Have you ever reviewed a job description and were left wondering what the role would actually do? Official job descriptions are usually jargon-filled documents that don’t clearly communicate what the role is and what the role is not. This can be problematic, especially when launching a new role that will take on the responsibilities that are currently being performed by others.
This was the dilemma facing Omaha Public Schools in the summer of 2014 when they launched four new principal supervisor positions – Executive Directors of School Support and Supervision. The new positions were a centerpiece of Superintendent Mark Evans’ plans to provide a system of support to the 87 principals in OPS. These new roles needed to be clearly defined for the new Executive Directors themselves, the principals they would be leading, and the central office leaders whose roles would necessarily change.
Omaha Public Schools approached this challenge by asking three simple questions:
• Why do we have Executive Directors?
• What are the roles we expect our Executive Directors to play?
• What are not the roles we expect our Executive Directors to play?
The Executive Directors were the first to grapple with these questions during their summer induction program, facilitated by Cross & Joftus. The exercise caused the Executive Directors to deeply explore their new role and begin to clarify what it would look like in practice. The superintendent participated in this exercise along with the Executive Directors to ensure his vision was accurately reflected.
The draft role definition was next shared with the superintendent’s cabinet members to elicit their feedback and to help clarify the new roles for the cabinet members. This was critical since many of the roles identified for Executive Directors were previously the responsibility of other Executive Council members, such as the chief academic officer or human resources director. The superintendent hoped to eliminate any confusion over who was responsible for what. This process ended up comprising multiple conversations at the cabinet’s table over a period of many weeks. The simplicity and clarity of the format helped the district leadership process their changing roles given the new Executive Director positions.
During the same time frame, principals were engaged in reviewing the draft role definition, giving feedback, and helping to clarify their new supervisor’s role. This process involved multiple meetings of principals in small groups as well as all principals together. Principals were understandably concerned about this new role as these new positions were going to be right above them on the org chart. Principals wanted to make sure this role was truly about support and not adding an administrative layer in the system, making their work more difficult.
Once the engagement process was complete, the district published their Executive Director Role Definition. This one-page document clearly articulated what the new role was and was not. This simple and clear role definition become the guidepost for the executive directors as they implemented their new roles. Besides regularly discussing and self-reflecting on how they were doing against the role definition, they also surveyed the superintendent’s cabinet members and principals, asking if they were hitting the mark on each of the identified roles. This feedback was invaluable to the Executive Directors and the district leadership as they worked to refine their practice to align with the role envisioned.
As the role of the Executive Director of School Support and Supervision in Omaha Public Schools continues to evolve, the district will make any needed adjustments to the role definition. However, one thing is clear: The resulting adjustments will be communicated in a simple, clear, and concise manner. No one will be left wondering what Executive Directors “are” and what they “are not.”
Provide great tools, partnership and training, and then get out of their way.
When the Madison Metropolitan School District began an effort to overhaul teacher recruitment, screening and hiring, they had their work cut out for them. An internal assessment of the district’s human capital management practices by an advisory group determined that significant changes were needed to support the district’s goal of building a thriving workforce. When Cross & Joftus partnered with the district in 2013, our initial assessment confirmed and identified a number of issues that were working against the district’s goals:
- In a survey of principals, 96% overwhelmingly stated that they were not able to select from a diverse pool of teachers to meet the needs of their students.
- Two-thirds of principals felt that they did not have sufficient time to hire new staff before the start of the school year.
- Two-thirds of principals felt that central office pre-screening did not help select teachers with the skills needed to drive student achievement.
- Most external offers were made in August and September, costing the district great candidates who were hired by neighboring districts earlier in the year.
Over the last school year, C&J had the honor of supporting Madison as the district worked to rethink teacher recruiting, screening and selection. Now in its first hiring cycle under a newly created process, the district is already a full month ahead of schedule in hiring for the 2015-2016 school year. Principals report that they have the tools and support they need and that they are getting candidates that are better suited to meet the needs of their students. As one principal shared, “We’re now spending our time… finding and hiring the best candidate[s] instead of defending our decision not to hire less qualified candidates.” Teachers report that they are participating in a process that allows them to represent their best skills.
So how did Madison do it?
The district began by listening to principals and teachers. Principals and teachers raised critical issues with internal transfer and surplus processes that slowed down hiring. Madison gathered principals’ input on the surplus process and streamlined the internal transfer process, shifting from a seniority-based system to a more performance-based system. Principals and teachers now have the opportunity to interview before a final surplus decision is made.
