Op-Ed: Transforming school leadership in West Virginia

One of the biggest challenges facing America today is the lackluster state of the K-12 education system. Over half of the workers in this country are unprepared to meet the requirements of today’s jobs and are, therefore, condemned to low wages and difficulty thriving in a 21st Century workforce. Education is of particular concern to West Virginia as we seek to propel ourselves boldly into the 21st Century.

Currently, our state’s students score below the national average on 21 of 24 indicators of student performance as reported by the National Assessment of Education Progress, despite the fact that West Virginia ranks high among the states on a per-pupil expenditure basis based on the percentage of per capita income. But, candidly speaking, we’re not getting a “bang for our bucks.”

Without dramatic action to reform K-12 education, this situation is unlikely to change soon. But the good news is that change is possible. Study after study has shown that ̶ and this should surprise no one ̶ there is a direct connection between student performance and having a highly qualified teacher in the classroom. But, as important as effective teachers are to their students, school improvement depends on school leadership. Simply stated, principals can nurture or stifle good teaching.

In 2013, Imagine West Virginia commissioned a study on the topic of school leadership with the recognition that school principals have a unique opportunity to affect quality teaching.

The study, conducted by ICF International and titled “Transforming the School Principalship: A Framework of Promising Practices and Bold Actions,” outlines the dramatic need to shift the role of principal from building manager to instructional leader or coach.

As a result of the ICF International study, Imagine West Virginia is proposing five key recommendations for transforming school leadership.

  1. Redesign the role of the principal from building manager to instructional leader.
  2. Redesign principal preparation programs in West Virginia’s institutions of higher education to align with the role of instructional leaders and incorporate a strong clinical foundation.
  3. Establish an independent authority to screen and approve applicants to principal preparation programs.
  4. Redesign the salary schedule for school administrators.
  5. Adopt a career ladder for teachers.


Redesign the role of the principal from building manager to instructional leader. Studies have shown that principals spend as little as one-fifth of their time each day on instructional matters, bogged down by lunch menus, bus schedules and other “administrivia.” Those same studies report that principals in the top systems around the world spend 80 percent of the school day on improving instruction, most of it in the place where instruction occurs: the classroom. It’s a ‘no-brainer,’ then, to cut the principal free of much of the work the job now requires and set him or her free to work on improving the school’s teaching.

Redesign principal preparation programs in West Virginia’s institutions of higher education. To insure that our teachers are well-trained and equipped to serve as instructors, we need a practice-intensive, imbedded principal training program. This will require a new licensure program for principal education programs that should include rigorous practice-oriented clinical preparation.

Establish an independent authority to screen and approve applicants to principal preparation programs. The ICF report noted that too many university-based principal training programs accept nearly everyone who applies. Admission into a principal preparation program should require a careful review of a candidate’s leadership competence and ability to work well with teachers. Admission should also be based to some degree on where openings are likely to occur, which will require input from the local school district leadership.

Redesign the salary schedule for school administrators. Salary adjustment for successful completion of an approved principal preparation program would be conferred when the program participant assumes the position, not when he or she receives the credential. The West Virginia Board of Education would eliminate the current policy of providing a pay increase to any teacher who obtains a Masters in Education Administration and would grant the increase only when the individual is employed in an administrative capacity.


At the same time teachers who earn advanced degrees in their fields of expertise would continue to receive the requisite pay increase. With no automatic pay increase coming from simply earning a Master’s in Education Administration (unless the holder of the certificate holds an administrative position), teachers will be encouraged to pursue additional study in their fields of expertise in order to secure a pay increase and become better teachers.


Adopt a career ladder for teachers. This concept would permit the creation of the position of “master teacher” or “teacher leader,” where good teachers are trained and assigned the additional role of assisting other teachers. These teacher leaders would be paid extra for performing this role.The Teacher Leader position would permit good teachers who do not want to leave the classroom and become principals to obtain a salary boost while also keeping them with students. It would also help avoid the problem created by teachers who move into principalships because they are not good teachers and are fleeing the classroom.

The future of our state’s economy ̶ and of today’s students   ̶ requires that we do something bold. These suggestions are not the end of the struggle to improve K-12 education. But they are a clear beginning.

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