This article was distributed to the Leaders Leading Leaders Network in July 2015.
Is the current focus of many districts’ reform efforts on principals as instructional leaders detrimental to the improvement of schools? Instructional leadership is a critical component of any effective school leader, but the all-encompassing focus on the principal as the all-knowing, all-doing instructional leader will not lead schools and districts to the Promised Land. Rather, a balance is needed that recognizes principals as leaders of teams of teachers and coaches that are collectively responsible for student success and that acknowledges the many other tasks that a principal must perform for a school to be successful. This balance is a main topic of the “Leaders Leading Leaders” (or 3L) Network comprising about 45 principal supervisors from 15 districts in the Midwest. The Network—funded by the Sherwood Foundation, managed by Cross & Joftus, and developed along with leaders from Omaha Public Schools—held its very first meeting in Omaha on July 15-16.
The singular focus on the principal as instructional expert is expressed in many districts through new teacher evaluation systems. These time-intensive systems expect the principal to possess technical instructional expertise and apply it to individual teacher/principal interactions through the evaluation process. Initially, proponents of new evaluation systems promised that this technical focus on instruction would lead to improved practice and increased student learning. This promise was built on the assumption that the principal is “the” instructional expert in the school and that instructional changes emanate from the principal’s expertise, one teacher at time. This assumption ignores the instructional capacity of the teaching staff, which, as instructional practitioners, have a wealth of instructional knowledge, expertise, and ideas. A number of districts have recognized this, including Cross & Joftus clients Hillsborough County and Denver, and have begun working intentionally to build distributed instructional leadership models that leverage the instructional capacity of teachers.
Michael Fullan, in his book, The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, makes the case to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader … directing their energies to developing the group … while learning alongside them about what works and what doesn’t.”
Fullan’s ideas remind me of my first year as principal. I quickly realized that my staff had considerably more instructional knowledge than I, and the key to my success as a building leader was going to be in figuring out how to capitalize on that knowledge and expertise. Our school saw great gains in teacher practice and student achievement, certainly not due to me being the instructional expert. Instead, I positioned myself as a learner along with the staff and poured my energy into creating teacher teams responsible for student learning. I often wonder if I were a newly minted principal today, would I focus my time and energy on building effective teacher learning teams or would I succumb to the expectations of being “the” instructional expert.
It’s not that instructional leadership is unimportant, but defining instructional leadership beyond the technical expertise residing in, and wielded by, the principal is critical to school improvement. We need to broaden the definition to embrace the collective instructional expertise of the teaching staff and then charge the principal, as the instructional leader, with setting up the structures and expectations to unleash this expertise, leading to improved practice and improved student learning.
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.
The question remains: can one person, the Superhero Superintendent, save a struggling, broken school district or is she a mere mortal, destined to be defeated by a lack of systemic coherence?
Back in 2008, I partnered with Susan Tave Zelman, former Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction and current Executive Director of the Ohio Department of Education, to write an article for the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice titled Systems, Not Superheroes about the need for districts and states to stop putting all of their eggs in the basket of superhero leaders and start investing in “complete and interlocking systems to support reform.” Six years later, it seems that little has changed as demonstrated most recently by the Los Angeles Unified MiSiS record-keeping system problems and the subsequent leadership upheaval.
Nabbing high-profile executives is not a comprehensive school reform strategy, especially given how long most of those individuals stay in the job. A recent survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools found that the average tenure of urban school superintendents dropped to 3.2 years in the 2013-2014 school year, a decline after 10 years of modest growth.
As Dr. Zelman and I wrote in 2008, even the most qualified individual would have a difficult time leading when faced with disconnected curricula and assessments; nonexistent resource tracking systems; disconnected teacher and principal recruitment, evaluation, and retention systems; and a demoralized, unsupported constituency of students and educators. As depicted in the following graphic, an integrated system must be developed in which human, fiscal, and community resources coupled with accountability support and extend the instructional system to improve student learning and achievement.
Figure 1: Complex, interrelated organization with subsystems (Ohio Department of Education)
When we create such a system,
- Teachers and school leaders have the knowledge, skills, and professional development they need to help all schools learn;
- Funding is aligned to a plan, based on data, focused on clear goals, and provides effective support for educators;
- Parents and families, business and industry, local community organizations, state and local health and human service agencies, and the media are actively engaged in the effort to improve school efficacy and student achievement;
- Performance targets regarding knowledge, skills, and abilities are set for students and educators that are fair, attainable, but also a stretch; and
- Instruction is based upon clear expectations of what we want our students to know and be able to do and is implemented by educators with the capacity to teach well thanks to aligned community, human, and fiscal resources.
