School & District Management Commentary

Getting Serious About Leadership

By M. Christine Devita — December 10, 2007 6 min read

Lost amid the sea of reforms, reports, commentaries, and suggestions on how to improve the nation’s public education system is a simple truth: Underperforming schools are unlikely to succeed until we get serious about preparing and supporting school leaders. The importance of having high-quality teaching in the classroom is a given. But we often fail to recognize that it is the principal alone who can ensure that the teaching and learning in every classroom are as good as they can be.


This is especially true in underperforming schools. As the University of Toronto researcher Kenneth Leithwood and his colleagues put it in their landmark 2004 report “How Leadership Influences Student Learning”: “There are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around in the absence of intervention by talented leaders. While other factors within the school also contribute to such turnarounds, leadership is the catalyst.”

If leadership is in fact the critical bridge to having school improvements pay off for children, we need to understand how to better prepare principals to lead the increasingly complex institution we call school, so that all children can learn to high standards.

The logical place to begin is with university preparation programs, the pipeline for leadership. For the first time, we now have solid evidence that principals who graduate from exemplary programs do a better job of leading school improvement efforts and ensuring effective instruction—and thus achieve stronger school outcomes—than graduates of other training programs. That is the conclusion of a study released this year, “Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons From Exemplary Leadership Development Programs,” by Linda Darling-Hammond and a team of researchers from Stanford University and the Finance Project, with support from the Wallace Foundation. (“Study Sheds Light on Qualities of Best Training for Principals,” May 2, 2007.)

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The study shows us that if we can improve principal-training programs, we are likely to see corresponding improvements in student learning down the road. It not only concludes that excellent preparation programs can make a difference in student learning, it also shows that exemplary university and district programs differ in key respects from more-typical ones. Admission is more selective. Curricula and teaching methods are more tightly focused on improving instruction and on encouraging reflection about how theory and practice connect, using such techniques as case method, problem-solving, and journaling. And they put particular emphasis on robust internships that provide coaching, mentoring, and real-world preparation.

We can make real progress by improving the training of principals along these lines. But we also need to pay much more attention to supporting principals once they are on the job. Working with 24 states and scores of school districts nationwide over the last seven years, those of us working with and for the Wallace Foundation have learned two important lessons:

First, leadership development should be well-connected and career-long. It begins with quality preservice training, as described by the Stanford research. It should also include high-quality mentoring for beginning principals. And it should continue throughout leaders’ careers, with professional-development opportunities focused on the learning needs of the individual and the particular needs of his or her school and district.

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Second, the best-prepared leaders won’t succeed for long in a system that does not provide the necessary resources, authority, and incentives. Indeed, fewer than one-third of principals surveyed by the opinion-research organization Public Agenda believe “the system” is on their side. Principals need to be able to devote time to working with their teachers on instructional issues. And they need to be able to allocate resources (people, time, and money) to the areas that need them most.

Fortunately, many districts and states have been taking important steps to better develop and support principals, so that they, in turn, can help all children succeed.

New York City’s school system has set demanding criteria for would-be principals to enter its leadership academy and to get a job leading one of the city’s 1,400 schools. Once selected, candidates are regularly evaluated and permitted to remain in the program only if they demonstrate required competency at periodic intervals, through assessments using various experiential processes such as simulation and role-playing.

The St. Louis public schools have collaborated with the University of Missouri-Columbia to develop a rigorous school leadership program that places more emphasis than most university-based programs do on instructional improvement, change management, and transformational leadership strategies.

Chicago’s public schools this year are providing 175 new principals with high-quality mentoring, a spreading trend among states and districts. As a recent Wallace report on mentoring found, the current growth in principal mentoring marks a major and overdue shift from the long-standing sink-or-swim attitude toward newly hired school leaders.

If there is a national imperative to improve failing schools, then there is also a national imperative to strengthen the preparation of school leaders.

It’s not only new principals who need support. As is true of leaders in any profession, all principals, new or veteran, benefit from participating in a professional learning community where they can keep current on new knowledge and share best practices. In Massachusetts, principal associations, the state education department, and area universities are collaborating to provide statewide professional development for current principals.

For all school leaders, finding time to devote to instruction is a daily struggle. To address that challenge, the Jefferson County, Ky., school district recently developed a new position called “school administration managers,” or SAMs, whose job it is to free principals of many administrative tasks so that they can concentrate more on teaching and learning. Early results are promising. In schools with SAMs, principals’ time on instructional matters rose from 30 percent to more than 70 percent, and student test scores were up significantly. Other districts in Kentucky, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, and Iowa are now testing the SAMs model.

Along with time for instruction, timely and relevant data are essential if principals are to know what is and isn’t working. Georgia and New Mexico are building statewide data systems to give educators critical information to assess the needs of students and change instructional programs to meet those needs.

Finally, principals need more authority to use resources in ways that are tailored to the particular needs of the teachers and students in their schools. A key part of New York City’s school reforms has been the creation of incentives and training for principals and their leadership teams to make decisions in the best interests of their individual schools—and to be accountable for the results. Other districts are taking similar steps.

If there is a national imperative to improve failing schools, then there is also a national imperative to strengthen the preparation of school leaders. Is better leadership worth the trouble and expense? Yes. Kenneth Leithwood and his colleagues argue that efforts to improve the recruitment, training, evaluation, and ongoing development of principals are highly cost-effective because of the singular ability of good leaders to shape schools and districts that lift the educational fortunes of all children and prepare them for productive adulthood. Today, we know more than ever before about how to create such leaders. For the future of our democratic society, the return on a greater investment in school leadership would be priceless.


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