By Lee Mitgang


Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

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Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

I. The District Job: Shaping School Leadership That Works

To improve education in the nation's troubled urban schools, school districts must make the development of stronger school leadership a top priority.

A solid body of evidence has established that leadership is second only to teaching among school-related influences on learning. As researchers from the University of Minnesota and University of Toronto - authors of the largest study of the impact of school leadership on student achievement - put it: "To date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership."1

Two things, then, stand to reason. First, solid leadership is a pre-requisite for turning around failing and low performing schools in U.S. cities. Second, districts should place strong leaders in these schools and support them to the fullest so the schools improve.

Recent experience underscores that investing in better school leadership could make economic sense, too - not only because of what principals can do to boost instruction and student achievement, but because of how leadership can act as a magnet for drawing talented teachers to high-needs schools. "Over and over again, our highest performing teachers told us that a highly effective principal would be the determining factor in a decision to transfer to a low-performing school," writes Ann B. Clark, deputy superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district, which began a push in 2008 to attract more highly qualified principals and teachers to its most challenging schools.2

Over the last decade, we have learned much about what effective school leadership looks like. Once a principal might have been considered a solid performer solely by being a competent building manager and keeping his or her school under the radar. Today, there is growing consensus that principals must do much more, most notably ensuring the spread of effective instructional practices to every classroom. Yes, principals need to master management practices, says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Still, he says, their "primary function is to be the educational leader of the building."3

School districts play a key part in nurturing this kind of leadership, but their role has long been underappreciated: bypassed by reformers who believe the antidote to mediocre schools is to free them to manage their own improvement efforts with a minimum of regulatory interference, and scorned by those who regard districts and their employees as money-draining bureaucrats more interested in rules than school renewal.4

That may be changing. From New York City to Gwinnett County, Ga., and Denver, school systems are viewing better leadership as a lever for school improvement and creating more supportive relationships with principals and their teams. Their efforts vary widely. What all have in common, however, is a belief that when it comes to school leadership, "districts matter," as a report co-authored by longtime education authority Gene Bottoms asserts with italicized emphasis.5

This Wallace Foundation Perspective describes what districts can do to live up to their potential as cultivators of first-rate leadership for every school. It draws largely from Wallace's work since 2000, financing education leadership projects in 28 states and urban districts in them, as well as supporting some 70 research studies and other reports.

We have learned much from this large body of work, but we are also the first to concede that our research and on-the-ground efforts do not answer many big questions about how to nurture professionals who can lead urban schools from failure to success. Most notably, we have yet to see a research-established link between specific district steps to promote leadership and improvements in student achievement as measured by standardized tests. That we haven't found such connections may be a measure of the magnitude and complexity of transforming chronically underperforming schools into schools where all children thrive. In leadership, as in so many aspects of meaningful school reform, there are few quick fixes and much hard work ahead.

II. Building A Large Corps Of Well-Qualified Candidates For The Principalship

It starts with a clear job description

Drawing up a set of standards is the necessary prelude to building a corps of able principals. The standards spell out what leaders need to know and do to improve instruction, providing a clear description of the principal's job. They also undergird training for future principals, hiring practices and the way in which leaders are supported and managed on the job.

Today, nearly all states have adopted some form of what's known as the "ISLLC standards," which lay out a set of competencies school leaders need to succeed in improving instruction.6 Iowa, Illinois, Delaware and Kentucky are among the states that have used the standards to rewrite principal licensure rules, toughen accreditation for principal preparation programs, spell out requirements for mentoring newly hired principals and evaluate leader performance.


At a December 2012 Wallace Foundation meeting, educators discuss how to boost school leadership.
From left: Wendy Robinson, superintendent, Fort Wayne, Ind.; J. Alvin Wilbanks,
CEO/superintendent, Gwinnett County, Ga.; Tom Boasberg, su perintendent, Denver; Alvin Crawley, interim superintendent, Prince George's County, Md.; Shael Polakow-Suran sky, chief academic officer, New York City; Diane Rutledge, former superintendent, Springfield, Ill., now head of the Large Unit District Association, representing Illinois superintendents.

