School & District Management

Principals Try New Styles As Instructional Leaders

By Lynn Olson — November 01, 2000 13 min read
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The James McCosh School is moving up. The pre-K-8 public school, located in the heart of Chicago’s South Side, has posted steady gains on both the math and reading portions of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills for the past decade with an enrollment that is 100 percent African-American, highly mobile, and more than 95 percent poor.

But ask Principal Barbara J. Eason-Watkins about her secret for improving instruction, and she answers: “I don’t do it.”

“Leadership is not housed in just me alone,” she explained. “I try to ensure that teachers are making informed decisions so that they have ownership.”

Ms. Watkins, the principal here for about a dozen years, is not just being modest. Her answer may reveal a significant pattern among principals who are effective at leading instruction: the ability to nurture and cajole others into sharing the leadership role.

In the past decade, the push to raise academic standards and achievement has placed extraordinary demands on principals. They are expected to fundamentally revise instruction in their schools in English, mathematics, science, and other subjects. They also observe teachers and support their acquisition of new skills; order textbooks and other curriculum materials; pore over test scores to determine the need for improvement; appraise the potential value of new instructional strategies and programs; and help translate those strategies for parents who might have learned in more traditional ways.

Yet surprisingly little is understood about how principals manage this leadership for instruction, or whether they lead differently depending on the subject.

“I think it’s been something that’s been really ignored,” said Mary Kay Stein, an associate professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Ms. Stein, a research scientist with the Learning Research and Development Center, describes the subject-matter knowledge that principals need as “leadership content knowledge,” to distinguish it from the depth of knowledge required by teachers who actually teach those subjects.

And she suggests that without it, principals cannot select effective professional development for their schools, evaluate high-quality instruction, or understand the struggles their teachers are going through as they learn to teach in new ways.

Learning Mathematics

In Massachusetts, Barbara Scott Nelson, a researcher at the Newton-based Education Development Center, and her colleagues have been working for six years with groups of administrators to help them understand changes in math education based on the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

In one yearlong project, administrators at each of the monthly sessions viewed a short videotape of a classroom in which a teacher was in the process of changing his or her instruction. The administrators, who had done the math presented in the lesson beforehand, then discussed the mathematical ideas that the students on the tape were working with and how the teacher helped students explore them.

“The administrators were not doing a huge amount of mathematics in anybody’s view of the world,” said Ms. Nelson, the director of the EDC’s center for the development of teaching, “yet many of these administrators demonstrated significant shifts over time in what they were able to appreciate about what was happening in classrooms.”

For Jeanne L. Gagnon, the principal of Belcher Elementary School in Chicoppe, Mass., the seminars changed the way she observes classrooms.

Despite being married to a high school math teacher, she said, “I’ve always considered myself math-phobic, and it’s one area, as a principal, that I really never put much focus on, as far as professional development or my involvement in the classroom, because I wasn’t sure of myself.”

The sessions encouraged her to focus on math and caused her to pay more attention to the discussion going on in the classrooms— and less attention to whether students were raising their hands or working with manipulatives, she said.

This year, Ms. Gagnon has designated a highly skilled math teacher to work with others on math enrichment, and she’s planning to co-teach some math lessons herself, using material discussed at the seminar.

Valerie C. Gumes, the principal of the Blue Hill Avenue Early Education Center in Boston, said she, too, had never been comfortable with mathematical ideas.

“I was the one who depended on my sister to help me in math,” she recalled of her own school days. But participating in the seminars changed her practice.

“I know better what people need in terms of support,” she said. “It used to be that when I went into a classroom, I went in with my own agenda, what I wanted to see. And I was more oriented towards real overt kinds of activities. Now, I’m listening more. I’m asking teachers questions before I go in there about their thinking. So the evaluation process is more of a discussion.

“I still take down what I hear in the classroom verbatim,” Ms. Gumes added, “but now I’m listening for children’s ideas, as well as the teacher’s. I’m listening to the kinds of questions that they’re asking. And I’m not jumping to conclusions.”

