By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
About The Series
THE DAILY JOURNAL continues its yearlong “State of Our Schools” series with the fourth installment of a six-day look at the importance of improving teacher quality in Mississippi. Today’s stories explore the importance of principals in attracting educators, the challenge of recruiting top teachers to critical needs districts, and efforts to evaluate
teachers. The next two days will look at high-performing educators and retention. To view the entire series, visit
Today’s main story …
As Mississippi tries to attract more high-quality teachers, one of the most important ingredients may be located down the hall from the teachers’ lounge.
Experts and educators both say having top-caliber principals running schools plays a big role in drawing talented individuals into a difficult profession.
“I think it is probably one of the anchors,” said Tom Burnham, a former state superintendent who now runs the Mississippi Principal Corps program at the University of Mississippi.
“The better job we do getting good administrators into positions of leadership, the better job we will do recruiting quality teachers and retaining them.”
No matter the field, Burnham said, research indicates that the top reasons many people leave jobs include dissatisfaction with supervisors and working conditions. Teaching is no different.
A study recently published in Education Next found highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning. Ineffective principals can dampen learning by the same amount, the report said.
“Leadership is really important,” said Nancy Loome, who heads the Parents Campaign, a statewide public education advocacy network. “Smart people really like working for smart people. Plus, a great leader recognizes a great teacher when he or she sees one.”
That belief recently motivated the Oxford-based Barksdale Reading Institute to change the way it operates. Created in 2000 with a mission of improving reading in the state, the organization’s first steps were to use literacy coaches to help teachers and then to place master reading instructors into needy classrooms.
Each iteration had its flaws. One did not see the hoped-for results and the other was too expensive. So three years ago, the institute dramatically changed its approach. CEO Claiborne Barksdale decided to focus instead on administrators.
Today, it funds top-tier principals for each of the four schools with which it works.
“We had continued to have this challenge of principals who didn’t invest what needed to be invested in their energy and support and commitment to drive this thing,” he said. “…One night I woke up and said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s go hire some really good principals. Let’s grab these schools by the throat and see if we can do it.”
The resulting successes in student test scores have made Barksdale an even bigger believer in the importance of school leadership.
During the three years since the switch, the four schools combined have made gains in their Quality of Distribution Index, a formula determined by how well students score on state standardized tests. On a weighted-average basis, the four schools have improved their QDI by 31 percent.
“You say, ‘What about teachers?’” Barksdale said. “My response is a good principal will get the good teachers. He or she will not suffer mediocrity. And he or she will do whatever needs to be done in order to strengthen the faculty.”
Saltillo High School English teacher Janice Fleming said in her 30 years in education, she has found strong leadership to be vital to the success of a school and its teachers.
“I don’t think any teacher would want to go into a school with a weak administrator, and a young teacher definitely doesn’t need to go into a school with a weak administration,” she said. “The teacher needs to know whatever happens that administrators will listen to him or her and whenever possible back him or her.”
Burnham said the most important characteristics for a principal include emphasis on being an instructional leader and on interpersonal skills. That person also must have the courage to make difficult decisions, he said.
Barksdale cited fearlessness, intelligence, energy and empathy. Tupelo High School teacher Brookes Mayes said enthusiasm and passion are key ingredients.
Lawndale Elementary Principal Brock English was the Tupelo Public School District’s Administrator of the Year in 2012 and has led that school to a B ranking.
To him, the most important characteristic of a principal is to be a servant leader.
“Ultimately, it is about the relationships,” he said.
A report by New Leaders for New Schools said principals should evaluated by a three-pronged approach that includes student outcomes, teacher effectiveness and leadership actions. Under teacher effectiveness, it notes the principal’s role in teacher hiring, evaluation, professional development, retention, leadership development and dismissal.
In an effort to develop more high-caliber administrators, the Mississippi Department of Education recently completed a review of all nine education leadership preparation programs in the state. It directed those programs to focus more on practice and field experience.
“You can’t really learn how to be a principal and a good principal sitting in a classroom,” said Interim State Superintendent Lynn House. “You have to be out in a school. You have to be working with teachers and working with students and being mentored to make sure you understand the difficult decisions you are going to have to make if you are a principal.”
That emphasis is at the heart of Mississippi’s Principal Corps program, which was developed in 2009 with the help of experts from Columbia University, Harvard, Vanderbilt and Stanford, among others.
This year, the 13-month program will have a cohort of about 15 students from throughout the state. Those participants will spend a full school year as interns working under principals identified as masters in their field.
They’ll also spend time on the University of Mississippi campus during two summers and then three days each month of the school year learning about leadership, personality styles and interpreting data, among other skills.
“The training in principal corps is as good as any in the country,” said Hank Bounds, a former state superintendent of education who now heads Mississippi’s university system.
Burnham said he believes principal preparation programs are improving, but that too many teachers get a master’s degree in educational leadership with no intention of ever becoming a principal.
The reason, he said, is that Mississippi gives teachers a bump in salary for any master’s degree. Burnham believes the state needs to change that and only reward teachers for master’s degrees in the field in which they are working. This would make educational leadership programs more valuable.
It also is important, Burnham said, to provide training for those already in the field. Noting Mississippi’s recent efforts to raise standards for candidates accepted into teacher preparation programs, he said the same thing should happen with aspiring principals.
Good ole boys need not apply, he said.
“There is not a shortage of administrators in Mississippi,” he said. “The challenge now becomes raising the quality. Since you are not dealing with a shortage, you have this wonderful opportunity to raise the standards to significantly higher levels across the state.”
More stories today …
Click here for State of Our Schools – Mississippi develops new teacher evaluation