School & District Management Opinion

Pandemic Recovery Will Be Complex. We’ll Need the Best School Leaders

It’s critical that we develop the principal pipeline
By Michael J. Petrilli — April 14, 2021 4 min read
Leader pointing hand forward, directing boat forward through corona virus crisis

It’s no exaggeration to say that the period since March 2020 has been the most challenging year in memory for American education. Last spring was particularly tough. Shuttering tens of thousands of schools overnight; shifting quickly to remote learning; finding ways to feed and otherwise serve students from afar—any one of those would have been difficult on its own. Taken together, they were nearly impossible to manage.

The challenges didn’t stop when the current school year commenced. School and district leaders had to respond to ever-changing public-health guidance; create feasible options for returning to school for families that wanted that option, while generating robust online learning opportunities for others who didn’t; and help teachers learn how to survive and ideally thrive in the new worlds of remote and hybrid teaching and learning.

In the imperfect world of schools and classrooms, someone had to be ready to solve the inevitable problems that cropped up, help teachers overcome various frustrations, and keep students, families, and staff all rowing in the same direction. That someone was the school principal.

The nation is blessed with many outstanding principals, yet we were not as well prepared for this moment as we should have been. Simply put, we have not invested the attention and resources in developing the exceptional school leaders that we desperately need nor have we given them the authority to be more than middle managers.

Recent studies from the Wallace Foundation indicate that in too many school districts, leadership development is an afterthought. There’s no real pipeline from teacher to administrator, no real effort to identify individuals who demonstrate leadership potential, and no real system for helping potential principals develop key leadership and management skills. In the rare places that do take leadership development seriously, the results are remarkable, surely a higher return on investment than anything else in K-12 education, as the Wallace studies found. There’s also reason to believe that a serious commitment to leadership development is the “secret sauce” behind the success of the nation’s highest-achieving nonprofit charter school networks, like KIPP and IDEA.

We have not invested the attention and resources in developing the exceptional school leaders that we desperately need.

It’s too late to overhaul our leadership-development systems in time to address the challenges coming at schools this fall, but that’s no excuse not to launch a reboot so that we might be better prepared for the next crisis that comes along. We can start by giving promising classroom teachers more opportunities to grow their own management skills, such as by having them lead grade-level teams, serve as department chairs, or take on other teacher leader roles. And we can build robust leadership-development programs within school districts rather than continue to outsource the work to master’s degree programs at ed. school programs that are too often cut off from the real world. That would be an excellent use of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan now heading to school systems and charter schools nationwide.

Even once everyone feels safe returning to school, the recovery phase of the crisis will also be incredibly complex. That’s one lesson from a model plan published recently by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank I lead, called “The Acceleration Imperative.” Developed with the input of more than three-dozen chief academic officers, scholars, and others with expertise in high-performing, high-poverty elementary schools, it clocks in at more than 100 pages with dozens of specific recommendations. That’s because helping students recover academically, socially, and emotionally from this pandemic will take a comprehensive approach. Slapping together a tutoring program or hiring an extra counselor or two is not going to cut it.

Consider, for example, what’s required to address massive unfinished learning. Students are going to need more time to make up for the hundreds of hours they’ve lost, plus greater personal attention to students’ learning gaps. That likely means high-dosage tutoring after school or during the summer, plus small-group interventions with classroom teachers, as well as high-quality whole-group instruction in grade-level content.

Making those pieces fit together is a very heavy lift. For one, it’s critical that the same high-quality curricular materials be used in all those instructional settings—yet according to teacher surveys before the pandemic, many schools still had not adopted effective and standards-aligned materials. Federal relief funds could also be used to purchase such materials, but helping teachers learn how to use them effectively will also take time, support, and expert leadership.

To make the most of tutoring and small-group intervention, schools will also need high-quality data from student assessments. That means finding and using diagnostic tests aligned to the curriculum the school is implementing and helping teachers analyze the data to glean key insights. For example, how should students be grouped for intervention time? Which skills and concepts should instructors focus on?

Of course, there’s the obvious challenge of logistics. If the school is launching an after-school tutoring program, who will do the tutoring? Where will principals or district leaders find them? Train them? Make sure they are in sync with classroom teachers? What if kids stop showing up? How is transportation going to work?

As schools strive to meet the enormous needs of their students coming out of this crisis, it’s essential that they follow the science and do what works. But that will only happen if we have strong school leaders at the helm, ready to manage through the complexity and help their teams solve problems as they crop up. Let us resolve never to take such leaders for granted ever again.

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