Special Report
Professional Development

Teaming Up School and District Leaders: A Win-Win Approach to PD

By Denisa R. Superville — November 02, 2021 14 min read
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In the professional development world, principals head off to sessions tailored to their on-campus needs, while superintendents and others in the central office often take a different track.

But what if those two paths aligned? What if school-level leaders and those who create the overarching vision for the school system and hold the purse strings were on the same page, getting steeped in the same leadership, management, and school improvement strategies, philosophies, and practices?

While that kind of coordination makes sense, it’s not always the case, meaning that principals returning from professional development sessions can find their enthusiasm for new initiatives thwarted by the central office. The inverse can also be true: Central office plans can hit the skids in school buildings because principals weren’t in on the planning.

But some programs aim to break down the silos between central office and schools, acknowledging that both school and district leaders must have a shared vocabulary and understanding of their district’s plans to fully support principals and transform their school systems.

“When there’s a gap or a disconnect between the PD and the district’s strategic plan ... there’s not a place to implement because there are other conflicting initiatives, or just the day-to-dayness of the work,” said Mikel Royal, the former director of school leader preparation and development at Denver Public Schools. She now works as a district adviser for the George W. Bush Institute’s School Leadership Initiative.

That initiative’s Talent Management Framework, which was piloted in four districts in Texas, Utah and Virginia, recognizes that principals are important levers of change in school districts, but that equally important is the evolution of the central office into one that creates the conditions and supports for principals to succeed. That involves changing district policies, compensation, and professional development for school leaders and those who work closely with them.

The program, which is offered at no cost to the participating districts, takes a team approach, with key players such as the districts’ chief academic officers, principal supervisors and—importantly—principals working on areas such as revamping evaluation systems and compensation structures for principals.

The districts trying out this method to support and strengthen school leadership are the Austin and Fort Worth school districts in Texas; Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia; and Granite School District in South Salt Lake City, Utah.

This type of cross-functional approach to professional development does not happen often enough in education, Royal said. But it increases the chances that what principals and central office staffers are learning will be successful and gets baked into the system.

Karen Molinar, an assistant superintendent in Fort Worth, said a key goal was getting departments in the central office to put principals at the center of their work.

That has meant including principals’ voices in the district’s effort to strengthen supports for school leaders.

The district-and school-level partnership has resulted in subtle and not-so-subtle shifts, including restructuring district meetings to ensure that teaching and learning are at the forefront. The school system has also developed incentives and stipends to keep principals on the job by creating mentor and peer-leadership opportunities.

“Ultimately, we work for the principals,” Molinar said. “That’s the hardest part—getting everyone to have that kind of buy-in, that campus leaders are the most important employees in our district.”

Increasing leadership capacity

The leadership development program for district and school leaders at the Austin-based Holdsworth Center also takes a systemwide approach to professional development. Its goal is to help leaders and central office staff alike grow their personal leadership, cultivate leadership in others, craft their own definition of leadership for their school systems, and develop pathways for employees to move up the ladder. Twenty school districts have signed up to participate since the program launched in 2017, with 43 districts applying for six spots to start this year’s five-year partnership, said Lindsay Whorton, president of the Holdsworth Center.

Funded by the H-E-B grocery store magnate, Charles Butt, the Holdsworth program also is free to districts and aims to help them create a pool of trained leaders who are ready to step in when vacancies arise, and ultimately, improve outcomes for students.

To lay the groundwork, the program starts with a five-member team from the central office—the superintendent and key central office staffers—who spend two years on personal leadership, talent development, and strategic planning.

Many times, leadership development is something that is kind of ... another task ... , and if it's not structured or well thought out, it doesn’t yield the results.

The first of two groups of principals join two years after the central office cohort, and they’re also accompanied by a school-level team, which can include assistant principals, teacher-leaders, and instructional directors.

Over separate two-year periods, school-level and district-level participants visit schools and businesses to see management and talent-development practices and innovation inside and outside of K-12.

Both the superintendents and principals are assigned executive coaches to aid their leadership-development journey, and Holdsworth provides technical assistance to help districts along the way. The School Leaders Initiative also provides coaches to the district teams, who connect educators with resources and help troubleshoot challenges that pop up.