Stakeholders then identified what skills mattered most for Madison teachers. For Madison principals and teachers, eight competencies were found to be critical for new hires, including the need for high expectations for every student, quality instructional practice and cultural competence. District leaders realized that it was important for teachers to be willing to address matters of race, language acquisition and unique student learning needs, and to value and welcome student home culture and language as assets for teaching and learning.
TEACH Madison was launched to attract a diverse pool of teachers to the district. The HR team also engaged diverse leaders and staff in schools to support recruitment and serve as points of contact for high-potential candidates.
HR completed Customer Needs Assessments with every school principal early in the hiring season. Principals were able to sit down with their HR Analysts to share their anticipated openings and staffing needs well before the hiring season began. This allowed HR to forecast trends in openings and adjust recruitment plans based on the needs of schools.
HR provided an initial screen and built a customized slate of candidates specifically tailored to the needs of each school. Initial feedback from principals has been overwhelmingly positive that candidates are a much better fit for their individual school needs.
We created a hiring toolkit and screening tools for principals to use to screen candidates using the specific Madison context, needs and competencies as the foundation for performance-based screening. These tools included:
- Interview question banks
- An observed lesson plan activity
- A data review and analysis activity
- A school walkthrough activity
Principals have the flexibility to use the tools in the way that works best for their unique context, engaging other teachers, community members and even students as part of the interview process. Tools have been designed to enable schools to apply their unique context within each activity, so the same interview will feel different in each school but maintains the integrity of a rigorous and competency-driven interview.
Technology has been updated to allow principals to access rich candidate information, including structured competency-based references and interview summaries from other principals so that principals don’t have to recreate interviews if another school has already interviewed and recommended a candidate.
By shifting the role of HR to be true thought partners, and by providing principals with best-practice screening tools, Madison was able to substantially improve principals’ abilities to fill teaching positions with the most qualified candidates that fit their students’ needs. In the process, the district eliminated time-intensive processes that did not support these goals and greatly reduced the time it takes to fill an open position.
Madison has made significant strides in this work, and we believe the district is well on its way to serving as a national model for school-based screening and selection. We look forward to following their continued progress in this great work and to watching Madison’s students flourish as they benefit from a strong cohort of incoming teachers next school year.
Why is it so hard to create a high-functioning HR team? We all want Human Resource functions that enable school systems to have the best and brightest in every role, but often times the challenge starts with the basics. The nuts and bolts operations of HR may not be the sexiest work, but if it isn’t functioning well, HR can get stuck in a cycle of reactionary firefighting that rarely moves to the strategic recruitment, development, and retention that every school system needs. I wanted to pay homage to this important work and share my own experience in this space.
In 2005, I became head of a newly minted Employee Services team in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that brought together all the transactional work of HR – data entry for new hires, salary changes, retirement processing, benefits enrollment, etc. Essentially anything that happened during an employee’s time at CPS came through our office. We had 65 staff members at the time to support 44,000+ employees.
Our team embarked on an effort to transform the way we provided service to employees every day. Our data was staggering: 12 weeks to turn around a leave application, a 45% call answer rate, and a reputation among principals and teachers of unfriendly and unhelpful service delivery.
At the start of the effort, I thought the primary issues might be the people and the technology. Perhaps with a different staff and an updated HR data system we would improve. But as I observed the staff doing their work, I realized that our issues were not the people or the outdated technology. In fact, most of our issues came down to the way our work was organized and distributed, and a host of outdated and dysfunctional processes that slowed us down.
It wasn’t easy, but after one intense year and with the help of an amazing leadership team and staff, we found ourselves in a very different place. Most of our transactions took 24 to 48 hours to complete, our call answer rates were above 95%, and our first call resolution was north of 75% as well. And that was accomplished with the same staff prior to the implementation of a new PeopleSoft HR system.
So how did we make a dent in the work?
We started by connecting our work to the most important work of the schools: we served our children by serving our employees well. We set clear performance expectations with three “Success Factors” for our work: 1) Impeccable Customer Service, 2) Accuracy and Efficiency, and 3) Cohesive Teamwork. Each success factor had performance measures and we watched them closely, troubleshooting and problem solving over the course of a year to fix dysfunctional processes and bottlenecks that stopped us from reaching our goals. We also created a weekly meeting with our key partners in Payroll, IT, and Budget to work through any communication challenges our teams were encountering.
Next, we studied our work. We painstakingly tracked our transactions and measured our work. We came to identify every single transaction we processed in Employee Services, analyzed how many staff members touched each one, and analyzed how long each transaction took to complete.
