Leading to Equitable Access: Three Steps for Principals

By Matthew Clifford, Ph.D., GTL Center Staff, Jun 29, 2017

While the U.S. Department of Education works to develop a 50-state strategy addressing equitable access to effective teachers, school leaders are making staffing decisions for the 2014–15 school year. Principals and superintendents can’t wait for national policy to address the inequities in teacher effectiveness across states, districts, and schools. They need to take the lead on equitable access now.

This summer, as principals collaborate with superintendents and other district leaders to determine school staff for the next academic year, they will be making hard choices that can affect students’ equitable access to effective teachers. Through our work at American Institutes for Research (AIR) to help states, districts, and professional development organizations assess and coach principals, we have identified these three key practical actions principals can take to lead the way in on equitable access now:

  • First, principals can improve new-teacher placements. Many teachers who are new to the profession or to schools often experience a “school of hard knocks” in their early years in a school. They find themselves placed in classes that are out of their subject or grade-level training or in classes with behavior challenges— with no support from mentors. The process might contribute inequitable access to teaching excellence for students who need the most support and new teacher burnout. Instead, principals should make teaching assignments based on training and experience, not seniority. Principals also can encourage coteaching, offer reduced teaching loads and teacher preps, and minimize administrative assignments for new or new-to-school teachers.
  • Second, principals can focus on school culture and working conditions. As this report from the National Center for the Analysis of Longitundinal Data in Education Research shows, great teachers will choose to join and stay in schools that, they feel, have a culture characterized by shared leadership, safety and security, peer collaboration, trust, and support for instructional risk-taking. Principals can help create this environment by setting financial priorities, encouraging peer discussions about teaching practices, protecting teacher time for routine collaboration, and ensuring that decision making in the school is transparent. Besides these actions, other principal strategies will depend on each school’s history and situation. To determine the best actions, principals should have the support of experienced supervisors and coaches who know the school and are comfortable with the principal’s leadership style.
  • Third, principals can assess teachers’ performance and develop their practice. Frequent, fair, and accurate assessments of teaching can be the basis for conversation between principals and teachers, and chart a course for professional development for all teachers. Performance feedback done well is highly motivating to teachers, so school leaders at all levels must master this art. That’s why AIR’s work with principal coaches and supervisors zeroes in on building principals’ practice as teacher evaluators.

To be sure, because inequitable access often stems from inequities across schools—as shown in a recent study by Mathematica Policy Research— state and district leaders can’t rely on principals alone to solve this problem. Yet principals can play leading roles, especially as they prepare for the new school year. And they deserve encouragement and support for doing so.

Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts:

  • What other actions do you recommend that principals should do to improve the school culture and working conditions for teachers?
  • What can superintendents do to support improved instructional leadership and school culture?
  • What can policymakers and state education agencies do to support principals taking on this vital work?