School & District Management

Principals Need More Autonomy, Support From Central Office, Says Report

By Denisa R. Superville — June 10, 2014 10 min read
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A great deal has been written on what it takes to be an effective principal and the training that’s required to become one.

But a smaller number of studies have been done about the district conditions that are necessary to enable all principals to be effective—not simply the few who defy the odds and rise above often less-than-ideal circumstances.

A report released Tuesday, “Great Principals at Scale: Creating District Conditions That Enable all Principals to be Effective, by the George W. Bush Institute, the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, and New Leaders, the New York City-based school leaders training program, claims to be among the first to compile into one document a comprehensive framework of the conditions that districts should work toward creating in order to scale principal effectiveness across the district and improve outcomes for a greater number of students.

Equally notable, a toolkit that accompanies the report includes a rubric that districts can use to determine whether the conditions are being implemented and to gauge the quality of those conditions on the ground. The toolkit also includes a survey (along with an evidence chart) that principals and central office staffers can use to provide feedback on how they feel the district is performing and the extent to which those conditions are present in the district.

“It’s meant to be a starting point for diagnosing [the] current situation, and to develop an action plan for improving conditions,” said Gina Ikemoto, the executive director of research and policy development at New Leaders and one of the report’s authors.

The report and toolkit, Ikemoto said, offer a “common understanding, a common language of what the full set of conditions are that principals need to be effective.” It’s also an effort to move beyond “the notion of relying on superhero principals” and instead give the districts the tools to set policies that would enable well-trained principals to succeed and reduce burnout.

“We have these examples of folks who have been able to beat the odds and... get great results for kids in spite of the conditions they work in, " Ikemoto said. “And we can’t keep relying on that strategy. Only so many individuals have the perseverance to work in those conditions.”

The group that worked on the report came up with 15 conditions that should be present overall. They were further broken down into four areas—or strands—that should be present on the district-level or that districts should work to create to improve principal effectiveness and student outcomes. These areas are:

1. Alignment of goals, strategies, structures, and resources in the district.

This includes the development of strategic plans that identify student achievement goals, the needs of each school, and a plan for achieving them. Budgetary priorities as well as organizational support are aligned with the strategic plan. A monitoring system is put in place to track progress, adjust implementation if things are not progressing as planned, and obtain feedback so that everyone in the district is aware of the district’s direction and their roles in the process. Principals should also be afforded with tools—curricula, data-collection systems, etcetera—to ensure that the plans could be implemented.

2. A culture of collective responsibility, balanced autonomy, and continuous learning and improvement.

This means both central office and school staff work together to ensure district-set outcomes are met, each group with the belief that there is a shared responsibility for student outcomes. School leaders and principals have some measure of autonomy and feel that they can report back to the central office if policies are not effective and can work with the central office to adapt programs for specific populations. This is also an environment in which feedback is accepted and encouraged and used to improve future initiatives.

3. Effective management and support for principals

The role of the principal is clearly defined. This enables principals to focus on the most important areas of the job. There is a formal evidence-based evaluation system for principals, a research-based management style for principals that encourages continuous learning and improvement, and supervision from trained and knowledgeable principal managers who work collaboratively with principals and act like sounding boards and coaches.

4. Systems and policies to allow principals to effectively manage talent at the school-level

Giving principals the authority to manage (hire, fire, promote, delegate) their school staff in ways they think best fit the school’s needs. This is something that’s frequently lacking, but an ability that’s often recognized as one of the most critical ways that principals can affect student learning. The report even suggests a system where teachers apply directly to the schools in which they want to teach and the principals select the candidates. This strand also calls for a robust teacher evaluation system and partnership with human resources to develop a system to hire and retain top-quality workers at all levels.

The report is based on a survey of literature reviews on principal effectiveness, empirical data, and input from experts, professors , superintendents and other education leaders who were assembled in 2012 by the George W. Bush Institute, based at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and New Leaders. The panel was tasked with building consensus on a single framework that school systems could use to create and improve the conditions that are necessary for supporting effective school leaders. It also drew on the experience of 22 principals in America Achieves, a Washington, DC-based education organization.

The report states that the efforts of ambitious principals often are impeded by district conditions and climate—whether it’s through the lack of autonomy, the absence of clear direction from the central office, or a lack of support from the central office.

Too many school districts require principals to perform tasks that are “misaligned” with their core objectives of creating an environment for improved academic outcomes, according to the report. Those can include performing tasks that are better left to others—from ensuring that teachers are hired to ordering light bulbs, an example cited in the report.

