I recently had a conversation with a retiring principal. One of his comments really stuck as he pondered his leaving of the profession. He said, “You know, after 25 years as a principal, I think I have finally figured this job out. It’s too bad I am retiring.” As professionals, we know that we will never arrive. Every day we learn something new that we can use to make us a better principal. Over the past four years I have worked with many principals as they facilitated RtI implementation in their schools. Through these experiences with school building principals, it has become very clear to me that as the principal goes so goes the success of RtI implementation in a school. Sadly, many schools that have attempted to implement RtI have given up on the process due to a lack of support and understanding from the building principal.
Project Forum at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), funded by the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education, produces many documents and information for improving outcomes for students, specifically students with disabilities. One of the papers created by Project Forum is called, Principal Preparedness to Support Students with Disabilities and Other Diverse Learners. While the focus of the paper is on challenges experienced by principals as they serve students with disabilities, many of the points made in the paper about principal preparedness also can be applied to the RtI implementation process.
Challenge I: A lack of ongoing professional development including internship, mentoring, networking opportunities and other strategies to improve a principals’ ability to serve diverse populations.
If principals are going to support RtI implementation, personal professional development concerning RtI principles is a must. A principal grounded in a solid foundation of the RtI framework can support every phase and facet of implementation with confidence.
Challenge II: Lack of targeted principal preparation through induction programs, including core components of leadership.
Universities, state and national professional organizations, school districts, and State Departments of Education can be great resources for information regarding RtI implementation. A principal facilitating RtI in a school should seek these organizations as a place for guidance around RtI and leadership training.
Challenge III: The lack of alignment among principal evaluation, principal preparation, and principal standards. RtI is a framework, not a program.
Implementing a framework takes skills beyond program implementation. Principals need to develop skills and understanding on school culture, consensus building, instructional support, data management, and research-based practice. Most importantly, a principal needs feedback through an evaluation process to continue to grow in the profession. Specific feedback regarding RtI implementation will greatly enhance and support the creation of a quality delivery system in a principal’s school.
Challenge IV: The relative lack of knowledge among principals about current trends in special education.
While this challenge is specific to special education trends, the same can be said of RtI implementation. A principal armed with the knowledge and findings of RtI implementation is a principal prepared to meet all of the challenges and opportunities that come from full implementation. An informed and knowledgeable principal will guarantee successful implementation.
Challenge V: The lack of training/skills in how to lead from the middle.
This challenge is of high significance. Having the skill to work with district office staff to the classroom teacher is a must for successful implementation. Principals need strong skills in communication, resource attainment, supervision, and planning. Knowing how to push and pull levers to implement a school’s RtI vision increases the chance of creating a high quality RtI program
Challenge VI: A lack of sensitivity to issues that diverse populations encounter in education.
To truly meet the academic or behavioral needs of all students, a principal needs to be particularly sensitive to the diverse and cultural needs of a school’s student population. Responding to the diverse needs of students helps schools make informed decisions concerning the particular needs of students within the RtI framework.
Challenge VII: Working conditions make it difficult to recruit and retain high quality principals who have the ability to serve diverse students.
One of the keys to RtI implementation is the principal needs to understand that he/she cannot implement the RtI framework without the help and support of the teachers in a school. As a principal works hard to create teacher leadership and ownership in a school, a collective instructional community of services and support around students become embedded in the culture of the school
I hope that you can see the relevance of these seven challenges as they relate to RtI l implementation and the building principal. It cannot be stressed enough that the school principal is a very important person if a school is to be successful with the implementation of the RtI framework in a school.
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