Sacrificing Leaders, Villainizing Leadership: How Educational Accountability Policies Impair School Leadership

By McGhee, Marla W.; Nelson, Sarah W. | Phi Delta Kappan, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Sacrificing Leaders, Villainizing Leadership: How Educational Accountability Policies Impair School Leadership


McGhee, Marla W., Nelson, Sarah W., Phi Delta Kappan


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.

Accomplished Careers

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. …

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