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On the Brink of the Common Core Era, Principals Leading

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Co-authored by Lynette Guastaferro

The new Common Core era has generated great insecurity, largely because some states, such as New York, implemented the new assessments before rolling out new curricula designed to match the rigorous exams. Despite its great promise, the Common Core is unlikely to be the "game changer" our policymakers hope it will be unless sensitive and skillful leadership is provided to shepherd the profound changes necessary. Undoubtedly, that leadership will have to come from principals who must take the lead in helping teachers and students meet the challenge of elevated expectations.

The challenge for principals goes far beyond managing building and personnel effectively. They will have to prioritize providing genuine instructional leadership and creating systems that make it possible for teachers to be successful. That may mean creatively delegating some operations. There is no single recipe for how to do all that is vital, but there are key ingredients:

Accurately assess where their teachers and students stand.

Use performance data to identify learning challenges. They will have to use this information to tailor professional development for teachers so that they can adjust lessons to meet the particular needs of students.

Understand the multiple causes of student difficulties, and do all they can to address them.

Many children come to schools encumbered by problems that require holistic solutions. Principals will have to make sure that families and the larger community are engaged and they will need to be resourceful in drawing upon community support to achieve goals. In areas such as school discipline and attendance, a predominantly rule-focused approach might obscure the underlying problems that affect student behavior. Looking at root causes and developing creative strategies to address them is essential.

Have a bold vision for success and develop buy-in around a coherent instructional plan.

The Common Core works in tandem with challenging and common curricula. Teamwork among teacher teams and mentors will be a critical way to go forward. Principals must make sure that teachers have time to plan their lessons, to collaborate with their peers in assessing student work, and to modify the approach they take as they incorporate what they learn from analyzing student work in relation to the new standards.

Communicate the plan effectively to all stakeholders.

There is likely to be resistance to change. The Common Core standards, when coupled with well-designed lessons and performance tasks, hold out great promise for students. Principals can help turn parents and personnel into enthusiasts if they provide adequate support and meaningful opportunities for involvement in molding the school culture.

For principals to meet these challenges they will need help too. Here are a few things that must be done to support principals:

Central administration and state leadership must provide principals with collaborative support and strategic help, rather than merely applying pressure.

Outside experts must be willing to roll up their sleeves and help principals in designing strategies and interventions that are appropriate for their schools. They should be able to point to schools that principals can visit to obtain guidance and learn from examples where the common core has been implemented successfully. They must also have an array of tools and best practices to recommend to principals who are searching for ways to meet the needs of teachers and students. The most effective way for schools to improve student achievement is to improve teacher quality. This goal must be the priority and student learning must be treated as the basis for evaluating strategies.

Support them with sufficient training and mentorship.

The task of being a principal is complex, and with current controversies over evaluation and learning standards, many educators are under considerable stress. Principals need time to plan, peers to collaborate with, and mentors to consult.

Allow them flexible funding that meets their school's needs.

Principals are on the front lines, and schools are not die-cut. As a matter of both respect and practicality, school administrators need latitude and flexibility as they respond to the particular challenges facing their staff and students. Providing principals with flexibility in their use of financial resources will help them to produce positive results over time.

Make sure that policies are not counterproductive or unduly constraining.

It's not just funds that should be flexible -- sometimes practices, rules and regulations must be as well. That goes for rules that affect both students and staff.

Give teachers and students what they need to meet Common Core standards.

First and foremost, make sure that the curriculum is stimulating and made culturally relevant to the learning needs of students. Adequate planning time and creative use of resources will be essential for insuring that the new curriculum is not merely more challenging, but also more engaging.

Finally, remember that all leaders must couple soaring vision with concrete planning, and plenty of grounding in the community. The most recent polling shows that parents are ready to support -- in fact, embrace -- higher standards for their children's education. Let's make it a reality with methods we know work.

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Lynette Guastaferro is Executive Director of Teaching Matters, Inc., in New York City. Professor Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education.