual outcomes of the policy are heavily dependent on the context of the school (Elmore, 2005). This means that different schools will employ different approaches and experience different levels of success in achieving the goals to which external policy holds them accountable. The study of urban elementary schools in Chicago by Diamond and Spillane (2004) demonstrated how differences in the ways high-performing and low-performing school principals responded to high stakes accountability policy resulted in considerable differences for student achievement. While low-performing school principals enacted protocols that compromised the improvement of its lowest-performing students (mentioned above), the high-performing school principals used data-analysis in two ways to continuously promote student achievement: (1) to identify areas of improvement for all students in all grade-levels and (2) to continuously find ways to drive faculty toward improvement (in an environment where student achievement was already high). The observed differences between these sets of schools in enacting the same external policy confirm that the on-site operation of instructional leadership employed by principals is a vital leverage point to promoting student achievement. Yet, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that all agents of school reform (i.e.- policy-makers, researchers, district-level staff) are stakeholders in our nation’s quest to improve student achievement; as such, all components should indeed be held accountable. Furthermore, the demonstration of leadership enacted by principals does not lie in a vacuum exempt from the potential influence these agents can have on principal performance. To get a clear picture of what effective administrative accountability entails, we must examine all the factors (in this case, external agents) that may contribute to (or hamper) its effectiveness.

Adjusting the Scope of Administrative Accountability for Instructional Leadership

While principals are only one agent of a larger system impacting school reform, the effectiveness of principal instructional leadership proved to be the critical determinant of student achievement in the urban elementary schools studied by Diamond and Spillane (2002). However, this is not to say that the external influences of school-site operation (i.e.-policy-makers, researchers, superintendents and district-level staff) do not influence how principals enact leadership. These observed high-performing and low-performing schools exhibited differing levels of effective instructional leadership due to the difference of instructional protocols the principals employed. I move now to reveal how these observed differences of instructional protocol reveal how external influences impact principal leadership. Moreover, I propose that the influence of these external agents suggest that administrative accountability extends beyond principal control.

Validating External Influence on Administrative Accountability

As mentioned previously, most policies provide the general direction which principals should follow in being held accountable for student achievement; yet, these policies do not dictate nor spell-out the means to achieve the desired end result: improved (or sustained) student performance (Elmore, 2005). As most policy is deficient in this manner, most school systems are left to interpret how to meet the demands of accountability a policy may call for. When a policy simply mandates that schools are to be accountable for student achievement, it places the discretion for accountability into the hands of professionals who already bear the brunt of much responsibility (e.g. - being “building managers, human resource administrators, change agents, disciplinarians, cheerleaders, surrogate parents” (Elmore & Burney, 2000, p.1)). As a result, schools leaders often employ a system of accountability that does not enact consistent, thorough and reliable instructional leadership. This does not mean that principals do not wish to be accountable for the quality of instruction in his or her school; in fact, most do (as it is understood that improving student achievement calls for quality instruction). Yet, the ability of principals to provide effective instructional leadership is often compromised by the complexity and sheer quantity of other day-to-day administrative responsibilities. Research has suggested (Elmore & Burney, 2000) that as principals are bombarded with other responsibilities he or she will often do one of two things: (1) he or she will enact systems for instructional leadership that substitute effectiveness for manageability or (2) he or she will gradually become less and less inclined to practice instructional leadership altogether (Elmore & Burney, 2000). The challenge that instructional leadership presents to principals suggests that accountability for this role necessitates support beyond a principal’s willful intention to hold him or herself accountable. For example, Elmore and Burney (2000) conducted a study of a New York school district that provided such support (as this school district held principals accountable as instructional leaders). Each year, district-level administrators evaluate principals using a unique performance plan dictated by a negotiated list of “Supervisory Goals and Objectives”. This list of goals and objectives is chiefly composed of explicit expectations for instructional leadership. In addition to personal evaluative support, New York’s district #2 provides principals with a district-level support network. Principals are required to report to and participate in this superior network (made up of principals and district-level staff). In this network, principals engage in peer mentorship (formal and informal), district-level instructional improvement meetings, and routine inter-school “walk-throughs” (for evaluation of instructional practice). With these district-level supports in place, the principals from this New York school district were observed to remain engaged in working to ensure effective instructional leadership. In this light, effective administrative accountability appears to be reliant upon external influence and support.

