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Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Helping Education Leaders Grow

By Elizabeth Neale & Jonas S. Chartock — March 12, 2013 4 min read

It’s time to dispel the perception that school principals have all the skills and capacity they need to be successful leaders as soon as they leave principal-preparation programs.

Consider findings from the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, a work that always seems to get to the heart of education’s biggest questions. Responses to the recently released 29th annual survey offer interesting—and troubling—insights into school leadership.

Among the survey’s startling findings:

• “Three-quarters of all principals say the job has become too complex, and nearly half report feeling under great stress several times a week or more.”

• “Teacher satisfaction has declined 23 percentage points since 2008,” to its lowest level in 25 years, in 2012 (dropping from 62 percent to 39 percent). We acknowledge, however, that some have raised questions about the interpretation and quality of the findings on this point.

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• “Less-satisfied teachers” are more likely to be located in schools where professional development and time for teacher collaboration have declined (21 percent vs. 14 percent).

• “More principals find it challenging to maintain an adequate supply of effective teachers in urban schools and in schools” where two-thirds or more of the students come from low-income households (60 percent vs. 43 percent in suburban schools and 44 percent in rural schools).

Clearly, principals and teachers face numerous challenges. In large part because of the factors cited above, teachers and principals in the United States leave their positions in the first five years at high rates. It’s clear the nation must find a way to support these overstressed leaders and increasingly less-satisfied teachers, especially in our high-poverty areas. We can do so by developing the leadership competencies of current principals, future principals, and teacher-leaders.

The MetLife survey cites the stress that principals identify when they don’t have the capacity to lead, especially in schools where student achievement is low and poverty is high. The survey’s authors say it “underscores the fact that teachers today play a key part in the leadership of their schools. Half of teachers play some function in formal leadership,” whether as mentors or leadership-team members.

The need for better leadership preparation is clear. Before they are asked to take on prospective executive leadership roles, new principals and teacher-leaders should be well grounded in the skills needed to manage adults.

If we are serious about increasing student achievement, we need to act now to retain the good to great teachers and leaders.”

Opportunities for fellowships and continuous professional development as teacher-leaders would augment the base knowledge and abilities of school leaders before they change their roles. And, once they land in leadership positions, principals need continuous collaborative support and development.

It takes a leadership team composed of a school principal and teachers leading in varied capacities to get to greater student success. If we are serious about increasing student achievement, we need to act now to retain the good to great teachers and leaders. The New Teacher Project’s recent report “The Irreplaceables” clarifies that we are often not only losing the best new teachers, but that those who stay do so with the strongest and most effective principals. This team of effective leaders and principals helps students gain an additional five to six months of student learning each year, according to the TNTP report.

From our perspective, here’s what we feel the education community must do to effectively counter the growing trends and realities highlighted in the MetLife survey:

• Provide current principals with continuous post-training/post-mentoring support and development to accelerate leadership skills. In a study released by the Wallace Foundation in January, researchers stressed that effective leaders must shape a vision of academic success for all students, improve instruction, and become dynamic leaders able to manage, for example, people, data, and processes. Developing those skills takes an ongoing effort targeted to increase student outcomes. And it must be anchored in research that focuses on greater leadership capacity.

• Provide multiple, structured career pathways for educators. With formal, appropriately compensated middle-leader roles available, aspiring school leaders may find a more intentional, longer-term approach to the principalship more attractive. Research indicates that by developing the leadership skills of teachers, they will not only remain in the classroom, but will also expect to take on new responsibilities and expand their influence. The key to retaining the most effective of our educators lies in developing their skills for success.

• Offer outstanding fellowship and training experiences to teachers who will not only become tomorrow’s principals, but who—right now—can move the needle on student achievement and add to the leadership capacity of their schools, helping each school’s instructional community to improve. In so doing, we will build a network of midlevel teacher-leaders who have the wherewithal to best support their new colleagues while limiting the attrition of our most promising educators.

The MetLife survey should serve as a reminder not only that we have much to do to strengthen our schools, but also that there are proven actions we can take to bolster the quality of principal and teacher leadership for our students.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as Helping School Leaders Improve

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