Reading, Discussing

In New York City’s Community School District 2, where Ms. Stein has been conducting her research, administrators from the superintendent on down spend time directly overseeing classroom practice.

Principals are held accountable for the quality of instruction in their schools, and they are expected to know the strengths and weaknesses of individual teachers and how to improve them. In fact, many of the district’s principals were hired for their expertise in teaching literacy, including some who once served as staff developers in the district.

As a result, Ms. Stein said, principals are able to work closely with teachers to improve literacy instruction, facilitate teacher meetings and study groups on the topic, and even demonstrate teaching techniques. They also share a common language with teachers, based on a districtwide literacy framework.

“To me, if you don’t have a handle on what curriculum is about, you really cannot hire in a smart way,” said Anna Marie Carrillo, the principal of Public School 116, a K-5 school of about 825 students.

Ms. Carrillo has put together a staff that reads professional materials, articles, and books together and discusses the implications for classrooms. Her teachers also conduct “action research” in their classrooms to study and reflect on problems their students are having and adjust instruction accordingly.

In 1995, District 2 began a concerted effort to improve math instruction similar to its earlier focus on literacy. As part of that effort, teachers and administrators are offered targeted, ongoing professional development, including site-based training. Staff developers spend time in teachers’ classrooms, offering detailed feedback on instructional strategies.

“When we started changing to a hands-on, experiential math curriculum, I attended all those weeklong institutes with my teachers,” Ms. Carrillo said. “If I’m going to observe them teaching any one of those strands, I need to have information as to how and what to expect, and how it is that I’m going to evaluate.”

What’s Realistic?

But while researchers agree that principals need a deeper grounding in academic subjects than many now have, how much is enough and what kind of knowledge is optimal is unclear. That’s particularly true at the middle and high school levels, where principals oversee instruction in everything from precalculus to European history.

“Can we really expect principals to know each subject in depth?” Ms. Stein of the University of Pittsburgh said. “The answer, obviously, is no. So what is it that we should expect them to know and understand?”

She suggests that if principals each knew at least one subject deeply, they would appreciate what it means to have such knowledge. And they might also know when to seek help.

Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University, said he would be suspicious of any principal without expertise in at least one subject. That doesn’t mean principals have to know every subject in which they supervise teachers.

“As a high school principal with a background in English and literature,” he argued, “you should be able to walk into a chemistry class and ask intelligent questions about the kind of instruction that’s going on there, and have an intelligent conversation with somebody about what you see. And if you can’t, you’re in trouble.”

One answer, as the example of Ms. Watkins of Chicago’s McCosh school suggests, is that principals can’t exercise instructional leadership alone.

“It is highly unlikely that a principal practicing solo can improve instruction in his or her school,” said James P. Spillane, an assistant professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “And I think smart and effective principals know that.”

Mr. Spillane, who has been studying efforts to improve mathematics, science, and literacy instruction in a handful of urban elementary schools like McCosh, argues that leadership encompasses the work of many people within a school building. He and Mr. Elmore call such styles “distributed leadership.”

‘We’re All Leaders’

With nearly 1,100 students spread over two buildings, the McCosh School would offer an organizational challenge to any principal. And Ms. Watkins, a 48-year-old who has an infectious laugh and a warm manner, spends much of her time on her feet— peeking into classrooms, chatting with teachers and parents, and averting crises.

“We do formal observations,” she said as she poked her head into a 3rd grade classroom recently, “but sometimes I like to just walk. You kind of get the sense of the things that are going on.”

Teachers uniformly describe Ms. Watkins, who began her teaching career in the fall of 1973, as a hard worker who reads everything, is expert at marshaling resources, and forms long- term school-university partnerships. They credit her with creating a supportive, caring community in which teachers are not afraid to take criticism or ask for help.

But most of all, they say, their principal excels at identifying the skills and expertise within her staff and encouraging teachers to assume leadership roles.

“I think it’s important to identify leaders within the school,” Ms. Watkins said. “You can’t be an expert in everything, but what you try to do is develop the leadership capacity among teachers so they can share in the work.”

