Improvements needed at Minnesota Principals Academy

This column originally appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers.
Improvements needed at Mn Principals Academy

Given the importance of school principals, Minnesotans deserve more from our state-funded Minnesota Principals Academy.

The University of Minnesota hosts this academy. But while U of M officials didn’t respond to my questions over a two-month period about how much state support it has received for the academy, Minnesota Senate nonpartisan staff answered in two days: Since 2006, MPA has received $1.775 million. The university is asking for another $400,000 from the Legislature over the next two years.

Minnesotans deserve more than knowing how much we’ve paid for this program. MPA should (but hasn’t) answered questions such as, after principals participate in the program:

• Are schools safer? Is there less bullying and fewer fights?

• Are students learning more? Are achievement gaps closing in participating schools?

• Do teachers in these schools feel the learning and teaching climate has improved?

• What suggestions do neutral outside evaluators have for improving MPA?

A key concern is how well MPA uses some of Minnesota’s most effective principals. In preparing this column, I talked with nine principals in Minnesota public schools classified by the Minnesota and U.S. departments of education as “Blue Ribbon.” This means the schools are among the country’s most effective at producing high levels of achievement and/or reducing achievement gaps. Eight of the nine hadn’t been asked to share their expertise with MPA participants.

Scott Lempka, principal at Elk River’s Parker Elementary School, replied, “No, but I’d … help out if asked.”

Sam Fredrickson, principal at Wayzata’s Birchview Elementary School, wrote: “I have not been asked. I would be happy to if invited.”

Debra Lach, executive director of DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science in Ham Lake, responded, “No, I have never heard from the U of M … and I graduated from their college of education.”

The only one of nine Blue Ribbon school principals surveyed who has spoken at the program is Bret Domstrand, principal at Lakeville’s Lake Marion Elementary.

Caitlin Hurley, a public relations consultant for the University of Minnesota’s University Relations office sent me a link to the MPA’s most recent evaluation. It’s by another U of M unit, the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement. She acknowledged that no organization outside the U has evaluated MPA.

The center’s evaluation included surveys and responses from program participants and supervisors. But the center didn’t ask teachers, families or students if their school improved. Beyond perceptions, the evaluation didn’t provide any data about school safety or student achievement improvement. (Read more at https://bit.ly/2IB6kvO.)

Hurley told me that principals from many Minnesota communities attended the academy, including, for example, Bloomington, Farmington, Forest Lake, Hopkins, Little Falls, Milaca, Minnetonka, Osseo and Stillwater.

Full disclosure: In 2006, the Legislature asked the University of Minnesota to develop a principal training program involving the College of Education, Carlson School and Humphrey Institute. The College of Education, which led this, took months to respond. I was one of the Humphrey people who tried to move things ahead. But frustrated by the slow response, then Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren asked others to create the MPA. It was placed at the University of Minnesota.

I support evaluating and improving programs, whether the organization I direct is involved or not.

University of Minnesota professor Karen Seashore Louis studied school leadership for years. She told me: “After teachers, the principal is the most important in-school influence on student achievement. This is especially true in schools serving high percentages of low-income students.”

Given this, I hope that as legislators consider MPA’s request for another $400,000, they will:

• Ask that an advisory committee be created to help assess impact and suggest improvements. The committee could include, for example, the Minnesota PTA, Minnesota Youth Council, Blue Ribbon and other principals, teachers, superintendents, representatives of business and communities of color.

• Encourage an evaluation by an outside, neutral group that identifies current strengths and important refinements.

Professor Rose Chu, formerly of Metro State and now at the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, agrees that an advisory committee and outside evaluation would be valuable. Noting that principals are critical in attracting and retaining strong teachers, she recently explained to me, “The most effective principals set a tone for families, youngsters and educators that is safe, welcoming and student-centered.”

Principals are critical. We owe it to students, families and taxpayers to ensure that state funds are spent at Minnesota Principals Academy in the best possible ways.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at Joe@centerforschoolchange.org.