Making ESSA Work One Principal at a Time

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) puts each state in the driver’s seat for making its own K-12 policy. But what will this mean for educational equity?

Here’s what we know: Most students from poor and low-income families attend schools that are under resourced, understaffed, and underperforming. Learning opportunities favor the affluent and perpetuate educational and economic inequalities with unfailing regularity.

Here’s what we don’t know: Will returning the hard work of providing equal education for all students to the states lead to more equal educational opportunity? Or will it further divide the nation into educational haves and have nots?

States have two choices: Go big or go small.

Either write large top-down policies and mandates hoping they find their way into schools that serve the poor or adopt a more grassroots approach, developing great school leaders, supporting teachers, and building lasting connections to communities.

We’ve tried the top-down approach, and examples of how top-down has not produced the intended results are legion. Take Michigan’s takeover of Detroit’s public schools. After six years of state control, scores on standardized math and reading assessments have plummeted so far that in 2015 Detroit students scored the lowest of any group of students in big-city school districts in the country. Detroit public schools are verging on fiscal bankruptcy after six years of state control.

Going small doesn’t mean thinking small. It means getting to the heart of what makes a school work for all students, no matter their backgrounds.

Schools are not factories or shopping malls that can be duplicated or franchised, as Mike Rose and other researchers have amply documented. Schools are intensely human organizations that rise or fall with the quality of relationships, organizational coherence, and the drive to ensure student success.

Research shows it is the principal who makes these elements come together into an effective, exciting, and inclusive learning environment. A recent study by Stanford University Professor Eric Hanushek and his colleagues found that a highly effective principal raises the achievement of a typical student by two to seven months in a single school year.

My firsthand experience confirms this finding. In the last several years, I have visited dozens of schools across the country. I have found the single most important element for creating schools that support and encourage student learning is an effective principal.

The most effective principals share similar characteristics: high energy, an almost obsessive focus on learning and student success, a deep interest in organizational purpose and cohesion,  openness and accessibility to all members of the school community, and something I call positive subversiveness—the ability to creatively engineer success, even in a traditional bureaucracy, without breaking laws or undermining ethical standards.

One highly effective principal went beyond normal requisitioning channels to get funding for musical instruments by asking for donations from parents and local businesses. Now every student who wants to play a musical instrument can, and the school has an award-winning band.

Another highly effective principal artfully ignored district hiring lists that included teachers who had poor track records of raising student learning.

And yet another successful principal established a strong connection to the community and its leadership, so that when the principal wanted to make changes that may not have aligned perfectly with the district’s policies, the community was already on board and ready to back the principal.   

A recent report by the Wallace Foundation provides convincing evidence that highly effective principals look much the same in all schools. According to the report, they all set direction, develop their people, and redesign school organization. Taken together, these three characteristics make for a cohesive strategic approach to creating school cultures that work for all students.

Devolution under ESSA affords states the chance to rethink how schools can best serve students from low-income and poor families. States must be bold, recognizing that one size does not fit all, and that real and lasting change does not come from edicts from the state capital, but rather from recruiting, hiring, developing, and supporting strong principals.

If we go small—school by school—and demand a highly effective principal in every school, we might just end up with a system of public schools capable of providing quality and equal education to all our children. 

Peter W. Cookson, Jr., is a principal researcher and director of The Equity Project at AIR.