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District administrators
Ron Smith (left), a middle school network superintendent in Oakland, speaks to Jaime Aquino of New Leaders during a “learning walk” at a local middle school. Credit: Jackie Mader

OAKLAND, Calif. — It was almost the end of first period at Bret Harte Middle School when the five superintendents descended on math class. Dressed in suits and armed with pens, notebooks, and laptops, the superintendents had one specific goal as they fanned out across the classroom, interacting with students: to look for evidence that a geometry lesson was aligned to the new state math standards.

“You’re all working together?” one superintendent asked a group.

“This was the warm up?” asked another.

“What’s the learning objective today?” inquired a third.

They examined work and eavesdropped on kids, then filed out to huddle in an empty hallway, where it was their turn to answer some questions.

“Alright. What were kids learning?” asked Jaime Aquino, chief program officer for the nonprofit New Leaders, who directed the conversation, as the administrators began poring through their notes.

“My group told me they were ‘flipping shapes around and seeing what we get,’” one superintendent responded.

“They got the concept,” said another. “But they didn’t really have the technical language to express it.”

It’s rare for school district big wigs to spend time in a classroom. But Oakland is one of a growing number of districts trying to reconnect top administrators to the kids they serve as a way to help the critical middleman in education: the school principal.

By observing lessons and spending more time with students, administrators may be better informed about challenges in schools, and better equipped to support principals.

The job of a principal has changed dramatically in the last decade, and principals are feeling the stress. In the past, principals’ chief responsibility was to oversee the day-to-day operations of a school, including budgets and discipline. Today, principals are increasingly being dragged away from their administrative tasks and into classrooms, where they are asked to evaluate teacher performance and help teachers improve.

“It’s not as if the principal had particular tasks taken away from their role,” said Ellen Goldring, professor of education policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University. “These new tasks were added. So a fundamental question is how can principals do everything they were doing before and at the same time just merely have time to observe and meet … with teachers?”

75 percent of principals think their job has become “too complex,” according to a 2012 survey

A 2012 survey found 75 percent of principals think their job has become “too complex.” Between 2008 and 2012, the same survey found job satisfaction among principals decreased nine percentage points, from 68 percent to 59 percent.

Half of all principals quit during their third year, and districts nationwide are trying to figure out how to better support principals and improve their effectiveness. One idea that’s gaining traction is helping the people at the very top — at the district level — do a better job of helping those working in the trenches. So, in districts like Oakland and Los Angeles, consultants have been brought in to train superintendents or other district administrators in the hope that training will trickle down to improve principals, teachers, and ultimately, students.

A strong principal is one of the most influential in-school factors in increasing student achievement, research shows, especially in low-achieving or high-poverty schools. Principals can also be critical in retaining effective teachers: one study found that teacher turnover rates increased when there was a change in principals.

Related: Young and inexperienced, a new principal tries to turn around a New Orleans charter school

These findings have prompted the rollout of various principal support programs across the country. For some districts, the support program involves assigning a school staff member to work with a principal to help that principal improve time management skills. For others, it involves sending in coaches from outside organizations to work directly with principals for a year — or two.

District administrators
A group of secondary network superintendents debrief after a visit to a classroom at a middle school in Oakland. Credit: Jackie Mader

As the programs gained popularity, researchers at the University of Washington realized the work of these “principal supervisors” needed to be defined and evaluated. In 2015, the University of Washington’s District Leadership Design Lab helped developed the nation’s first research-based standards for principal supervisors. Meredith Honig, director of the lab, said they encourage districts to “tweak [the standards] and make them your own.”

In Oakland, the district is focusing on training those who directly supervise principals with the help of New Leaders, which has worked with Oakland Unified all year. District officials say training and development for those in high-level roles have traditionally been neglected. The visit to the middle school, known as a “learning walk,” is a main feature of the training Oakland’s superintendents receive, and represents a level of guidance and support that has never before been offered to high-level administrators in this northern California district.

“There has to be a focus on helping these folks get better,” said Allen Smith, chief of schools for the Oakland Unified School District, referring to his district’s superintendents, many of whom are former principals. “Not just saying, ‘Because they were really good principals, they should be able to lead.’ That doesn’t equate to results. So [we’re] really taking the time to invest in their professional development.”

Training the trainers

In a conference room on the sixth floor of a downtown Oakland office building, the superintendents met for their afternoon debrief session. Secondary school superintendents joined their counterparts from the elementary school level to compare notes across schools, hoping to identify common problems and patterns.

”There has to be a focus on helping these folks get better.”

Before the group settled down to business, New Leaders’ Aquino pulled up a video, which showed 16 people dressed in black and white passing a ball to each other. After the video, he asked people what they noticed.

“A red ball.”

“They were on a stage.”

“Did anybody see the gorilla?” Aquino asked. The superintendents looked at each other, puzzled.

He replayed the video. The superintendents laughed as they realized that, at one point during the video, someone in a gorilla suit walked across the screen.

“Why do you think I’m showing you this, in the context of the learning walk?” Aquino asked.

“If you’re focused on something specific when you’re walking in, you may miss the other things going on that are maybe more important, that you need to address,” a superintendent responded.

Aquino nodded. “Be careful of making assumptions because you might be missing important pieces of data.”

For the next few hours, Aquino, mirroring practices good teachers often use to lead lessons, shepherded the superintendents through a series of exercises.