A coherent, interdependent, sustainable system such as this allows the district leader to abandon the failure-bound role of Superhero and embrace the far more valuable role of Instructional Leader. The district leader will then have the freedom to do something truly heroic, that of helping educators teach students in the most effective way possible so that they can achieve their true potential. Because while strong and charismatic leaders are essential, systems and extraordinary leaders need to live in harmony.
Now that is the happy ending we all wish to see.
Thanks to Torrey Shawe for her contributions to this post.
What’s an appropriate pace for reforming schools and school systems? Put another way, is there a “speed limit” that attempted reforms cannot (or should not) surpass?
These questions were on my mind last week when I was visiting Omaha Public Schools (OPS). As I have written recently (see here), we have been helping OPS navigate the twists and turns of education reform for about a year. The district has planned and reorganized strategically, and due to a variety of factors—including a new board of education and administration, an incredibly supportive community, and an outstanding instructional framework—the district appears poised to really take off.
OPS began implementing its strategic plan this summer and, to no one’s surprise, has gotten off to a tremendous start. As I learned on my visit last week, the district is actively and aggressively implementing many key strategies in the strategic plan, including:
1. Cross-functional working groups are monitoring and managing implementation of strategies from the strategic plan. Groups meet monthly to monitor the status of implementation, problem solve, and discuss any issues that should be shared with the Executive Council. A dashboard displaying progress being made on each strategy was developed and shared with all working group participants. The working groups have developed a five-year timeline to coordinate timing of implementation for all strategies.
2. District administrators are using a performance-management process (District Stat) to track and improve implementation of four strategies from the strategic plan. These four strategies were chosen for the intensive Stat process due to their foundational importance and high-profile nature.
3. Principals and executive directors of school support have been trained on a School Stat process that will track and improve implementation of school-based strategies from the strategic plan.
4. The district has reorganized the central office with the intention of improving supports for schools. Most notably, four cabinet-level positions – executive directors of school support (principal supervisors) – were created and filled and training for these individuals has begun in earnest.
5. A bond proposal to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for OPS facilities will be placed before Omaha voters in November.
6. Teachers and principals have increased their focus on expanding and improving the quality of instructional time with students thanks, among other efforts, to a district-wide emphasis on increasing instructional time during the regular school day and principal “coaching” visits to classrooms.
7. In an effort to enhance equity, maximize the impact of district spending on student outcomes, and lessen principal workload, the district is in the process of shifting to “priority-based” budgeting, which will be in full effect for the 2015-16 school year.
8. The district is spearheading a number of important technology upgrades.
9. Central office is focusing on improving customer service for schools and the public by creating benchmarks and developing a number of satisfaction surveys.
10. The teacher and principal evaluation systems have been revised and improved. Starting this year, principals will be evaluated by a direct supervisor every year.
This is not an all-inclusive list, and even just a few of these initiatives would be considered a “heavy lift” for many school districts. But, as Mark Evans, the OPS superintendent, says, “They are all critical.”
But is it too much? Principals told me—as a consultant to the district—that they feel overwhelmed by the pace and scope of reform. Can reforms—even critical and strategic ones—succeed without the full support of principals? On the other hand, can important change take place in a school district without making at least some key stakeholders uncomfortable? I would argue that the answer to both of these questions is “no,” but finding the point at which stakeholders like principals feel uncomfortable but still engaged and supported is no easy task.
As a result of the feedback it has received, OPS is wisely (in my view) slowing down the implementation of some of its initiatives and re-doubling its efforts to engage principals and teachers. While the decision to slow down is disappointing to some in the district, it shows an instinctual understanding among OPS administrators and board members that education reform has a “speed limit” for meaningful and lasting change that will result in improved outcomes for students for years to come.
Learn more about C&J’s School, District, and State System Improvement practice area.
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:
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.
Districts around the country are hard at work to solve the talent dilemma: how can we attract, develop and strategically retain the best and brightest staff to help our students succeed? At the forefront of their work is the effort to ensure a successful teacher in every classroom and a visionary principal in every school. With teacher evaluation reforms well underway, many districts have articulated what they expect their educators to be able to know and do. Now they are faced with the critical task of aligning their talent management efforts with those expectations to enable the success of their workforce.
We have been honored to work with a number of district leadership teams approaching these challenges in innovative ways. We are struck by the common issues they face and impressed by the diverse approaches they use to address key obstacles.