When principals and teachers are evaluated based on student achievement, what do they do to promote student learning? I recently spoke with Min Sun, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, who explained that a principal’s leadership in promoting instruction might make a difference in improving student achievement. In 2012, Sun published a study titled “Association of District Principal Evaluation with learning-centered leadership practice: Evidence from Michigan and Beijing,” with Peter Youngs, Haiyan Yang & Hongqi Chu & Qian Zhao, which showed that one key difference between principals in China (where students earn top scores on the PISA exam) and in Michigan is the extent to which they can be instructional leaders.
China’s top-ranked performance on the international PISA exam has piqued the interest of many Western countries that hope to learn from its success. As Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for Education and Skills, has explained, “Obviously, one can’t copy and paste school systems wholesale. But PISA has revealed a surprising number of features that the world’s most successful school systems share and from which others can learn.” In their study, Sun et al. (2012) found that a comparison revealed a few key differences in leadership approaches.
For example, in Beijing principals more frequently report, “supervising and evaluating instruction, coordinating curriculum, protecting instructional time, maintaining high visibility, and providing incentives for student learning.” In both Beijing and Michigan, district principal evaluation informed personnel decisions, professional development, and was used to hold principals accountable for student achievement; however, in Beijing principals were more likely to feel that their evaluation was used to determine merit salary increases or sanctions. While the content of each evaluation was similar,
“a significantly higher percentage of Beijing principals felt that district leadership evaluation emphasized teacher evaluation, provision of professional development programs for teachers, curriculum design, and supervision of student learning during school time than their counterparts in Michigan did….Moreover, when district principal evaluation focused on leaders’ instructional and management knowledge and skills, leadership behaviors, and organizational impacts, principals were more likely to engage in various learning-centered leadership activities.”
Sun et al. (2012) found that principals in Beijing have more teaching experience than their Michigan counterparts. Therefore, they are able to engage with teachers and students on the classroom level. As Sun explained, when a teacher is absent in Beijing it is the principal who covers their class. Since principals typically have extensive experience with instruction, they can step in to help a teacher who is struggling in the classroom. As stated in the article, “In China, almost all K-12 public school principals are former senior teachers who have demonstrated pedagogical expertise in classrooms, and principals in China are respected as head teachers.”
The authors also found that Chinese principals were more likely to perceive that their evaluation held them accountable for student achievement, which, they say, is not surprising given the long tradition in China of accountability based on test scores. As a result, “Chinese principals perceived a stronger impact of specific aspects of district evaluation.” The emphasis on the purpose, content, and evidence, of specific leadership activities meant that the principal was more likely to focus on “learning-centered leadership activities.”
All of this raises questions about the current high stakes accountability measures we see in the U.S. While policymakers would like to see better outcomes on standardized tests, might we also need to consider whether or not the people responsible for improving such outcomes know how to do so? And, when those in charge don’t have the capacity to focus on learning-centered activities that might promote achievement on standardized tests, might we see instead a corruption of the system, such as in the recent cheating incident in Atlanta that resulted in x teachers and school leaders being sent to jail? Will we begin to view school leaders as untrustworthy when it comes to evaluating classroom instruction?
In the U. S., this topic is also highly relevant at the moment as high-stakes accountability has led to a growing number of parents across the country “opting out,” or allowing their children to refuse to take high stakes exams. Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained that if the number of students refusing State exams continues to grow, the Federal Government may need to step in to address the problem.
While the U.S. looks to the East for accountability policies that can promote student achievement, in contrast, China looks to the West for policies that can promote whole-child development and creativity. However, in the efforts of policymakers in the East and the West we can see what happens when “borrowed” policies confront cultural differences.
For example, in striking contrast to the U.S. parents engaged in the growing opt-out movement, parents in China are focused on doing whatever it takes to help their children perform well on standardized tests. While Chinese policymakers are now starting to think about whole-child development, creativity, and student happiness—other things that children need, such as physical and emotional health—the primary focus remains on test scores. Chinese parents view the college admission exam as crucial for their child’s future success, and therefore they are willing to devote considerable time and money to preparing their children for it from a very young age. As a result, Chinese parents pushback when schools attempt to promote non-academic activities.
In addition to cultural factors that might influence student achievement, a new book raises questions about the connections we have made between test scores and education policies. In Real Finnish Lessons: The True Story of an Education Superpower, Gabriel Heller Sahlgre presents the (somewhat controversial) idea that Finland’s high ranking on international assessments has more to do with economic factors than it does with educational factors.
In the midst of all of these questions and concerns about student achievement, we might need to begin a deeper conversation about how we can a) promote policies that cohere with real-world practice, and b) develop universal assessments that allow us to address global questions of educational equity, while also considering the needs of unique cultures and communities—and even individual stakeholders, such as parents, students, teachers, and principals.