First, they did “pair shares,” teaming up with a partner to talk about the biggest problems they’d seen. Then, with the larger group, they discussed problems they identified from their classroom visit: kids weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing during an activity, there was little discussion among students, and the lessons were too general or didn’t reflect the academic standards. Finally, they went back to their partners to make a critical decision: How would they guide the principal to help fix the problems they’d witnessed?

On one side of the room, Ron Smith, a middle school network superintendent, quizzed Kyla Trammell, an elementary network superintendent.

“What would be the first thing you tell the principal?” Smith asked.

Trammell thought for a moment and responded as if she was talking to one of her principals. “Based on what you observed in these two classrooms, if you went and asked kids what they learned in the end of the lesson, would they be able to tell you?” Trammell asked.

Smith nodded.

“If [the principal] says, ‘Oh yeah, [the kids] were totally engaged,’ then I would be asking probing questions. If [the principal] didn’t get it, then I would say, ‘Well this is what I saw, and let’s talk through next steps,’” she continued.

Related: Why do more than half of principals quit after five years?

Even as the demands on principals have grown, including new academic standards and teacher evaluation systems, principal preparation programs have been slow to evolve, said Vanderbilt’s Ellen Goldring. “Part of the challenge is the university programs that prepare principals simultaneously need to change,” she added. “So when principals are entering the field, they are more prepared for these challenges.”

Between 2008 and 2012, job satisfaction among principals decreased nine percentage points, from 68 percent to 59 percent.

A lack of principal preparation is one of the key reasons districts are stepping in. The amount of training that new principals receive before tackling the job can vary significantly. During the 2011-12 school year, only about 21 percent of school districts had a training program for aspiring principals. Other districts relied on alternative certification programs, often run by nonprofits, or graduate school programs to train new principals.

“Every district is going to be different. Sometimes you just become a principal, they hire you, you’re given an orientation and off you go,” said Ellen Moir, founder of the New Teacher Center, which runs principal support programs across the country. But an “off-you-go” approach won’t necessarily get the results districts need, Moir added. “Like teacher development, you need to have a very focused approach [in training] … that’s going to set the principal up for the greatest success.”

The tricky part is finding time to continue training for principals once they’re on the job. A federal survey of principals during the 2007-08 school year found the majority of public school principals were spending 60 hours a week or more on school-related activities. A 2008 survey of principals by the NAESP found that less than 2 percent of principals described “continued learning” as one of their job priorities. The survey found principals “are frequently left to lead and learn in isolation” as early as their second or third year on the job.

But providing support for principals can be essential to improving schools, experts say. A 2013 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that principals who receive professional development are more likely to remain at their school and continue working as principals than their peers.

The Oakland Unified District is known for both its innovative approaches to learning and its academic struggles. The district of more than 49,000 serves a diverse student body and has a graduation rate of 60 percent, 20 percentage points lower than the national average. Although some reading and math scores have increased in recent years, the overall scores are still low. During the 2014-15 school year, only 31 percent of sixth graders were reading at or above grade level.

“Part of the challenge is the university programs that prepare principals simultaneously need to change.”

Oakland chief Allen Smith said officials have realized how difficult the job of a principal is, as well as how much impact a principal can have on improving teaching and — ultimately — schools. That’s what first led Oakland Unified to look at the role of principal supervisors and to partner with New Leaders, which jumped into this burgeoning market in 2013. So far, the nonprofit has worked with 10 districts to develop principal supervisors, including Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Aquino, from New Leaders, said the goal of the training is to make sure all administrators have the same “vision” for excellent teaching and leadership. He spends a day with superintendents visiting schools and then meets with them afterwards, with the hope that they will arrive at a consensus on a tough question: “What were the patterns that we saw in the classroom and how would you coach the principal in terms of what is the next focus for this school, based on the evidence that we saw?”

As he told the superintendents during the school-visit debrief, “You have a responsibility to helping turn the shift in that school.”

Sometimes, he added, “You have to be direct.”

Chief of Schools Smith says the district’s superintendents didn’t initially welcome the training with open arms. “There was a little pushback,” Smith said. “‘Why do we have to do this? This is going to take a large chunk of our time. We could be in a school.’ And now, they look forward to it.”

Related: How an unconventional principal used blended learning to help turn around a struggling urban school

In order to provide principals the kind of support they need, experts say, supervisors need to learn how to give feedback to principals and be effective coaches. Ellen Moir from the New Teacher Center said some factors can make a big difference in the quality of principal support, such as the number of principals that a given administrator is supporting.

In Oakland, the caseload varies by superintendent, with most superintendents supporting seven principals, according to Aquino.

Goldring, from Vanderbilt, said that as more districts provide coaching of some kind to principals, it’s often hard to determine whether the additional support is effective. “It’s very variable depending on the quality of the coaching and the extent to which there’s a good fit between what the principal needs, and what the coach or the program of intervention is doing,” Goldring said.

She added that hiring the right people as coaches and providing sufficient training to those coaches is an important aspect of successfully supporting principals.

So far, officials in Oakland say the additional support is having an impact. “Principals are feeling more supported,” Allen Smith said. “[They] are reporting back on surveys that they’re happier.”

Aubrey Layne,* a middle school principal in east Oakland, said that having opportunities to brainstorm with Ron Smith — the superintendent with whom he works — has made a huge difference. Layne’s schedule is jam-packed: He can list more than 30 things he’s responsible for on any given day, from finding healthy snacks for hungry students to dealing with attendance issues and reviewing academic data. So he was especially grateful for Smith’s help walking through the complexities of the district’s new teacher evaluation system. “That process was really beneficial,” Layne said. “I can lean on him in terms of getting advice.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Aubrey Layne’s last name.

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