Reifying Administrative Accountability for Instructional Leadership

The New York school district from Elmore and Burney’s 2002 study demonstrates a large-scale commitment to instructional improvement- where administrative accountability for instructional leadership extends beyond the principal. Hence, I must reify the scope of administrative accountability for instructional leadership such that it includes principals and those who support and guide the efforts of principals: superintendents and district-level staff. Providing effective instructional leadership requires much time and commitment (to be discussed); and, considering the complexity and amount of other significant responsibilities principals have, principals can easily fall short of serving in this capacity. The duties bestowed upon principals seemingly call for super-human performance; moreover, (as shown in the case of the principals in the New York school district) if these duties are to be carried out effectively and sustained, the efforts of principals must be adjoined with the efforts of district-level staff to establish an administrative community of accountability for instructional leadership. Establishing such a community increases the likelihood that school efforts of instructional leadership will be viable, consistent, thorough, and reliable.

The Roles of Instructional Leaders

An administrative community that provides effective instructional leadership will surely require that its members (i.e. - principals and district-level staff) be equipped with the skills that promote instructional leadership; yet, “few principals and superintendents have had training for this role” (Lashway, 2002). What’s interesting is that instructional leadership is not a new idea; however, its definitions have become increasingly expansive in its resurgence since the 1980’s. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (as cited by Lashway, 2002) contests that “instructional leaders have six roles: (1) making student and adult learning the priority; (2) setting high expectations for performance; (3) gearing content and instruction to standards; (4) creating a culture of continuous learning for adults; (5) using multiple sources of data to assess learning; and (6) activating the community’s support for school success” (p.1). If few school administrators have had training for these roles of instructional leadership, we, obviously, must employ training that will equip administrators with the necessary skills to be effective. However, as the goal of this paper is to outline how administrative effectiveness in providing instructional leadership can ensure teacher quality and student achievement, I will only provide a brief detailing of what are the “recognizable” skills of effective instructional leaders (rather than elaborating what I believe will adequately prepare administrators for the role of instructional leader).

The Skills Necessary for Instructional Leadership

When administrators facilitate effective instructional leadership, they provide the “organizational glue” that keeps the school on a track of continuous improvement (Elmore, 2000; Lashway, 2002). The adhesive strength of this “organizational glue” is provided by the demonstration of three core skill trajectories (Lashway, 2002). (1) The first core trajectory requires that leaders are able to plan and enforce a systematic mission (or set of goals) to which he or she holds all community members. Enforcing this “vision” will require administrators to establish a system of accountability equipped with the necessary protocols and resources that reinforce and align with the overall school mission. (2) The second core trajectory requires administrators to enact an effective balance of command and empowerment in relation to his or her faculty. This requires that administrators be transparent, direct, fixated on improvement, and democratic rather than dictative. The goal is to create a safe community where teachers are required to learn and encouraged to participate. (3) The third core trajectory of effective instructional leadership requires that administrators model learning. This includes modeling the learning traits desired in teachers (i.e. - “openness to new ideas, willingness to be driven by results, and persistence in the face of difficulty” (Lashway, 2002, p.3)). Moreover, “[administrator] knowledge should be deep enough to let them coach teachers using explanations, practical examples, and demonstration lessons” (Lashway, 2002, p. 3). If an administrator demonstrates the trajectory of skills presented in this theory of effective instructional leadership; I find it both plausible and logical to assume that his or her school demands (and supports) quality teacher performance. Having now reviewed the stipulations of administrative accountability and relevant theory of instructional leadership, I move now to reconnect the role of administrator with ensuring teacher effectiveness- this paper’s central focus.

Returning to Core Argument

Placing administrators in the role of instructional leader only makes sense. The position of principal (in being the superior of school site operations) is naturally placed at the pinnacle of day-to-day influence on student achievement. Just the same, management protocols administrators employ impact individual teacher effectiveness as well as student achievement for the school at large. If administrators (i.e. - superintendents and principals) are capable of having such an influence on student achievement, it is only fair that we call for legislation that holds them more accountable.

