The standards era has introduced a new set of expectations for schools, shifting our goals from college and career eligibility to college and career readiness. Like most schools, Cumberland High School in Rhode Island, led by 2016 NASSP Principal of the Year Alan Tenreiro, has been wrestling with the basic and profound question this shift represents: How does our school rebuild its systems to promote genuine mastery and not just compliance?

During his presentation to the assembled State Principals of the Year in September, Alan identified the grading system in his school as the linchpin for competency-based education. He briefly described the remarkable work he and his staff had done to institute a proficiency-based grading system and the essential conditions of transparency and autonomy that allow such a system to flourish. (You can read more about the system in the School of Thought blog.) 

As impressive as the grading system is, what really resonated with me is what Alan said next: “We are off to a great start with standards-based grading in Cumberland, but the flywheel isn’t turning on its own yet. We need continuous leadership for that. And if I were to leave tomorrow, I fear that a half-​completed effort would probably revert back to the comfortable, conventional, 1–100 compliance grading system we all grew up on.”

It’s a legitimate and frightening concern. Countless thousands of students suffer the effects of half-completed initiatives each year, in large part because our nation’s historic underinvestment in principal leadership leads 1 in 4 high school principals to leave before his or her freshman class graduates. This most rewarding job in education is often the most challenging, with constant demands from various stakeholders that require principals to do ever more with ever less.

Alan’s anecdote makes a solid case for investing in principals, and the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives us that opportunity. As your state discusses ESSA implementation, be sure to remind decision makers they can set aside up to 3 percent of their federal Title II dollars specifically for your professional development. While not the complete support you need, it just might be enough to benefit many more students in a school that sees its improvement initiatives through to fruition.

Best wishes for a peaceful and restful holiday season!

JoAnn Bartoletti 
Executive Director, NASSP