McCosh has a schoolwide literacy program, for example, and regular, five-week assessments to help gauge how every student and classroom are performing. But the person who coordinates that effort on a daily basis is not Ms. Watkins—it’s Geralynn Wilson, the school’s literacy coordinator.

Ms. Wilson keeps a running folder for each child, including an item-by-item breakdown of test results, so that she knows how many students have mastered each of the state and district standards. She meets regularly with grade-level teams to discuss assessment results and modify instruction. And she ensures that teachers have the novels and other materials they need.

In grades 4-8, individual teachers have been designated as literacy coordinators, who confer about reading strategies, visit teachers’ classrooms, and demonstrate good teaching.

The school does the same in mathematics. For each grade, McCosh has a teacher who is part of the math leadership team. Those teachers participate regularly in professional development outside school. They bring information back to train and help other teachers. And they study the student-assessment results to adjust the curriculum as needed.

“In one capacity or the other, we’re all leaders,” said Jacquelyne K. White, a 1st grade teacher, who is part of the math team.

“What I love about Ms. Watkins is she saw leaders in her teachers that we didn’t even see in ourselves,” said Winifred Brown, the literacy coordinator for McCosh’s middle school.

By the same token, Ms. Watkins has delegated many noninstructional duties, naming a dean of students, for instance, to free her time to focus on instruction.

“I try to make sure that I go through the writing papers, so I can see what children are doing,” she said. She regularly reviews assessment data with Ms. Wilson and identifies students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“I don’t ask teachers, ‘Are you teaching,’ ” she explained, “but, ‘Are the children learning? And how do you know?’ I think when you get that piece right, of demonstrating performance, that you get to see the real thing.”

Building Capacity

A similar pattern can be seen in New York’s District 2.

Barbara A. Gambino, the principal of Public School 51, worked with the leader of the community district’s mathematics initiative to pick a math leader for the school. Now that teacher is working with another teacher on her grade level once a week, observing her classroom, modeling instruction, and helping plan lessons.

“By doing that, I don’t have to have the math staff developer work with those people,” Ms. Gambino pointed out. “And we’re building capacity. Maybe next year, we’ll have another math leader on a different grade level. And we can expand the expertise.”

One of the most striking characteristics of such principals is their ability to create a culture in which school administrators and teachers learn together: reading articles and books, visiting classrooms, and looking closely at student work.

At Chicago’s McCosh School, for example, teachers meet once a month before school for informal conversation, breakfast, and coffee, centered around an article that they’ve read about teaching and learning. Last month, the topic was high-quality Internet sites for teaching literacy.

School also starts 10 minutes early each day at McCosh, so that teachers can meet for a half-day every month to lead sessions for each other on methods that work in their classrooms.

“When we do our own workshops,” said Ms. White, a 1st grade teacher who has led sessions on phonemic awareness, oral reading, and integration of literacy with math instruction, “we’re closer to the situation or the problem. We’re addressing the needs of our specific students. We’re choosing areas and topics we need to know more about.”

Sometimes, she notes, outside presenters have good ideas, “but they’re not plausible; they’re not doable.” At the hands-on sessions offered by her fellow teachers, Ms. White receives information that’s already worked down the hall, and if she has questions later, she can always go and ask.

Principal Watkins comes to most of the sessions, reads the articles or participates in the activities alongside her teachers, and often flags key points with sticky notes. That way, she explains, she knows what her teachers know. She hears the discussions going on. And, sometimes, she is able to clarify issues.

“When we have teacher-leader workshops, she is always here, and she’ll give her input on how she feels about things,” said Paulette Sanders- Gray, a 3rd grade teacher. “When it comes to these children—their literacy, their math—she is on it.”

This year, the principal offered to buy each teacher a copy of a book on improving reading comprehension, Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension To Enhance Understanding, by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Gouduis. And the book has become a reference for teachers at grade- level meetings and in monthly discussions about literacy.

Ms. Nelson of the Education Development Center describes such co-learning as a fundamental shift in the principalship. “It might turn out,” she said, “that the principal doesn’t have to be an expert who knows all the answers.”

This two-year special project to examine leadership issues in education is underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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