Special Report
School & District Management

Connecting Principals to School Districts’ Top Academic Priorities

By Denisa R. Superville — March 16, 2015 5 min read
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The chief academic officer for the Highline, Wash., school district works directly with principal supervisors to craft professional-development plans for principals and teachers.

In Omaha, Neb., curriculum leaders worked with a private company to develop an app to chart how principals are progressing toward meeting academic goals.

And in the Montgomery County, Md., schools, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs meets once a month with principal-advisory groups and then reports back to the CAO. It’s a regular collaboration that was behind the district’s decision to implement its common-core-aligned curriculum in multiple stages.

The connection between the chief academic officer—or the person with an equivalent title in a district—and school principals must be strong if districts want to turn lofty visions into solid academic gains in classrooms, say school leadership experts. A weak connection can lead to frustration in the central office and confusion among principals, a working atmosphere that ultimately filters down to teachers and students, too.

“My job [as chief academic officer] is to support the principal to be an instructional leader at the highest level possible, so that the principal can support the teachers at the highest level, so that the teachers can support the students,” said ReNae S. Kehrberg, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment for the 51,000-student Omaha, Neb., public schools, essentially the district CAO.

To provide more support and strengthen the academic connections between the central office and schools, some districts give principals a seat at the table during initial discussions about choosing curriculum and instructional materials. In addition to Montgomery County, districts in Baltimore, Omaha, and Orange County, Fla., use principal-advisory groups, in which select principals provide input about curriculum and instruction and the implementation of academic programs.

The principal-advisory groups were key contributors in Montgomery County’s decision to implement its curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards in multiple stages and by grade levels, instead of a one-time systemwide rollout, said Erick J. Lang, the associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional programs.

Mr. Lang said the mechanisms in the 151,000-student Montgomery County system create “two-way communication” between the central office and the schools to avoid a “top down” approach.

Forging Strong Bonds

To establish strong two-way communication in the 19,000-student Highline public schools, the district’s chief academic officer, Susanne M. Jerde, directly oversees principal supervisors.

She works with those supervisors to devise professional-development opportunities for principals and teachers based on the district’s instructional and leadership frameworks, which spell out what principals and teachers must know, the practices that must be used in classrooms—and, at each step, the training that will help teachers and principals effectively implement those strategies.

The district has also crafted annual action plans for each content area, with milestones for implementation, professional development, monitoring, and assessments, Ms. Jerde said.

Collaborative-inquiry walks are also important in ensuring that schools are, in fact, doing what they are supposed to do. On those walks through schools, the instructional-leadership directors are accompanied by staff members from Ms. Jerde’s teaching and learning department.

“There has to be very strong relationships between our [principal supervisors] and the rest of the teaching and learning department,” Ms. Jerde said. “Because our [principal supervisors] are doing such strong work with instructional leadership, it’s important that it’s totally aligned and connected to any work that might be happening with teacher development, and curriculum and instruction, and assessments.”

During those walk-throughs, the supervisors pay attention to a number of details, including how teachers are interacting with students and how principals are analyzing evidence and planning to deliver feedback to their teachers. Those visits are also important in helping principals identify whether the practices in their classrooms are aligned with major school district initiatives and whether they are following the timelines based on the district’s action plan.

Highline tries to ensure that principals are supported—and included—throughout the process, she said.

“Part of my push is that decisions must be made [based] on research and best practices,” Ms. Jerde said, “but they also must be made [based] on input from principals and our implementers.”

Meredith I. Honig, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Washington, in Seattle, is working with the Highline district to hone its leadership approaches. Principal supervisors are the “essential anchors” for establishing a strong academic connection from the central office to schools, she said. But Honig also emphasized that that connection should be strengthened by a commitment from all district departments to focus on academic priorities.

Figuring Out What Works

The Long Beach district in California is doing similar work establishing stronger connections between district-level academic leaders and principals through collaboration among three top administrators: the deputy superintendent of schools; the assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and professional development; and an assistant superintendent of secondary schools. (The district has retired the title of chief academic officer.)

When the 80,000-student district first rolled out its K-12 common-core-literacy-implementation tool three years ago, it designed an accompanying multiyear professional-development plan. That plan identified what both principals and teachers, and the schools’ instructional-leadership teams, needed to learn together to make the plan work, said Pamela Seki, the assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and professional development.

In the first year of implementation, the curriculum-leadership team trained the principals, who were expected to train staff members. The principals were provided with resources to help them do so.

But some principals struggled to make it work, and not all felt competent enough to implement it in their schools. In the third year, the district changed the model to include the school leadership teams in the professional-development training.

“We know what the research tells us about what makes a difference in schools,” said Jill A. Baker, the deputy superintendent of schools. “The first is that effective and high-performing teachers are the number-one way that we impact student achievement. Second to that is effective principals, and so we wanted to maximize what we know about those two things together.”

Coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership in Education Week and its special reports is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Connecting Principals to Top District Priorities


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