School Choice & Charters

School Districts Need To Be More Strategic About School Leadership Roles

By Denisa R. Superville — January 14, 2016 5 min read
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In recent years, school districts have added more leadership staff—assistant principals, teacher-leaders, instructional coaches—to help support teachers in schools. What they have not done as much is think strategically about how best to deploy those new individuals in schools to achieve maximum impact.

That’s according to the management company Bain & Company, which released a report Wednesday, “Transforming Schools: How Distributed Leadership Can Create More High-Performing Schools,” on how districts can implement distributed leadership models to improve teaching and learning in schools. The publication is a follow-up of sorts to the company’s report two years ago on grooming high-quality school leaders.

The firm is hoping that the report will raise awareness about the importance of not just developing talent, but also about how to deploy that talent effectively in school buildings. It is also hoping to drive home the point to districts that this is something they need to think about and plan for.

“All too often we’ve added the titles, but we haven’t really effectively changed the dynamic,” said Chris Bierly, the global head of K-12 education practice at Bain & Company. “And what you’re left with is a principal who would tell you they are personally responsible for roughly 40 direct reports. ... That doesn’t really work.”

Education is unique in that it does not consistently think about what kind of organizational or leadership model is best for the schools, he said.

“I can’t stress how important it is to get that right,” Bierly said.

The report puts forward five key principles of distributed leadership to help districts get started:

  • Pick a leadership model
  • Create and strengthen leadership capacity
  • Focus leaders on improving instruction
  • Create teams with a shared mission
  • Empower leaders with time and authority to lead

Deciding on a distributive leadership model does not require additional resources, he said. But it does require that districts make a decision to be more intentional and thoughtful about how to spend money on those positions. Districts must think about the leadership roles that are important to them (whether assistant principals, teacher-leaders, etc.), how they will structure those roles, and the systems and processes they would put in place to ensure the leaders are effective.

More Roles, Few ‘Leaders’

The company looked at 12 school systems nationwide and surveyed more than 4,200 teachers, assistant principals, and principals. From the surveys, the researchers found that the average principal was responsible for reviewing the performance and development of 37 teachers plus other non-instructional staff. That far outstripped the five people that an average manager in accounting or human resources is tasked with overseeing, according to the report. The result is overworked principals and assistant principals who are not able to provide effective feedback or observations to their teachers.

And the surveys also showed that even in the districts that have added instructional coaches and teacher-leaders, those individuals say they do not feel responsible for the progress of students taught by the teachers that they led. The majority said that the bulk of their duties included facilitating meetings and passing on information from supervisors to teachers.

Most Felt ‘Not Responsible’

Only 22 percent of the teacher-leaders surveyed said they felt responsible for the performance of the teachers they led, and only 32 percent said they felt responsible for the performance of the students taught by the teachers they led. About two-thirds said they were not given the time or resources to lead teams effectively.

While the teachers reported that instructional coaches had been helpful in observing, coaching, and providing feedback, coaches were also not filling the leadership void, the report found, as “they lack the mandate and authority” to do so.

If teachers are left to sink or swim on their own, the results can be harmful for schools. Only 27 percent of teachers in one of the surveys said they would recommend their school to other teachers as a good place to work.

What stops districts from moving in the direction recommended by Bain & Company?

Lack of awareness, for one thing.

“It probably starts with a lack of appreciation of how important it is to not just develop talent, but deploy them in the best possible way,” Bierly said. The second factor is the false comfort the districts have taken in simply adding more leadership roles without really focusing on empowering the leaders they are adding to the buildings.

Distributed Leadership in Denver

The report cites Denver as an example of a district that has embraced the principles of distributed leadership. Denver uses a system of “team leads” and teacher leaders, with clear definitions of the leaders’ responsibilities, compensation structures, and expectations. Schools had the flexibility to tinker with the model to fit their individual needs, including deciding on the amount of release time that teacher-leaders get to work with other teachers. Team leads, for example, get 50 percent of leave time from the classroom to work closely with other teachers.

The pilot started in 14 of Denver’s 185 schools and has now expanded to more than 70, Bierly said. The feedback from teachers in the Denver schools that have implemented the distributed leadership model has been extremely positive, Bierly said.

Eighty-nine percent of teachers in the schools said their teaching practice had improved, and 85 percent said their ‘team lead’ was successful at evaluating their practice and coaching them to improve, according to Bierly. And 84 percent said they were happy that the school moved to a distributed leadership model, Bierly said.

The Net Promoter Score (a measure of customer loyalty) for Denver teachers in the pilot schools was 47 points higher than the score for other teachers surveyed in the report. That’s huge, Bierly said. And while it is too early to grasp the ultimate impact on student achievement, teachers are embracing the changes, he said.

When teachers are saying, “ ‘it is helping me with my practice in very significant ways,’ and ‘I am so glad we went to this model,’ and ‘I would recommend working in my school to a fellow teacher’ at levels that you just don’t see in education—those are all really good signs,” he said.

The report also explores other efforts in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina; charter management organizations such as KIPP and Green Dot public schools in California; and the District of Columbia public schools.

“On the one hand, I can’t tell you exactly how much student achievement will improve from it, but I can tell you that this is the best chance I think we have to solve one of the most persistent problems in education—which is low teacher morale and negative feelings about working in the school buildings in which they work...”

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