Has the culture of accountability become a culture of fear for school leaders? The authors share the stories of three successful principals whose careers and reputations were altered by the impact of a set of test scores.
AT A PRESS conference following the signing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in January 2002, Secretary of Education Rod Paige declared, "With the stroke of his pen, President Bush changed the culture of education in America."1 If the history of the Texas accountability system -- upon which NCLB is based2 -- is any indication, Secretary Paige's words may prove prophetic. But the change brought about by NCLB may not be what Secretary Paige or President Bush envisioned.
The impact of high-stakes accountability on school leadership has yet to be deeply explored. However, evidence is beginning to emerge, particularly from Texas, a state with the longest-standing and most sophisticated accountability model in the nation. On the commentary page of a major urban newspaper in Texas, public school principal Benjamin Kramer noted, "What is not immediately apparent, however, is the fear running rampant throughout the system from the highest levels of leadership to, unfortunately, the classroom level." He closes his op-ed piece by saying, "As the next Legislature comes into session, the time has come to question whether the system we designed years ago to guarantee children a brighter future has come to cloud the present, reducing public schooling to a fear-driven exercise in test preparation."3
Perhaps this culture of educational accountability, created by well- intended policy makers aiming to improve schools, has instead become a culture of fear, driven by unanticipated consequences of the system. For example, school leaders, whose performance was once assessed using a variety of indicators that reflected the complexity of the job, are now finding their effectiveness determined in much narrower terms.
Through our professional contacts and affiliations with professional organizations, we became aware of a number of school principals who were removed from their posts as a result of student test scores generated by the Texas accountability system. Eager to know more, we began to ask individuals to share their stories. Three agreed to do so with the assurance that their identities would be carefully protected. At the outset, we anticipated hearing distinctly different narratives. However, the principals' experiences proved to be alike on many fronts and clustered around three primary themes: Accomplished Careers, Without Warning, and From Collaboration to Isolation.
Together, the participants in our study have over 60 years of service, more than 20 of those as administrators. As teachers with reputations for instructional innovation, they were tapped for leadership roles by members of the upper administration. Two were chosen for very select principal development programs sponsored by their districts. One was appointed to open a new campus and was not even interviewed for the job. One received school board recognition for raising test scores just three months before being removed from the principalship. Another was removed just after being elected by peers as a principal leader. Years' worth of formal evaluations indicate that the principals' supervisors viewed them as stellar educators.
In addition to being acknowledged as successful leaders within their districts, the participants were also viewed as outstanding leaders by those outside their districts. Educator and community groups recognized them for their exceptional work by bestowing awards and honors, including statewide teacher of the year, LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) outstanding educator, and young city leader. Two were invited to enroll in an exclusive Ph.D. program at a major research university. Two are published authors, and all are successful grant writers. Collectively, they secured more than $1 million in additional funding for their campuses. Clearly, the weight of this evidence establishes that the participants were viewed by their peers, their districts, and their communities as accomplished educational leaders.
Perhaps because of their strong reputations as school leaders, or perhaps because no principal in their districts had ever before been removed solely as a result of test scores, the principals' removals came as a complete surprise. This is not to say that the participants were oblivious to the significance of accountability tests. As principals of schools serving the districts' largest populations of students of color, students of poverty, and English-language learners -- students who have historically had the lowest test scores -- they were keenly aware of the importance of test results. Each of them routinely analyzed test data to identify areas needing attention and shared this information with members of the central office staff. In addition to analyzing data, each principal developed action plans for improving student achievement. These plans were often developed in collaboration with the principals' supervisors and other central office administrators. In one case, a principal implemented an annual improvement plan that resulted in significant test score gains. The following school year, over objections from the principal, the district removed some of the resources that the campus used to help make its achievement gains. Test scores fell, and the principal was removed.
In another case, the principal developed an improvement plan in collaboration with an assistant superintendent and the district's director of school improvement. As was common practice in the district, the plan included the formation of a central office support team to assist with strategies such as coaching teachers and delivering staff development. The principal held regular meetings with this team to review the school's progress. At no time during the course of the year did the principal receive any indication that anyone in the central office had concerns about the principal's work. "No one ever came to me and said, 'We feel like the school is in really bad trouble.' We were never counseled that 'you are not doing enough' or that 'we've told you to do this and you are not doing that.'"
