There’s been a lot of talk lately in the media — and a lot of blood shed in the policy arena — about how to evaluate teachers. Suddenly, after years of inattention, everyone is scrambling to figure out the best way to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes. Yet when teachers’ unions complain about an imbalance between teacher and principal accountability, they have a point: principals play a critical role in student learning, but they are evaluated almost as an afterthought. Unfortunately, the attempts to assess their effectiveness are no better than for teachers, and in some ways worse. The end result is a educational leadership system that baffles people in the private as well as the public sector. The Army “is very clearly up or out,” says James Wilcox, a former Army officer and Blackhawk helicopter pilot who is now CEO of Aspire Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools in California. But in public schools, he says, “it’s up and stay.”
School leaders have a multiplier effect — they can put in place conditions that help or hamstring effective teaching. “The expertise of a principal determines how random or consistent teaching quality will be,” says Pam Moran, superintendent of the Albemarle County Schools in Virginia. One reason for this, research shows, is that effective principals can attract and retain good teachers while poor leadership has the opposite effect.