We identified the bottlenecks in our system. At the time, many of our transactions were handled by only one staff member. This meant that our specialists were also the only people who could answer any question, phone call, or unexpected walk-in. And if our specialists should have the misfortune of falling ill, their work would sit on their desk until they returned.
As an example, one process we examined was 12 weeks behind. When we looked closer, we realized that the transaction only took 15 minutes of hands-on time, but the volume of work peaked twice a year. By the time our competent staff member cleared the first set of transactions, the next peak was upon her. She was persistently backlogged.
Following in the footsteps of the private sector and the New York City Department of Education, we set up a call center to handle all calls and walk-ins coming into the office with the training and systems access needed to resolve nearly 80% of the incoming calls. This move alone eliminated a significant number of the interruptions that our transaction processors were experiencing.
We then cross-trained our team. The days of one specialist handling a single HR transaction were over. With a cross-trained team of 3 to 5 people for any single transaction, we could allocate staff as needed to stay ahead of our now forecasted transaction volumes. In breaking down the silos and reviewing our transactions, we were able to take a more “customer-centric” as opposed to “work-centric” approach. A new mom could then add her child to benefits at the same time she was reinstating from her maternity leave. Or a new hire could sign up for direct deposit, learn about health insurance, and know their salary all in one sitting. A first for CPS.
Finally, we continued to monitor our work. Our leadership team met every week to look at all of our success measures. When transactions were delayed, we would troubleshoot until we solved process-flow issues. As our turnaround times decreased, complaints decreased, and so did our call volumes. Eventually we were able to plan months ahead instead of days ahead, preparing for the predictable events of the year and staying ahead of our work volumes.
I once heard Mike Feinberg from KIPP say, “Operations should be like the air that you breathe, absolutely critical for your survival, but you never have to think about it.” That notion still resonates with me profoundly. If the HR operations work is seamless, in truth it should be invisible to the system. When teachers don’t have to worry about whether their paycheck is accurate then they can focus on what really matters, instruction in the classroom. And consequently, when HR operations are functioning well, the district frees up capacity to work on the strategic HR efforts that attract, support, and develop a great staff for each school.
How does a district support principals in reaching their goals?
Everyone talks about the importance of principal goal setting and surely the federal, state, and district bureaucratic requirements are chock full of expectations that principals set goals for improvement. But, how does one ensure these goals are the right goals and that the district is set up to support the principal in reaching their goals?
The principal supervisor may help answer this question. Districts have been shifting the principal supervisor position from supervision and monitoring to a focus on developing principal capacity. A natural role for the principal supervisor to play is supporting the principal in identifying the right high-leverage goals and then successfully reaching those goals.
The next challenge is building the capacity of the principal supervisors to provide this support. To accomplish this, some districts are developing principal supervisor competencies. While this is an important step, there also needs to be an effort to align the goals of the principal supervisor with the goals of the principal as depicted in the following graphic.
Principal leadership development goals should be explicitly intended to impact student learning, with principal supervisor development goals directly aligned to supporting principal goal achievement. For example, let’s say a principal believes that building and empowering teacher teams is a critical action he/she needs to take in order to improve student learning and therefore sets a goal in this area. The principal supervisor needs to ask, “How can I more effectively support this principal in this area?” It may be that the principal supervisor selects an obviously aligned goal such as developing her own capacity as a team builder. Or, it may be that in order for the principal supervisor to be successful with this principal, she needs to expand her own coaching skills and learn how to ask the right coaching questions. Either way, the principal supervisor goal is aligned to the outcome of improved student learning.
Hillsborough County Public Schools has been a national leader in the work of developing school leader competencies for its aspiring and sitting principals. The district is continuing to be a national leader as one of the first districts in the country to have developed competencies for their principal supervisors (called Area Leadership Directors). These competencies define what effective Area Leadership Directors need to know and be able to do. Cross & Joftus has supported the district’s efforts to develop both the school leader and principal supervisor competencies and continues to support the district’s efforts to operationalize these new Area Leadership Director competencies.
This fall, the Area Leadership Directors will set competency-based goals aligned to the goals their principals have set. The expectation is that aligning the goals of the principal supervisor with those of the principals will result in a strong system of support for the principals in Hillsborough County and will ultimately result in improved learning for the students they serve. Because at the end of the day, the impact of the investment in principal supervisors will be judged by only one thing: Did the investment improve student learning?
(Photo of Hillsborough County Public Schools Area Leadership Director (ALD) Owen Young at July 2014 ALD Institute where participants developed their leadership skills to better support principals.)