Yet, shortly before the end of the school year, the principal was removed based on the superintendent's concern that the school's test scores would not be adequate. In spite of the direct involvement of several upper-level administrators in the development and implementation of the improvement plan, none of the central office administrators received a sanction of any kind.
From Collaboration to Isolation
A lack of shared accountability was a common theme among all those who shared their stories with us. As one principal described the experience, "There were a lot of people doing the 'CYA' stuff. 'We were available to help. We just never got the call.' It was people positioning themselves to make sure they weren't stung on the deal. I was left holding the bag." This lack of shared accountability created a tremendous sense of isolation. Each principal reported feeling very much alone during the time surrounding the removal. This sense of isolation was compounded by a lack of communication. Participants reported being notified of their removals in very restricted conversations with their immediate supervisors. These conversations contained little information that helped the principals to understand the reasons for their removals or their future employment status. One participant was told that the supervisor was not at liberty to answer questions or to discuss the issue other than to say that the principal would no longer be the administrator of that campus. Another participant sought answers from a variety of central office administrators and received the same response from each person: "We are taking a look at things right now. Things are on hold," as if the administrators had a script.
Initially, none of the participants could gain access to their superintendents. This was a source of frustration for the principals, as they were certain the superintendents were making the decisions, yet they were not certain that anyone was representing their interests to the superintendents. In one case, after weeks of waiting, the supervisor met with the principal and the director of human resources to discuss the principal's future assignment. The supervisor repeatedly left the room to consult with the superintendent, who was sitting in an adjacent office. "I felt kind of like I was dealing with Oz because they had to leave the room to talk to [the superintendent] all the time." For the other principal participants, contact with their superintendents came months after removal and only after the principals' attorneys sent letters requesting such contact.
Once the removals became public, the principals' sense of isolation was amplified by an immediate cessation of collegial interaction. Although each of the participants had strong professional connections throughout the district, with few exceptions, the principals received no overt or public support from other administrators. A few colleagues sent notes of sympathy, but most made no contact with the participants. Similarly, professional organizations failed to assist the principals. Since Texas law does not permit collective bargaining for public sector employees, professional educators' organizations, particularly administrator groups, have minimal power. As a result, these organizations concern themselves primarily with lobbying policy makers and providing training for their members. Involvement in personnel matters is limited to contract disputes. Because all of the participants were reassigned rather than fired, their contract rights were not violated, and, therefore, the professional associations had no cause to intervene. With lack of support from their colleagues and professional organizations, the principals perceived themselves as being completely alone.
This professional isolation was devastating for administrators who had long enjoyed the respect and admiration of fellow educators and had been active participants in professional associations. Further, it exacerbated the principals' feelings of self-doubt. As one principal stated, "This is the first time that anything in my career has ever, ever damaged my self-esteem or my concept of self as much as this did. It was just so overwhelming. People know my work. They know my passion. The fact that this could happen is just incredible." The overwhelming blow to their self-confidence, coupled with the professional isolation, convinced the principals that they had no hope of reversing the decisions to remove them.
Perhaps equally as devastating, the principals indicated, was the lack of opportunity to say good-bye to their school communities. Each of the participants was removed near the end of the school year or during the summer break. None of the principals were allowed to communicate formally with their staffs or school communities. They left their campuses without the benefit of a dignifying transition for them, their students, their faculties, and their communities.
Discussion and Implications
When we began this endeavor, our intention was to document three individual cases of principal removal. Each, we believed, would illustrate a unique experience that would contribute to the discourse on the multiple effects of high-stakes accountability systems. Finding that the stories were notable for their remarkable similarities rather than their differences caused us to consider whether these cases had collective significance. Despite the small number reported here, we believe the cases do, in fact, have collective importance. Because these instances occurred in Texas, the state with the oldest and most comprehensive educational accountability system, and because each of the principals was a highly successful educator prior to being removed, these participants represent critical cases. Further, because the principals worked in different districts and yet their superintendents responded similarly, these cases suggest that the system itself may promote rash decision making in response to test data. Thus these principals' stories have implications for educators across the nation as NCLB is fully implemented.