The absence of empowerment—including the inability to hire and fire and cultivate teacher leaders—is also a major impediment, along with the a lack of consistency when strategic plans change with turnovers in district administrations, and a failure to follow through on programs to gauge their effectiveness or adjust their implementation to allow for better outcomes.

Many of the conditions the report recommends do not exist at many schools, and it would “require a sea change in how most school systems operate” to create them, the report says.

But with those conditions in place, principals will be able to concentrate on their job as instructional leaders rather than on managing a multitude of tasks that have nothing to do with improving instruction and supporting teachers, according to the report.

“With the right resources and support to make the job sustainable, they are able to produce these results year in and year out—not just for a limited period of time,” the authors wrote. “When principals are given the conditions that allow them to carry out this work, the schools they lead can transform children’s lives.”

Jacquelyn Davis, an education fellow at the Bush Institute and one of the report’s authors, said that for a long time the conversation around principal effectiveness has been focused on one half of the equation—creating effective principals. But the second half—engendering the district conditions and supports to allow principals to do their jobs—was a necessary component and needed to occur in tandem.

She likened it to taking a new Porsche for a spin on a dirt road. It’s not going to perform the way it was designed to. It needs to be on a highway, she said, or better still the Autobahn.

The report cites examples of districts that were taking positive strides toward ensuring that some of the conditions exists. Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, for example, was lauded for creating a strategic goal to have a highly effective principal in every school. As such, the district created a leadership development program “to grow” its own principals. And Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia was listed as an example under all four strands—for creating a strategic plan to support and develop principals; for creating a culture that’s collaborative and supportive of school leaders (The district’s motto is there are two kinds of employees in this district: those who teach and those who support those who teach.); and giving principals the autonomy over building finances and the building staff.

Glenn Pethel, the assistant superintendent of leadership development at Gwinnett County Public Schools, said that under Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, the district and the school board embarked on programs to support educational leaders.

Wilbanks “has long believed that if we are not supporting those in the classrooms, then we are probably not doing the right kind of work,” Pethel said.

“The research is so very clear that the principal is second only to the teacher in terms of school impact on a child; and so when you think about the multiple initiatives, the multiple strategies, the multiple goals that you possibly could pick from, I think our superintendent and board were able to see that supporting teachers through high-quality principals was a very sound strategy that could be leveraged to ensure that we were all working toward that end goal of improving student performance,” Pethel said.

As a result, Pethel said, the district has made significant strides in closing the achievement gap. The district won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2010 and this year was nominated again.

He said the report was right on target in synthesizing the “true elements” that lead to success in a school district.

Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership at the Wallace Foundation, who served as part of the expert panel, said there was a long held assumption that “if you know what makes an effective principal, then all you have to do is create great training programs and that principal will be effective.” (The Wallace Foundation also supports coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts education in Education Week.)

But what the new report, along with the Wallace Foundation’s “Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need” and others in recent years are saying is that “training—and even putting the right person—in the job, is simply not enough.” The central office, designed in a time when compliance was among its most important functions, needed to change to adapt to the ways in which the role of the principal has changed.

“There is so much of what the district does, in terms of its policies, in terms of the data it provides, in terms of the time it provides for principals to conduct learning and so forth, that the district is really the agency that empowers the principal to do what needs to be done,” she said. “Otherwise, as a principal, you can know what needs to be done, but if the district is pulling you in different directions, then it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

Spiro said the report was a call for action for reorganization of the central office, which she admits is a “very huge undertaking.”

The group agreed that priority over staffing was the most important district condition, followed by a culture of shared ownership.

Davis, the Bush Institute fellow, said she hopes that superintendents and members of the central staff read the report carefully and take the survey and rubric.

She said the Bush Institute would look carefully at roles it can play in helping districts to assess and create the local conditions to allow principals to thrive. The institute is already working with the American Institutes for Research as part of a two-and-a-half-year project looking at district conditions.

The report is the second education improvement report by the Bush Institute. It follows on the heels of “Operating in the Dark,” released in February 2013, an assessment of principal policies, training, and evaluations—and some of their limitations—in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Davis said the role of principals is critical to student success and that great schools cannot exist without great principal.

“If you don’t have a great principal in a school, you’re ultimately not going to have the right group of teachers and the right culture to support high student achievement for all kids,” Davis said. One way to do so is to ensure that “both charter and regular districts have the structure and system in place to enable principals to be successful.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.