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Maryland principals must be ready to lead

The Baltimore Sun

Few roles are more important to the future of every Maryland community than the school principal's, yet the quality of training for principals often has been left to chance. Fortunately, that may soon change.

The Southern Regional Education Board recently studied states' progress in raising the quality of training and preparation for school leaders. We found that Maryland is one of three states in the 16-state region our group serves - from Delaware to Texas - that have made significant progress in improving principals' training.

Specifically, Maryland has created a more rigorous set of statewide school leadership standards that principals and the university programs that train them are expected to meet. The state has even created a framework that colleges can use to upgrade their training for principals based on these new standards.

The problem is, to our knowledge, few universities are making use of these standards.

That's a shame, because Maryland has tremendous potential to put these resources to good use. Colleges and school districts need to work together to begin using these helpful tools - and if they don't, state leaders should require them to take action.

Maryland's public schools face some of the biggest challenges in history, including the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires every public school to make sizable test-score gains every year. We need excellent leaders in every school to help us raise high school graduation rates and to prepare our children to compete in the 21st century economy.

To achieve this, many wonderful principals and other educators are hard at work. But the system that trains our future principals needs to improve fast.

Right now, some of Maryland's principal-candidates still are trained in master's degree programs that are "cash cows," meaning they collect lots of tuition money and have low admission standards. Those degree programs are not always designed to prepare school leaders who can work with teachers to improve reading and mathematics achievement for all groups of students.

Internships for future principals often are weak, too. Traditionally, principal-candidates have spent their internships in the school where they already teach or coach, sometimes performing meaningless tasks.

The Maryland State Board of Education has taken a step in the right direction by requiring colleges and school districts to agree on how they will provide improved, meaningful internships that align with the state's school leadership standards.

But we need to require even more. To earn a principal license, candidates should be required to prove they are developing expertise to lead school improvement. How can we expect principals to lead the charge in turning around struggling schools if they have no such skills and few opportunities to observe and practice them?

Today's principals should know how to lead teams of teachers and other school staff members toward improvement. Good principals need to engage teachers in using proven methods to help students achieve at grade level or higher. They must be able to work with teachers to improve classroom practices, to raise the quality of instruction and the learning environment, and to work closely with parents and the community - including people of all backgrounds. Not all principal-preparation programs focus on these skills.

Maryland and many other states need to require that colleges and universities that train most of our school leaders emphasize these practices. Above all, Maryland needs to ensure that colleges meet higher standards on school leadership preparation. College programs that do not meet the standards should be shut down or required to rebuild themselves from scratch.

Gene Bottoms is the senior vice president of the nonprofit Southern Regional Education Board, which helps Maryland and 15 other states work to improve education. His e-mail is gene.bottoms@sreb.org.

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