WASHINGTON -- One lesson Rep. John Sarbanes learned in his seven years working with the Maryland State Department of Education, he says, is the value of a good principal.
Now he wants to write that lesson into federal law.
With Congress poised to debate the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, Sarbanes is trying to use the education law to provoke a national discussion about the role an experienced administrator can play in turning around a troubled school.
The freshman Democrat from Baltimore County has succeeded in inserting language into the draft legislation now circulating that would make funds available for research into what makes a "highly qualified principal," and how such administrators can be used to best advantage - issues that were "very invisible" in the 2001 version of No Child Left Behind, in the words of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
Sarbanes, who was an attorney in private practice before his election to Congress last fall, says the effort stems directly from his part-time work with the State Department of Education. As liaison between Grasmick and officials in Baltimore from 1998 to 2005, he helped to design a program that lured experienced principals from the suburbs to help improve failing city schools.
"I came away convinced that if there is no silver bullet in education, the closest you come is the principal," said Sarbanes. "The schools that were making progress, the ones that could demonstrate that the kids were moving toward these proficiency goals [in the existing law], were ones where you had a principal who could walk into any classroom at any time of the day and know immediately where the teacher was in that lesson plan, whether they were delivering instruction at a high level, whether the kids were learning."
Sarbanes' work in Washington on No Child Left Behind is winning praise from his former colleagues in the State Department of Education. But his ideas also have drawn criticism from opponents of the law.
"These provisions are a good example of how this proposal is essentially based on the notion that Congress should be a national school board," said Dan Lips, an education analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Policies about highly qualified principals ... can be made in Annapolis or at the local school board level. They don't have to be made by creating new, expensive programs in Congress."
The draft bill would make money available to states and local school boards to develop the standards that make a qualified principal, pay for demonstration projects and train administrators. While these could lead to national standards, Sarbanes says, he is sensitive to concerns such as those raised by Lips.
"I was very conscious about not imposing something from above," he said. "Rather than jump to saying, 'Here's what a highly qualified principal should look like,' this draft says, 'Let's provide federal support to investigate, gather information, kick the tires.' Let's do research. Let's get good people thinking about this."
Sarbanes says that when he thinks of a highly qualified principal, he thinks of Stephen O. Gibson.
Baltimore's Hamilton Middle School had gone through multiple principals in the 12 months before Gibson arrived in 2002. Only 57 percent of teachers were fully certified; student test scores lagged well below state averages.
Gibson, a longtime Howard County administrator and a participant in the Maryland Distinguished Principal Fellowships program that Sarbanes helped design, established professional development programs for staff at Hamilton and created a program for gifted and talented students.
Test scores rose during the three years Gibson committed to the school. He trained a successor who took over as principal when he left at the end of the fellowship in 2005.
"To make some of these schools work, you're going to have to try to figure out a mechanism of putting in highly qualified principals to do that job," Gibson said. "It makes a major difference if you can get in there and stay, [while] also knowing it takes a while to get things done."
Developing principals is one of two issues on which Sarbanes - a member of the House committee responsible for writing the bill - has managed to influence the draft legislation. He also has introduced language that would create grants for schools and environmental groups to team up on educational programs.
Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, says he is working with Sarbanes on both proposals.
"He is taking a leadership role on environmental education and principal quality issues," Miller said through a spokesman.
The appointment of Sarbanes to the education committee has given him a voice in the debate over No Child Left Behind. A signature initiative of President Bush, the original legislation sought to raise student achievement in math and reading by requiring annual testing and ordering sanctions for schools that fail to show progress.
The original law has drawn criticism from left and right, with some liberals saying the testing and sanctions are too rigid to take into account the range of challenges confronting different students and different schools, and some conservatives saying that it represents unwarranted federal interference in local schools.
The draft is also encountering opposition. The head of the nation's largest teachers union is urging members of Congress to reject the current draft, in part because it proposes tying teacher bonuses to student test scores. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, meanwhile, has written to Miller that she has "serious concerns" about some elements of the draft, including efforts to make testing more flexible, which she says would make schools less accountable.
A group of Republicans has sponsored legislation that would allow states to opt out of the requirements of the law.
With Congress poised to debate the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland is trying to stir a national discussion about the role an experienced principal can play in turning around a troubled school. The draft version of the bill would make money available to states and school boards to develop the standards that make a qualified principal, pay for demonstration projects and train administrators.