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Leandro report: Principal pay plan harms high-need schools

This week, the much-anticipated Leandro report by WestEd was finally made public.

The report is the result of a comprehensive, year-long study by non-partisan education consultants appointed by North Carolina’s courts to take a systematic look at whether the state is living up to its constitutional mandate to provide a “sound basic education” to each child.

It provides a detailed road map for improvements that need to be made to ensure that we are meeting the educational needs of our students, including how we pay our school leaders.

One critical area of need WestEd identified is providing “a qualified and well-prepared principal in every school.”  That need echoes existing research which finds that having an effective principal in place is crucial to the success of a school, especially those that serve our most disadvantaged students.  Clearly one of the most important ways we can ensure we have the right principals where they are most needed is through an effective compensation model.

North Carolina’s principal pay system was overhauled in 2017, after our ranking had slipped to an embarrassing 50th in the nation.  The new pay plan, which was crafted with intense lobbying by pro-business education reform organization Best NC, compensates school leaders based on how much their students grew on standardized tests at the end of the year, with overall pay fluctuating accordingly on an annual basis.

The Leandro report finds that North Carolina’s system for paying principals “works against the state’s meeting the requirement of a qualified principal in every school” because it “creates a disincentive for effective principals to work in underperforming schools, which often take more than one year to improve and meet or exceed targets for growth.”  As it currently stands, if a principal who has been rated ‘effective’ moves into a low-performing school, he or she has a very short period of time to bring test scores up before seeing a reduction in salary.

Of principals who were surveyed for the Leandro study, 24% said that, as a result of the new principal pay policy, they would “seek to retire as soon as possible,” “leave to obtain principalship in another school,” or “leave the principalship.”  A whopping 44% said they “oppose” or “strongly oppose” the compensation model.

WestEd’s recommendation is for a major overhaul of principal compensation.  Instead of tying pay solely to test scores, the report calls for broadening indicators of progress to include measures related to things like teacher recruitment/retention and school working conditions.  It suggests that North Carolina create “incentives, rather than disincentives, for working in high-need schools,” potentially including the following:

*A meaningful supplement for principals who take a position to turn around a persistently failing school

*Protection against principals having a salary reduction if they go to work in low-performing, hard-to-staff school in order to enable multiyear efforts to improve these schools

The WestEd report should serve as a major wake up call to state lawmakers who must now take action to ensure compliance with the Leandro court decision.  There’s no better place to start than working toward ensuring stable leadership in our neediest schools.

Justin Parmenter is an educator and public school advocate who lives in Charlotte. He blogs regularly at Notes from The Chalkboard.

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