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Blame principals? No need to stop there

Nevada Appeal editorial board

Is it fair to put the blame for poor reading and math scores on the shoulders of Nevada’s elementary-school principals?

Only if you’re also willing to spread that blame far and wide – from parents to teachers to school-board members to legislators.

A report by University of Nevada, Reno education professors this week painted a dismal picture of student skills. It said less than half of third-graders in public schools are proficient in math and reading.

This is discouraging news at any time, but especially so when Nevada and the nation have put so much emphasis the past eight years on raising test scores and improving all students’ abilities.

It is a failure, and it is widespread.

By saying the key to improving those proficiencies lies with principals, the professors elevated them to the top of the blame heap. It’s as good a place to start as any, because principals can have a most profound effect on the level of education being accomplished within their buildings.

Yet leadership doesn’t begin or end at the principal’s office. If too many are “caretakers just trying to hold the building together,” as one professor commented, it’s easy to imagine why they’re not doing much leading.

Give principals the support they need – Nevada, despite the influx of education dollars from the last two legislative sessions, still ranks low in comparison with other states – and then give them the authority to make the changes they see fit.

Principals must be held accountable, but how effective can they be in a public school system that does little to reward innovation and success, protects mediocrity through tenure and union contracts, and makes it far too difficult to fire teachers who don’t perform?

They are the captains of ships, it seems, sometimes overloaded with baggage and shot through with holes.