Test Scores Trump All
Collectively, these cases are disturbing evidence that high-stakes accountability systems have negative effects on school leaders. Specifically, these cases illustrate that, regardless of prior success, principals may be removed from their positions solely as a result of accountability test scores. Each of the participants was removed based on data from the administration of a single test, and each was removed without warning. Although there are some districts in Texas that place principals on performance contracts, which clearly state that continued employment is contingent upon test scores, none of the individuals worked in such a situation. Each worked in a district that had never before removed a principal for failing to produce adequate test scores. What these cases suggest, then, is that in a high-stakes accountability environment, test scores can trump all else when it comes to principal performance. This is a concern not just because it unjustly minimizes the complexity of the principalship but also because it may encourage the negative effects documented by researchers such as Linda McNeil and Angela Valenzuela.4
The Risk of Serving the At-Risk
Further, and perhaps more disturbing, these cases suggest that principals who serve as leaders of schools with diverse student populations may be especially vulnerable to removal. Each of the participants served as the leader of a school with high percentages of students of color, poor students, and English-language learners. Such students have traditionally had lower test scores than their white, middle-class peers. In fact, throughout the history of the Texas accountability system, the schools most likely to be rated low performing based on test scores are overwhelmingly those that serve large numbers of students of color and students of poverty.5 This is not to say that students of color, poor students, and English-language learners are not capable of earning high test scores. Rather, it is to say that school systems have historically failed to ensure that students with the greatest educational needs receive sufficient resources and time to achieve at the same level as their more privileged peers. Schools populated by students of color and poor students tend to receive fewer and lower-quality materials as well as less-qualified teachers.6
These principals' districts were no exception. Each of the participants' schools received a significantly smaller per-pupil expenditure than the district average (8% to 11% less), and most had higher percentages of beginning teachers. In two of the schools, more than 50% of the faculty had five or fewer years of experience. None of the districts enacted policies or practices to require or encourage the best-qualified teachers to work in schools where the students had the greatest need. Yet the principals, alone, were held accountable for failing to produce adequate test scores.
If principals who work in schools with high numbers of students of color, poor students, and English-language learners are, in fact, at greater risk of being removed from their posts as a result of accountability test scores, how will we attract high-quality principals to such schools? With the growing principal shortage, high-quality, experienced principals have their choice of schools.7 Given that principals, regardless of where they work, are already overburdened with the many demands of school leadership, it is reasonable to assume that many, if not most, of the best principals will choose to work in white, middle-class schools where they are least vulnerable to the impact of accountability test scores. This would perpetuate the trend of having the least-qualified educators in the schools that serve students with the greatest educational needs. This, as Alfie Kohn suggests, paradoxically would decrease the quality of education for the very students NCLB is intended to help.8
Fall from Grace
In addition to what these stories imply about the vulnerability of principals, they also indicate a shifting ethos in education. Consider, for example, the lack of access these principals had to their district superintendents. We can think of few matters that would be of greater importance to a school leader than his or her work assignment. Yet, when their positions were in question, none of the participants had the benefit of speaking with their superintendents to discuss the situation until after the decisions for removal had been made. It appears as if having poor test scores had so damaged the principals as to make them unworthy of their superintendents' time and consideration. Even years of distinguished service, it seems, could not make up for the transgression of one year's worth of inadequate test performance. The similarity in how the superintendents handled the situations suggests that accountability is creating an environment in which a person's worth is measured by test scores. This phenomenon of defining people -- including students and teachers -- by test results is cited in a number of educational studies.9
Further evidence of the changing culture under high-stakes accountability is the lack of support the principals received from their colleagues. Given that the principals were well-respected leaders in their districts, their removals would seemingly have raised the ire of other administrators. Yet no one spoke out on their behalf. This reticence suggests that the widespread fear Kramer described in the op- ed piece we quoted above was in play in the participants' districts as well.
