The Standards We Need: A Comparative Analysis of Performance Standards Shows Us What Is Essential for Principals to Know and Be Able to Do to Improve Achievement

By Waters, Tim; Kingston, Sally | Leadership, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Standards We Need: A Comparative Analysis of Performance Standards Shows Us What Is Essential for Principals to Know and Be Able to Do to Improve Achievement


Waters, Tim, Kingston, Sally, Leadership


The importance of school leadership is at the forefront of our nation's educational agenda. The effect of principal leadership on student achievement is now well established (Hallinger & Heck, 1996; Cotton, 2003; Leithwood & Riehl, 2003; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003; Leithwood, Seashore Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004).

Despite the strides that have been made in the educational leadership research, widespread concern exists about the current and future states of educational leadership; in particular, the principalship. Who will lead schools of the future? How can we retain current school leaders? How can we attract new leaders? How and by whom should school leaders be prepared? What should they know and be able to do?

These questions are not easily answered. However, a logical place to begin is the performance standards for school leaders. This paper describes the findings from Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning's comparative analysis of the Balanced Leadership Framework[TM] (Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003) and the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards and provides insights about what future standards for school-level leaders should encompass.

The standards we have

In the 1990s, many efforts were made to identify important leadership responsibilities, functions and practices for school leaders. One of these efforts mounted on an international scale was the establishment of standards for principals (Gronn, 2002). Through this effort, important principal responsibilities were identified. However, because the scope of the standards included everything that developers deemed to be important, attempts to formalize a manageable scope of principal responsibilities were not as fruitful as developers and practitioners had hoped.

What these efforts produced was an extraordinarily wide range of responsibilities without distinction between important and essential responsibilities. For example, there are 184 indicators for the six Standards for School Leaders developed in the United States by the ISLLC and the National Policy Board for Educational Administration in 1996. In addition to being overwhelming in scope, the ISLLC standards provide no guidance on which standards or indicators should take primacy--or what is essential for principals to know and be able to do to improve student achievement (Waters & Grubb, 2004).

The implications of this are far-reaching. Prospective and aspiring principals are continually dissuaded by the increasingly intensified and complex demands (Gronn, 2002; Cranston, Ehrich, & Billot, 2003; The Wallace Foundation, 2003; Miller, 2004), and it is plausible that principal standards may exacerbate the difficulty in recruiting and retaining principals (Gronn, 2002).

The standards we need

The profound and rapidly increasing changes affecting schools call for standards that define a scope of essential research-based leadership responsibilities that reflect what school leaders need to know and be able to do to achieve high levels of student achievement while, at the same time, leading the redesign of the system. In his book, "Educating School Leaders," Levine (2005) describes the leadership challenge resulting from "extraordinary economic, demographic, technological, and global change:"

"These changes represent a fundamental reversal of existing school policy, shifting the focus from ensuring that all schools educate students in the same way--five major subjects, 12 years of schools, and 180-day school years--to requiring that all children achieve the same outcomes from their education. This turns the world of schooling upside down: universal standards replace universal processes; learning becomes more important than instruction and the student takes center stage from the teacher."

Owings, Kaplan, and Nunnery (2005) assert that the most critical step in reforming the current system is the development of "clear, functional performance standards for what principals should know and be able to do. …

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