We know that having access to a great teacher really matters for student achievement and in any school system, it is the principal who is best positioned to ensure that each and every student gets to have a great teacher every year. So when school systems are working to boost the capacity of their workforce, it’s no surprise that they quickly turn their attention to the leader at the helm of each school.
The work to understand what it takes to be an effective principal in any system is not being taken lightly. Across several states and districts, we’ve seen firsthand how important it is to understand what school leaders must be able to know and do from day one on the job.
A growing number of districts are jump-starting this work by identifying competencies needed for the principalship. Developing leader competencies can play a central role towards boosting principal quality. Competencies support effective principals by:
- Clarifying what is most essential for the principal to know and do well
- Laying the foundation for all recruitment, screening, selection, placement, development and support of principals
- Creating transparency among school leaders about both what is expected of them, and what skills aspiring leaders need to develop before pursuing a principalship
- Informing system-level decisions about how to align the right supports to enable principals to successfully lead their schools
Designing a competency framework can be tricky work, so here I offer some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
- Principals and those who supervise them must be closely engaged in defining their most critical and essential work
- Leaders who supervise principals must play a leading role in developing the competency framework
- Competency development requires multiple iterations, and a flexibility to continue to update the competencies
- Through application of the competencies to principal recruitment, screening, selection, evaluation and development, leaders will gain a working knowledge of the competencies leading to ongoing refinement
We have seen interesting practices in our work to support principal quality efforts. Madison Metropolitan School District engaged a Principal Advisory Group to develop AP competencies, using the newly developed principal competency framework as the foundation. Hillsborough County Public Schools identified how competencies develop at each point in the principal pipeline, from teacher leader, to aspiring AP, to sitting AP, to sitting principal. The district then aligned all preparation development to support the expected progression throughout the career pathway. Lastly, the Community Superintendents in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools personally screened each candidate through the first revised principal screening process, and then worked together to further refine the competency rubric and interviewing process based on what they learned when interviewing principal candidates.
For those interested in reading more about this topic, here are two good resources from the Wallace Foundation:
“In the business world, everyone hates performance reviews and no one does them well,” concluded Brian Kropp, managing director of HR at CEB, on NPR’s Diane Rehm show. Kropp appeared with Donna Morris, senior vice president at Adobe, who agreed with his sentiment and added that Adobe—with 12,000 employees—was ending traditional performance reviews because employees and supervisors “despised” them.
As it is in business, so it is in education, where long-running criticism of ineffective teacher evaluations has culminated in a movement to revamp them. However, rethinking the way teachers are evaluated and receive feedback has proved to be more difficult than originally anticipated. As TNTP pointed out in their recent whitepaper, “Fixing Classroom Observations,” even in newly implemented evaluation systems, principals and others struggle to provide teachers actionable feedback, and new evaluations may not be aligned to the Common Core standards.
This past year we had the opportunity to support principals in Hillsborough County Public Schools and Syracuse City School District as they worked to better leverage teacher evaluation data to improve teacher practice. Principals in both districts developed new strategies to utilize the rich information produced by their evaluations to plan teacher-specific development across their schools.
That said, there are several promising new approaches to teacher evaluation, such as using multiple metrics, including student performance, to measure teacher performance; incorporating feedback from students, teachers, and peers in the evaluations; and maximizing principals’ time in classrooms to yield more frequent and less formal feedback conversations.
One tactic we’ve developed is similar to the one proposed by Adobe, replacing traditional performance reviews with short-cycle feedback loops. In this model, we propose that principals use trends identified in their evaluation results to identify two or three high-impact instructional strategies for all teachers to prioritize over the course of the school year.
Once teachers and principals have been trained on the use of the selected strategies, school teams could conduct “instructional rounds” in which they observe classrooms and measure adoption of the instructional strategies, provide immediate feedback to teachers, and adjust coaching and professional development accordingly. If the school teams include teachers in the school who have shown strengths in the priority areas, principals can leverage those teachers’ skills and reinforce efforts to build leadership in the school.
District administrators could bring principals together regularly to discuss the instructional round data, asking questions about barriers to implementation of the instructional strategies, highlighting schools that are “moving the needle,” and encouraging cross-school collaboration.
When we implemented a similar approach in some of the districts participating in the Kansas Learning Network, teachers and administrators agreed that instructional practices in those districts improved and student achievement increased. For example, in Haysville, between 2009 and 2012, student proficiency increased in reading from 81.5% to 91.3% and in math from 76.6% to 88.7%.