It is critical to note again that these principals work in Texas, a weak labor union state with no collective bargaining rights for public employees. The only legal power principals possess is granted to them via their contracts. The personnel divisions of the districts involved here were careful not to actually fire or reduce the salaries of the principals, as these actions would have triggered due process procedures. Instead, the principals were reassigned to other administrative jobs. Although they retained administrative positions and their salaries (for at least one year), their professional reputations and careers were damaged by the humiliation of being removed from their posts.
All of the participants indicated that they viewed the harm to their reputations as irreparable. Further, they stated that, had they had the support of strong professional associations, they would have fought their removals. These comments suggest that removing principals without prior warning or intervention would be much more difficult in states with strong union rights and that other strategies and sanctions routinely employed in Texas might be challenged in states with powerful labor groups. To date, high-stakes accountability has been most successful in weak union states such as Texas and North Carolina. Some argue that this success has come largely on the backs of educators who, without union protection, are forced to work longer and harder without compensation.10 For this reason, it will be intriguing to follow NCLB as it is implemented in strong labor union states.
Because we are both former principals who worked under the Texas accountability model, the stories of these principals resonate with us. We, too, have lived these lives. We have lived with the fear of low test scores. We have lived with the dilemma of stretching scant resources far enough to meet the needs of all students. We have lived with consultants who created terminology and test-passing strategies like "focusing on the bubble kids," encouraging us to target those most likely to pass while abandoning students with little chance of doing well. We have lived with those who have publicly celebrated test scores and sat quietly with others who were devastated by them. We have lived it, so we know: high-stakes accountability has the potential to poison the culture of public education.
As if the cases we have shared here were not tragic enough, there is an even more unfortunate footnote to these stories. All of the principals were removed from their posts based on preliminary test data. For two of the principals, the preliminary data were inaccurate or incomplete. When the official test data were released, neither of the schools was rated "low performing." One, in fact, had significantly better results than in previous years and higher scores than several other schools in the district whose principals retained their posts. It seems that, ironically, in this highly standardized accountability environment, decisions about these principals' careers were not based on clear standards. In fact, decisions about these principals' careers appear to have been based on a politically driven, non-standardized, non-due process liability system for principals.
Although their removal experiences were strikingly similar, the outcome for each of these individuals has been different. One took another principalship but decided not to continue in that role the following year and will "never again" serve as a school leader. Another recently took a position as principal but reports a loss of passion and zeal for the job. The third left the state of Texas in order to continue the practice of school leadership. All of the participants indicate that the experience has forever changed them, professionally and personally. Perhaps the stakes were higher than they -- or anyone -- knew.
1. Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Education, "Paige Joins President Bush for Signing of Historic No Child Left Behind Act of 2001," www.ed.gov/print/news/pressreleases/2002/01/01082002.html.
2. Office of the Press Secretary, the White House, "Press Conference with President George W. Bush and Education Secretary Rod Paige to Introduce the President's Education Program," 23 January 2001, www.whitehouse.gov.news/releases/2001/01/20010123-2.html.
3. Benjamin Kramer, "Fear and Accountability in the Schools," Austin American Statesman, 26 September 2002, p. A-15.
4. Linda McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing (New York: Routledge, 2000); and Angela Valenzuela, "The Significance of the TAAS Test for Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Adolescents: A Case Study," Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, vol. 22, 2000, pp. 524-39.
5. See Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) reports at the Texas Education Agency, www.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/aeis.
6. Linda Darling-Hammond, "Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education," Brookings Review, Spring 1998, pp. 28-33.
7. Vincent Ferrandino and Gerald Tirozzi, "Principals' Perspective: The Shortage of Principals Continues," www.naesp.org/misc/edweek_article_10- 18-00.htm.
8. Alfie Kohn, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining Our Schools (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2000).
9. Sarah Nelson, "Oppression, Conflict, and Collusion: High-Stakes Accountability from the Perspective of Three Social Justice Principals" (Doctoral dissertation, University of Texas, Austin, 2002).
10. Kohn, op. cit.; and Nelson, op. cit.
MARLA W. McGHEE is an assistant professor of educational leadership and co-director of the National Center for School Improvement at Texas State University, San Marcos, where SARAH W. NELSON is an assistant professor of educational leadership and associate director of the International Center for Educational Leadership and Social Change.…