School & District Management Opinion

States Must Take the Lead in Improving School Leadership

By Gerald L. Zahorchak — July 14, 2008 7 min read
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Almost everyone would agree that leaders are made, not born. This is as true in education as it is in other fields. But when compared with business, medicine, or the military, education has not done nearly enough to develop leaders who can meet the increasing challenges America’s students and communities face.


Research shows that in education, leadership is second only to classroom instruction among the school-related factors that influence student achievement. And, as any teacher would attest, the skills and knowledge of a principal are vital in developing and retaining good teachers. Effective leadership and high-quality teaching go hand in hand.

Congress is beginning to recognize this fact, and is considering new funding and support to identify, reward, and train highly qualified principals. But states need to do their part.

States are the key actors in setting school-leadership policy. Yet few of them have offered adequate support to principals in addressing the new school challenges. In addition to their role in ensuring rigorous, standards-based preparation for school leaders, states could also do more to coordinate the requirements and resources necessary to secure high-quality training throughout a principal’s career.

All states should consider a course of action similar to what we have done in Pennsylvania, establishing collaborative leadership initiatives that involve their governors, legislators, state schools chiefs, universities, school administrators, and teachers’ unions. Each of these groups has a role to play, and progress for students will be made only with their concerted actions to ensure that new requirements, standards, accountability measures, and best practices are instituted statewide. Making this happen is a matter of great urgency and requires that we take advantage of what is already known about improved instruction. A generation of children cannot wait.

Principals themselves say that they need improved preparation and leadership development to help them meet the growing—and increasingly complex—demands of the job. Moreover, the principal corps is aging and will require replenishing with the best and most-prepared candidates available. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that most principals are over the age of 50, and almost 30 percent are 55 or older. Combined with high turnover rates, especially in rural and high-need schools, this means that the country soon may be facing a massive principal shortage. By taking action now, states can combat turnover by helping current principals find success in their jobs, while also making the field more attractive to potential new principals. At the same time, they can ensure that principals are prepared to be instructional leaders and help local communities “grow their own” future school leaders. One certain byproduct will be improved student achievement.

As a former teacher, coach, principal, and district superintendent, I have reaped the benefits of good training throughout my career. But I also can remember some “professional development” that had little to do with my work (including one aromatherapy session offered to fulfill mandatory staff-development requirements). Such courses did little to help me improve the achievement of students below grade level, or meet the needs of English-language learners, or assist inexperienced teachers in my school.

The truth is that, for many years, the way that my state and most others prepared principals and upgraded their skills and knowledge contributed to the shortcomings we now must correct. Historically, Pennsylvania has had more than 40 institutions preparing school leaders, often offering courses with descriptions so vague that a professor could take a leadership class in virtually any direction. Administrator-candidates coming from other states received no grounding in what we did in Pennsylvania. And there was no common framework for making sure that school leaders were effective.

In recent years, with leadership from the governor and state legislature, Pennsylvania has adopted innovative policies in this area and scaled up training for every school leader in the state. A partnership with several state education associations led to the creation of the Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership Program, known as PIL. Our partner for the curriculum and delivery component of the program has been the National Institute for School Leadership, or NISL, which has combined lessons learned from leadership training in business, the military, medicine, engineering, and education.

Pennsylvania’s experiences may provide other states with ideas for putting together a more effective community of school leaders. Here are some suggestions:

Some industries devote as much as 10 percent of their spending to developing personnel. Education is nowhere near that figure.

Create state standards for school leaders and pilot executive training that meets those standards. Standards clarify expectations and suggest ways to achieve goals. They can even guide local hiring and evaluation policies. In Pennsylvania, after gathering experts to create standards and researching leadership-development programs, we chose NISL—an initiative launched three years ago by the National Center on Education and the Economy with funding from four major foundations—to help us develop statewide training programs for school leaders.

Establish new training requirements and scale up training using state funds. State leaders may balk at new funding for these steps, but lawmakers spend relatively little on leadership development for schools. Some industries devote as much as 10 percent of their spending to developing personnel. Education is nowhere near that figure. As part of the PIL program and other initiatives supported by the governor and the legislature, Pennsylvania has boosted spending on professional development for teachers and school leaders from just $3.9 million in the 2002-03 fiscal year to $30.4 million this year. That figure would surge to $47 million in fiscal 2008-09 under proposed appropriation levels.

State law in Pennsylvania sets minimum training requirements for new principals, creates new requirements for veteran school leaders to upgrade their skills, and holds principal-training programs accountable for meeting the state’s high standards. Today, the only way to earn credits that meet state requirements is through a PIL-approved program. Participants can no longer sit passively through irrelevant courses or ill-conceived professional-development sessions to get credit. We have rejected programs and providers found lacking and helped make good programs better. School leaders overwhelmingly applaud the new training, often saying that it moved them from being managers only to becoming instructional leaders. NISL has helped us create turnaround artists, and has assisted principals in driving their schools from good to great.

Rely on “critical friends” to think through the best types of training and the best means of delivery. In building a fully aligned system that connects state requirements and standards with desired district, school, and classroom outcomes, states cannot go it alone. We relied on friends such as the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, the Pennsylvania Leadership Development Center, and, of course, NISL in Washington. Together, we planned the way ahead, and we are moving toward its implementation.

Establish and offer state-funded, flexible training models. In determining the most effective way to train all principals in the state, we developed two models that offer training through eight regional education centers. One uses a comprehensive curriculum developed by NISL, the other a curriculum developed by the state department of education and the Pennsylvania School Leadership Council. Both of these programs address the identified core and corollary standards for school leaders. The early response we are getting about improved instruction and higher student achievement is encouraging.

Study program effectiveness. Too often, states initiate sweeping policy changes without any follow-up study of their effectiveness, thus reducing the incentives for results. In Pennsylvania, we are studying how well the principals who have gone through the new training perform, asking ourselves hard questions about whether such programs are working and how they might be improved. With the help of NISL and others, we have developed the tools for summative assessments that will underpin the qualitative early successes we are seeing.

Status quo educational leaders will not be able to create innovative, effective schools. Our experience has shown us that states can in fact take an active role in developing and financing high-quality leadership training—if they have a fundamental belief in their people and in the system.

If done right, state-run leadership programs are a cost-effective means of improving the preparation, retention, and success of school leaders, and thus of improving student outcomes. There are no shortcuts, we have found. Everyone involved must think strategically, focus on improved instruction, and hold fast to the goal of creating just, fair, and caring communities of learners in our schools.

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as States Must Take the Lead In Improving School Leadership


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