The use of a collaborative-development strategy informed by teacher-evaluation data has the potential to pay big dividends for schools. With successful implementation, feedback for teachers and principals will be more meaningful and impactful, schools and districts will be able to focus primarily on instruction and continuous improvement, and the quality of instruction will greatly improve, resulting in significantly improved outcomes for students. Further, to the pleasure of teachers and principals alike, teacher evaluations will become something to look forward to and value as a critical piece in one’s career development.
Last week I had breakfast with Ann Clark, Deputy Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and she shared an idea that profoundly resonated with me. Ann had recently read The One Thing by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan, and she shared with me the book’s premise that if you can focus on your one most important thing, you will achieve extraordinary results.
That got me thinking, “what is my one thing?” In a moment of clarity the words came right into my mind: enabling effective leaders. I saw that theme emerge in every role I held, from my start in philanthropy at the Tiger Foundation supporting nonprofit leaders working to break the cycle of poverty; to my role as Executive Director of Management Leadership for Tomorrow where we mentored promising MBA candidates to become future leaders in the private and public sectors; to Chicago Public Schools where I worked in HR to cultivate talent throughout the district. Now, as a consultant, I am dedicated to helping districts create strategies to effectively empower and equip their own leaders.
Just in time to put my insight into action, I had the honor of facilitating a meeting with the 2012-14 cohort of The Broad Residency in Urban Education. Assigned to teams of eight, the Residents took on the roles of new district leadership teams charged with identifying two improvement strategies for their fictional districts. As the exercise progressed, the Residents struggled to narrow their strategies to focus on only two key areas, and then discussed what made these decisions difficult. They weighed how stakeholders would relate to their top priorities, debated whether more analysis was necessary before acting on certain issues, and considered the organizational obstacles in their ultimate proposals.
In just three hours, the Residents experienced the kinds of decisions urban district leaders face every day. For many districts the one goal is clear: prepare students for the college and career of their choice. But the reality is that district leadership teams face complicated constraints and competing priorities that compel them to focus on multiple, sometimes conflicting strategies at the same time. At Cross & Joftus, we find that district teams are best able to achieve results for students when they can map their one goal for students to just a few core strategies that the entire district understands and can rally around. One of our favorite examples is Omaha Public Schools, where every person we met clearly conveyed the district’s strategic focus on its Instructional Framework, and where school staff reported experiencing incredible support, professional development and collaboration as the district implemented the framework. We believe maintaining a laser focus on one non-negotiable goal and then aligning all district supports to that one goal will make a tremendous difference in Omaha.
So I leave you with a question, what is your one thing? And what is the one strategy you must get right this year to reach your goal?
What’s in a name? More than you might think. In one district, the individual responsible for supervising principals is an Executive Director, in another a Chief School Officer, in another a Learning Community Superintendent. Wrapped up in a multitude of titles are countless roles, responsibilities, and expectations for an individual who sits at the center of reform efforts in a school district. With limited time and resources, what should be the primary role of the principal supervisor?
In many districts, this role has historically been relied upon to manage school operations, handle school crises, resolve parent issues, and ensure schools are in compliance. In other words, success in this role is often viewed as ‘keeping the wheels on’ at the school level, keeping issues off the superintendent’s plate, and staying out of newspaper headlines.
A recent report released in October by The Wallace Foundation and the Council of Great City Schools, Rethinking Leadership: The Changing Role of Principal Supervisors, provides a detailed look at this role. The report found that many principal supervisors have extensive administrative oversight responsibilities with little room remaining for managing talent and developing the capacity of the principals they supervise.
Many districts have made significant investments in the principal pipeline, identifying and developing high-quality principal candidates who will ultimately transition into the school-leadership role. To maximize this investment, districts are now turning their attention to the systems of support and development for sitting principals. At the center of this effort is the principal supervisor.
Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) in Tampa, Florida is doing cutting-edge work in this area. After implementing a nationally recognized principal-pipeline system of identifying, recruiting, developing, and selecting school leaders, the district ramped up the support and development of its principal supervisors.
To set the stage for a change in this role and to emphasize the leadership development responsibility of the position, the district changed the name from Area Director to Area Leadership Director (ALD). ALDs then participated in a summer institute, facilitated by C&J, to begin framing and supporting the ALD role as talent developers, rather than administrative managers. The ALDs used the HCPS School Leader Standards and Competencies as a guide to discuss the developmental needs of their principals. They then made plans to provide differentiated support and coaching for each of the principals they supervised with the end goal of an effective principal in every school.
As the country begins to pay more attention to the principal supervisor and the critical role they play in ensuring schools are led by high-performing principals, eyes should turn to the lessons being generated in HCPS. We expect Hillsborough’s important work to enable the district to provide better support to principals across the district, while serving as a model for urban districts around the country to follow.