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importance of school leadership
Central Falls High School

When 93 teachers and staffers were fired from Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School in 2010, it fueled a nationwide debate over how failing schools might be resurrected.

But of all the school’s dismal statistics, and there were plenty to choose from – fewer than half of its students graduated within four years, and only seven percent of its juniors were proficient in math – issues of chronic instability loomed largest: In six years, it been led by nearly as many principals.

Of everything we’ve learned about the art and science of reforming a failing school in the past decade, school leadership is second only to teacher quality in terms of importance – and the more dire a school’s predicament, the greater the need for strong leadership. Because of this, the emphasis is now less on the lone dynamic teacher and more on the whole school environment.

“Indeed, there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader,” said Kenneth Leithwood, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies leadership.

While the topic of school reform is hardly a new one, we haven’t always looked to school leaders as harbingers of change.

Since 1983, when A Nation At Risk warned Americans that its public schools were failing at an alarming rate, reform has taken on many different forms, with some experiments yielding more success than others. At both the local and federal levels, however, our slow progress hasn’t been for a lack of ideas. Among them: stringent graduation requirements, national standards, new approaches to how reading and math are taught, smaller classes, smaller schools, greater accountability through increased testing, and a focus on recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers.

New thinking on leadership

More recently, research has emphasized the importance of school leadership in improving outcomes for a school and its students. But make no mistake: this is not the school leader as drill sergeant, or the charismatic leader whose skill-set is impossible to replicate. Instead, it is a school leader who is capable of transforming a school environment so that its students and teachers can flourish.

It is important to keep in mind that while school leadership is essential, consistent, strong leadership at the district level must not be overlooked. While principals create conditions that encourage great teaching, superintendents can create conditions that allow principals to become even better leaders.

In this way, superintendents can lay the groundwork for successful school leaders by setting a clear direction and tone, investing in professional development, setting up mentors for new principals, giving principals the authority to make key decisions and elevating the importance of academic achievement – sometimes even going so far as to making it a part of a principal’s evaluation. And while many states have adopted standards for principals, Delaware is leading the charge by working on statewide evaluation systems for its principals.

One significant shift from the previous way of doing things is that principals, particularly at the elementary school level, are expected to be instructional leaders – meaning they must be skilled at making all of their teachers better educators. And while the concept has been around for quite some time, it’s now a key element of the job description.

But how can one person have such a huge impact?

A 2009 study by New Leaders for New Schools found that more than half of a school’s impact on student gains can be attributed to both principal and teacher effectiveness – with principals accounting for 25 percent and teachers 33 percent of the effect.

The report noted that schools making significant progress are often led by a principal whose role has been radically re-imagined. Not only is the principal attuned to classroom learning, but he or she is also able to create a climate of hard work and success while managing the vital human-capital pipeline.

Getting from here to there isn’t about magic or one-size-fits-all solutions. According to Michael Fullan, author of Leading in a Culture of Change, leadership can take on many different forms in school turnarounds. While some leaders opt for transformational leadership or turning good organizations into great ones, other personalities are better suited for distributive leadership, or the sharing of responsibility among a few people such as an assistant principal or outstanding teacher.

Leaders who cope vs. leaders who transform

Leithwood has written that good leadership tends to follow three basic steps: first, setting a direction; second, developing people so that they can head in that direction; and, third, redesigning the institution around instruction. He says it’s less about leaders possessing a compelling shared vision and more about helping “people figure out the shorter-term goals on the way to achieving that vision and then set[ting] high expectations for people in accomplishing those.”

When it comes to school leadership, being willing to change is the name of the game – whether it’s restructuring the school day so teachers are able to observe teaching of the highest order, or allocating enough money in the budget so that instructional coaches can be hired. Persistence, open-mindedness and optimism are helpful qualities, especially when facing tough decisions that result from statewide spending constraints or contract negotiations.

Public Agenda, a public opinion research organization based in New York City, conducted focus groups with principals in high-need school districts, focusing specifically on how leaders respond to the challenges that inevitably arise. Whether it’s ensuring that buses run according to schedule or that loose-leaf paper is delivered on time, school leaders classified as “copers” versus “transformers” tackle problems in fundamentally different ways. Public Agenda found that transformers had an explicit vision for their school and did not get bogged down in the obstacles. The copers, on the other hand, became overwhelmed. Both types of leaders talked about the importance of instructional leadership. But the transformers actually did it, while copers merely talked about it. “The transformers knew teachers, knew kids, knew what they needed, and were on top of it,” Jean Johnson of Public Agenda said. “Copers,” she said, “never got to it. You’d hear the phrase, ‘I was headed to the classroom, and then something happened.’ ”

But the school leader as superhero isn’t a sustainable model – and copers can be taught to become transformative leaders. The focus is now on how to create conditions so that otherwise ordinary leaders might be trained to become extraordinary.

Preparing principals

importance of school leadership
Global Tech Prep Principal Chrystina Russel (Photo by Yuridia Peña/CSA)

Meanwhile, greater attention is being paid to the training of principals. A 2005 report by Arthur Levine, who at the time was president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, noted that leadership programs at many education schools lacked rigor and were of low quality.

New models have been introduced to educate and train the next generation of school leaders. The most successful programs, according to Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues, tend to have the following key characteristics:

  • A focus on instruction, organizational development and change management.
  • Curricular coherence that links goals, learning activities and assessments around a set of shared values, beliefs and knowledge about effective organizational practice.
  • Field-based internships that enable principals-in-training to apply leadership knowledge and skills under the guidance of an expert practitioner.
  • Mentoring or coaching that supports modeling, questioning, observations of practice and feedback.
  • Problem-based learning strategies—such as case methods and projects—that support reflection and link theory to practice.
  • A structure that enables collaboration, teamwork and mutual support among principals-in-training.
  • Collaboration between universities and school districts to create coherence between training and practice, as well as pipelines for recruitment, preparation, hiring and induction.
  • Vigorous recruitment of high-quality candidates with experience as expert, dynamic teachers and a commitment to instructional improvement.
  • Financial support that enables principals-in-training to complete an intensive program with a full-time internship.

Both the Wallace Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation have invested in principal-training programs, in addition to New Leaders for New Schools, a national organization that trains principals in different districts. Cities like New York (with its Aspiring Principals Program) are also joining the effort, while states such as Iowa and Louisiana have shuttered weak programs.

Finally, Race to the Top, last year’s federal competition for $3.4 billion in grants to support education reform, emphasized improving the training and evaluation of principals as much as it did the training and evaluation of teachers. Going forward, it’s tough to imagine a 21st-century school being resurrected by a lackluster school leader. Instead, we are learning about ways to equip more school leaders with better tools, a set of skills that can transform not only a whole school building but also our perception of what it means to be a principal in the first place.

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