Making administrators more accountable for student achievement requires they be made accountable for ensuring every student has a “high-quality” teacher who demonstrates high quality teaching. As instructional leaders, principals are made accountable for teacher effectiveness which, in turn, makes them accountable for providing an environment fixated on continuous improvement. Considering all that has been discussed up until this point, I move now to propose a framework for enacting administrative accountability that is attuned with both the stipulations of administrative accountability and instructional leadership theory and research (both suggested above).

Proposal for Administrative Measurement of Teacher Quality

To ensure that a high-quality teacher is present in every classroom the principal needs to evaluate, determine, and discern the teacher quality and effectiveness necessary for student achievement. To carry this out, I propose an accountability system consisting of five core components. (1) Principals must understand the nature of their school’s ecological context and identify and report the skills required to effectively teach within that context (so as to develop a systematically rigorous means of screening teachers for quality at the time of hire). (2) Principals must provide a valid, efficient, reliable and fair means to consistently measure and monitor teacher effectiveness once teachers are hired. This system, upon examination and practice, should be reciprocal in nature, such that it holds teachers accountable for continuously improving their instruction and likewise holds principals accountable for consistently monitoring and providing guidance that will show teachers how to continuously improve their effectiveness in the classroom. (3) The evaluative measures used to monitor teacher effectiveness should be observable, measurable teacher actions that can be shown to have justifiable impact on the success of student learning. One such measure, the Teaching as Leadership (TAL) Rubric, has been employed by Teach for America to train and measure the growth of its teachers. This framework outlines six pillars of observable teacher actions that have been shown to have a justifiable, significant impact on student achievement. Those six pillars include: “setting an ambitious vision of students’ academic success, investing students and their families in working hard toward the vision, planning purposefully to meet ambitious academic goals, executing those plans thoroughly and effectively, working relentlessly to meet high academic goals for students, and continuously reflecting and improving on leadership and effectiveness”(Teach for America). Each corresponding pillars is broken down into levels of proficiency to track teacher progress in each category.

(4) This system should be used to inform principal decisions regarding the support (i.e.-frequent/consistent observation, feedback on performance, professional development), leadership appointments, and the hiring/firing of teachers so as to ensure a high-quality learning environment. (5) Systematic district-level supports (e.g. - external networks, evaluations of performance) should be set in place to ensure principals remain diligent and accountable for improving instruction by maintaining the on-going observations and procedures set in place.


In my examination of administrative accountability for teacher effectiveness, I have come to view school accountability for student achievement like a community of chess players or a chess team. The rules of the game are like the policies put in place for schools to follow. Each chess-piece represents a teacher- each of who are guided by the player (the principal). The principal enacts a plan or strategy to capture the other team’s king (sustained student achievement). The coaches and fellow teammates represent the district-level supports that aid the player (the principal) in improving. In being a part of a team or community of learners, each player (principal) is held accountable for improving his skill for the sake of the overall team performance. Without this team, the player (principal) would be left alone or with limited resource to improving his or her performance. A player (principal) must understand how to skillfully manipulate the pieces (provide instructional leadership for his teachers); if not, he or she will employ strategies that more than likely will result in poor piece placement (ineffective teacher performance). When this happens the player (principal) will be subject to defeat (failure to promote student achievement). I use the above analogy to stress the idea that in order to improve school-level accountability for student achievement, we must begin with the administration. Administrators are the key leverage point, as they are the vital system-level agents for change with whom refinement for systems of internal-accountability and continuous improvement begin (See, Elmore, 2000; Elmore & Jones, 2007; Printy, 2008; Spillane, Halverson & Diamond, 2001).

I am not proposing that we abandon deliberate concern for the quality of teachers; I am insisting that we employ a better intervention for developing, and supporting the ground-level facilitators of student learning: teachers. I propose that a rewrite of NCLB should go beyond the mandate that every student should have a “high-quality” teacher. Instead, it should mandate that every district school system establish a high-quality administrative community of accountability for instructional leadership. This policy should further explicate and mandate that every school within this community must employ a system of accountability for student achievement such that every student should be provided with a “high-quality learning environment” enforced by the school administration that, in turn, must ensure that a high-quality teacher is present in every classroom. Creating a community of schools that meet these standards is easier said than done. Even with all these structures in place, success always lies within the bounds of a continuum of ever-changing ecological context. School systems that establish these standards of accountability will be better equipped to balance the challenges of ecological context, which includes the omnipresent factor that challenges us all: time.


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