“We start with district leadership because we know how important it is that the superintendent and key members of his or her team are building an environment in which principals can thrive, and that there is alignment, there is coaching, and there’s support for principals,” Whorton said.

The program also seeks to equip principals with the skills to surmount the “big on-the-job challenges that principals face,” she said, an especially critical task right now as school and district leaders address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 60,000-student Arlington Independent School District, located about 20 miles east of Fort Worth, Texas, was among the first to participate in the Holdsworth Center’s program.

Marcelo Cavazos, Arlington’s superintendent, was looking to shore up gaps in the district’s leadership development and pipeline strategy. For one, the district didn’t have clear leadership pathways—employees didn’t know how to get from one level to the next—and when school leadership vacancies arose, the district often had to resort to using interim principals because it lacked a bench of ready leaders.

“Many times, leadership development is something that is kind of ... another task ... , and if it’s not structured or well thought out, it doesn’t yield the results,” Cavazos said.

The central office team members went through a 360-degree leadership assessment to understand their own leadership styles and how those approaches affect others with whom they work. That process was significant for A. Tracie Brown, Arlington’s chief schools officer, who oversees principal supervisors and school leaders.

A visit to General Electric Co.’s corporate offices in New York to learn about the company’s talent development system was pivotal to the district’s focus in that area and the pathways to leadership it created as a result.

Arlington’s central office staff learned how GE spots, grooms, and retains talent, its culture that emphasizes developing talent, and the system it uses to evaluate employee performance and differentiate support, Brown said.

The visits to the business world helped district leaders gain insights into how the corporate world leverages its systems to bring out the best in employees, said Brown, who also traveled to Singapore to learn about that country’s world-famous school system.

Arlington has since created a talent-management system and descriptions of the attributes it would like the person in the job to have.

It’s started leadership pathways, which include teacher-leadership positions at the building level and a path to get from the school into the central office, Brown said.

As a result, the district now has three internal principal-candidates for every vacancy that pops up, she said.

“We are finding that we are able to fill positions because we have a bench, and we’ve poured into that bench,” she said.

The staff, Brown said, now feels more engaged and involved. “They feel like they have a seat at the table,” she said.

Brown has also seen an evolution in the way principals approach their jobs. School leaders are more aware of how they communicate and work with staff. And there’s a common language around leadership between the central office and school sites.

“They see themselves as CEOs of their buildings,” Brown said of principals. “They carry the weight of that. They are also developing talent in a way they were not doing before.”

Even a longtime educator like Cavazos appreciated the assistance of a leadership coach, who helped him address his blind spots, one of which was improving how he gave feedback.

“If you are not providing effective feedback, you are not growing others as effectively as you could,” he said.

Looking for signs of progress

While all professional development is geared toward improving student outcomes, it’s been difficult to measure the impact of Arlington’s district and school-level changes on students because of the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Natasha Harris, the principal of Lynn Hale Elementary School in Arlington, points to progress before the pandemic as evidence that this approach to professional development is yielding results.

Harris had expected to work as an assistant principal for four to five years before becoming a principal. But that timeline accelerated when Harris’s boss got a middle school job; Harris got the job after serving as an AP for two years.

Harris and a school team of three teachers—she added the dean of instruction in the second year of the program—formed the school-level team from Hale Elementary that participated in the Holdsworth program.

She admits to being initially skeptical of how applicable some of the lessons were to education, especially those delivered by some experts whose forte was not K-12.

Natasha Harris, principal of Lynn Hale Elementary School in Arlington, Tex., is an alum of the Holdsworth program for school leaders.

“ ‘OK, I love it, I love what I’m hearing,’ ” she recalled thinking. “ ‘However, you are not in education. How do you know what we go through?’ ”

But she soon saw the value in a perspective from outside of K-12.

“Yes, we have to be strong instructional leaders,” she said. “But we also have to know how to navigate teams and understand who they are. That goes across all contexts—whether it’s in education, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in other industries.”

Over a two-year period, Harris and her team attended 12 in-person sessions throughout the state and also visited high-performing schools, including the High Tech High system in San Diego, to learn firsthand the ingredients that propelled those schools.

An important part of having the central office and principals participating in the program was that Harris could count on the district to ensure that her campus was staffed when the team was out of town.

