School & District Management

Mentoring for New Principals Gains Policy Attention

By Jeff Archer — September 12, 2006 4 min read
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A growing number of states are providing new forms of coaching and training for novice principals in the hope of turning what’s often a sink-or-swim experience into one more likely to lead to improved school performance.

Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, signed legislation in July to create a mentoring program for all new principals in the state. Similar state-led initiatives have been launched recently in Alaska, Arizona, and Missouri.

In addition, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania have contracts with the year-old National Institute for School Leadership, a private group that trains principals in such skills as strategic planning.

“We need to make sure they get the support they need to start out right, and the ongoing access to training to stay on top of their game,” said Elliot M. Regenstein, who served as Gov. Blagojevich’s top education adviser until last month.

Mentor Pamela Scherzer, left, and Principal Mary Brandt visit a 3rd grade classroom at Winnebago Elementary School in Illinois.

State policymakers say the focus on job-embedded training reflects a view that preservice programs aren’t fully equipping principals to lead change, and that the role has become too complex to learn to navigate on one’s own.

The New York City-based Wallace Foundation has fueled the growth of such initiatives with $43 million in grants to 24 states since 2001. A major aim of the giving is to improve working conditions for school leaders to help them be more effective.

“No one is completely prepared when they’re done, even with the best preparation program,” said Richard Laine, the education director at the foundation, which also underwrites leadership coverage in Education Week. “We have to support adults to continue to learn.”

New Regimens

Increasingly, state education leaders say, just having someone to call with a problem isn’t enough for principals. Some of the most recent state initiatives to provide continuing support involve trained mentors, required contact hours, and specified skills to focus on.

Starting last year in Missouri, for instance, all new principals were required to spend 66 hours over their first 24 months on the job working with a veteran administrator approved by the state. The coaching must include regular observations and feedback.

Ms. Brandt confers with her mentor, who she says gave her confidence.

In Illinois, the new law lists seven areas in which all first-year principals must receive a year’s worth of coaching, beginning in 2007, including data analysis, classroom observation, planning teacher professional development, and sharing leadership responsibilities.

Mary Brandt, the principal of the K-5 Winnebago Elementary School in Bloomingdale, Ill., can attest to the value of such guidance. Last fall, she was assigned a retired administrator as a mentor through a program that operates in 11 districts in the state, and which helped inspire the state legislation.

Ms. Brandt, who led her school for a year before joining the program, said her mentor’s direction helped her make changes in her second year that she otherwise would have lacked the confidence to oversee. A goal of hers has been to encourage more tailoring of instruction to students’ individual needs.

“Things that I was noticing that were bothering me, she helped to confirm that ‘yes, it does need attention,’ ” said Ms. Brandt, adding that her mentor also helped her shift the focus of staff meetings from administrative issues to topics related to instructional improvement.

The mentoring program Ms. Brandt took part in is organized by the Lombard, Ill.-based Consortium for Educational Change, a network of districts in the state that share best practices. The group based the program on a model designed by the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Alaska and Arizona also have tapped the New Teacher Center to help establish state-run mentoring programs for principals. Initially concerned mostly with improving teacher-induction programs, the center began training leadership coaches for states and districts several years ago.

Training Sees Expansion

Interest also is growing in the National Institute for School Leadership. The institute offers a course of study based on leadership training common in business and the military, and is a for-profit offshoot of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington think thank.

This month, the Minnesota education department has arranged to begin training about 50 administrators to deliver the institute’s curriculum to others in the state. Pennsylvania—which also has launched a principal-mentoring program—had 20 school leaders trained to do the same last year, and is adding another 40.

See Also

Read the related story,

Cynthia Burkhart, a former principal who teaches the institute’s curriculum in Pennsylvania, said it covers skills that administrator-training programs traditionally haven’t, such as team-building and organizational change. In Pennsylvania, the course is taught in about 12 days of training over a year.

“You’ve got these young administrators who are just trying to keep two nostrils above water, and they get 12 days when they can think strategically about things beyond the referrals on their desks and who’s going to cover the cafeteria,” she said.

Audrey Soglin, the executive director of the Consortium for Educational Change, the Illinois network, predicts that states that help new principals through such efforts will see greater student-achievement gains in the long run.

“The principal is second only to the teacher in terms of affecting student achievement,” she said. “I think the fact that we thought it wasn’t important to support new principals prior to this is just incredible.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2006 edition of Education Week as Mentoring for New Principals Gains Policy Attention

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