That’s often a roadblock for principals, especially those leading elementary schools, who sometimes pass up professional development opportunities because of inadequate staffing.

Forty-three percent of elementary school principals listed “insufficient coverage” of their buildings as one of the hurdles to accessing professional development, according to a 2020 survey of school leaders by the California-based Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

A central part of the Holdsworth program is helping principals work on a problem of practice with which they’d been struggling.

Harris and her staff chose an area of deep concern: writing. Only 39 percent of students at Hale Elementary had passed the state’s writing exam in the 2017-18 school year.

Beginning in December of 2018, Harris and her team took some of the tools from Holdsworth and conducted a root cause analysis. They pored over data and shared, grade by grade, why students were not meeting state standards.

“By the time we got through 4th grade, the 4th grade teacher was in tears,” Harris said. “She said, ‘We’ve done this to ourselves. We have not made writing a priority for our students. We are not giving them opportunities to write in math, science, and other areas.’ ”

They then identified specific strategies and practices to boost the passing rate. They devoted an entire PD day to preparing a plan of action to address the problem of coming up with common writing strategies from pre-K through 6. Harris divided teachers into teams, with one team looking at writing prompts that could be tied into the holidays, another crafting a rubric that could be scaffolded, and still another analyzing data.

At the end, they ensured that every teacher had a rubric to assess student writing, showing what students had to do to demonstrate proficiency and what they needed to know if they were not proficient. They ensured that students had writing exercises in all content areas, including in math and science. Students’ writing samples were posted on bulletin boards throughout the school and sent home to parents.

By the end of the 2018-19 school year, after months of putting the plan into gear, the passing rate had increased to 61 percent, Harris said.

Harris said she had learned about the root cause analysis method at Holdsworth and in her current doctoral program, but not in her principal-preparation program. She thinks that approach has been key to getting students to improve their writing before the pandemic interrupted schooling.

And there are also other key takeaways from Holdsworth participation that she’s infused into the school, including improving school climate, providing leadership opportunities for others, and coaching and mentoring staff.

Yes, we have to be strong instructional leaders. But we also have to know how to navigate teams and understand who they are. That goes across all contexts—whether it’s in education, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in other industries.

Several teachers have since left the campus to take district leadership roles. Four teaching assistants are working on their bachelor’s degrees to become teachers. “It’s a ripple effect,” she said.

Such intensive professional development can be expensive. Very few districts could afford such a long-term financial commitment if they had to foot the bill or spare several central office staff for four to five days every five weeks.

One challenge: keeping the momentum going forward

Cavazos thinks the district’s robust response during the COVID-19 pandemic was an outgrowth of the teamwork and collaboration the central office and school-level teams built over the years.

“Our school district was really well-prepared, without realizing what we were preparing for,” Cavazos said.

Now comes the tough part: keeping the momentum going after the five-year commitment from Holdsworth ends.

Cavazos is confident that many of the leadership lessons district and school leaders learned over the years are now embedded in the system.

The district plans to use some of the federal relief dollars that school systems received to blunt the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to continue investing in the leadership systems it built over the last few years.

The Dallas school system is one of the six districts to join the Holdsworth program this year, and Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent, is hoping that the initiative will help the district develop a robust pipeline of leaders, especially for its secondary schools, where the district struggles to fill vacancies.

Hinojosa is taking the chief of staff, the deputy superintendent, chief academic officer, and chief of school leadership—all of whom are intimately involved in the district’s long-term strategic vision—as part of the team.

“That’s very important to me,” Hinojosa said. “Those are the people we need right now to get us ready.”

Dallas already has initiatives to steer employees into leadership roles, including one that taps high-potential candidates, who spend half-days learning from a central office staffer. About 15 of the highest-performing principals also get additional support.

But those in the highest levels of district management also must also be open to the benefits of professional development and carve out the time to take advantage of it, Hinojosa said. He recalls once suggesting that a finance officer get additional training, and the response was that the individual was too busy.

“That’s the mindset that a lot of people have,” he said.

But those at the top should set a tone that they place a premium on continued professional growth and development, he said.

“You have to have someone who is committed as a leader to show the long-term benefit of this,” he said. “The longer the superintendent can stay in the chair, the better chance [you have] to put together a program like this.”

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as A Win-Win: Teaming Up Principals and Central Office for Professional Development


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