Many districts rely on their state's leadership standards. Others, especially those that have historically had the most difficulty attracting and keeping high-quality leaders, have enacted standards tailored to their specific needs and conditions. In Boston, for example, the Ten Dimensions of School Leadership serves as the basis for the curriculum of the district-run Principal Fellowship Program. The leadership standards in Fort Wayne, Ind., determine eligibility requirements for district-paid internships. Districts including Chicago and New York City give preference to graduates of training programs well-aligned to the district standards.7

New York City district officials have also concluded that the definition of "high-quality leadership" should be in close sync with the definition of a high-quality school, says Anthony Conelli, deputy chief academic officer for leadership in the city's department of education. That has led the district to bring its "School Leadership Competencies" into closer harmony with what's called the "Quality Review" rubric, the criteria used to evaluate school performance each year. Once completed in 2013, the revised standards are expected to provide the district with a more useful tool for informing decisions about training, assessing and supporting novice and veteran school leaders. "As the system becomes more and more clear about what we look for in schools, right under the surface of that is what good principals do," Conelli says.8

Districts that have drawn up standards have learned that the exercise isn't quick or easy, typically requiring months or even years of work by many hands. The latest version of Chicago's highly detailed Principal Competencies has undergone at least seven drafts "and counting," says Steve Gering, who, as chief leadership development officer, has overseen a standard-setting process that has included district staff members, principals, and local and national experts.9

Improve 'pre-service' principal training

Having codified their expectations of principals, school systems need to take a stronger hand in ensuring that aspiring school leaders are well prepared to meet the standards.

Nationwide, the quality of pre-service principal training has risen in recent years as the role of principals in improving schools has been more widely recognized and understood. Despite this, critics say that the curricula and methods at the majority of the nation's 500-plus university-based principal preparation programs remain subpar and out of step with district needs.10 A growing number of districts have become more assertive with universities and other training providers about improving their offerings, because district leaders want enough well-prepared leadership candidates to meet local learning goals and to lessen the expense and damage of early turnover among poorly prepared novice principals. "An early investment in people becoming the leaders that our schools need will result, we are confident, in a higher degree of effectiveness for novice principals and a lower degree of turnover in the first two to five years of the principalship," says John Youngquist, director of principal talent management for the Denver Public Schools.11

How can a district use its clout to improve principal training? For starters, district standards can send signals about the traits, knowledge and skills the district demands from training program graduates if they expect to be hired. Some districts - St. Louis and Springfield, Ill., for example - have become active collaborators with area universities or other training providers to create programs more closely tailored to their needs. The districts then give hiring preference to graduates of such programs. Other districts - such as New York City, Boston and Prince George's County, Md. - have established their own training programs, either through working with nonprofit training providers or creating "leadership academies" tailored to their needs.12

The Chicago Leadership Collaborative was set up by the district in 2011 to help meet its principal hiring requirements and to triple to 100 its number of annual high-quality "residencies," in which aspiring leaders get on-the-job experiences in local schools. The collaborative includes four training programs approved by the board of education based on their record of preparing principals, the rigor of their admissions and their alignment with Chicago's leadership standards.13

Gwinnett County, Ga., with more than 165,000 students, plans to introduce a "consumers' guide" to principal training programs to press area universities to improve their offerings. The 20-page "Guide to Leadership Education Programs in Georgia for Aspiring Leaders in Gwinnett County Public Schools," scheduled to be published in the 2012-13 school year, includes descriptions of four principal training programs judged by the district to share a commitment to preparing "world-class leadership." Each program also has an agreement with the district to provide enrollees with strong internships and site experiences and to offer a curriculum that meshes with district needs. The guide will describe the basics of each program, including application requirements, costs and coursework to enable would-be principal candidates to select a program that best matches their interests and needs.14


Glenn Pethel, executive director of leadership development, Gwinnett County Public Schools

"We're using this guide as a tool to drive change and reform in leader preparation programs," says Glenn Pethel, Gwinnett County's executive director of leadership development. "There's been a proliferation of these programs and finding your way through that maze, you're left to your own resources and you can make less-than-good decisions. We are sending a very loud and clear message to universities that 'if you want your program to be described and shared [in the new guide], then here's the process that you follow.' If you're not in our guide, then the implication is pretty clear."15

New York City uses a combination of approaches to influence training. The centerpiece is the Aspiring Principals Program (APP) at the New York City Leadership Academy, established by the city in 2003. Former New York City principals and principal supervisors make up the faculty, and the city's department of education pays the salaries and benefits of those admitted. The program features an intensive summer program designed to simulate the challenges of a New York City principalship and a 10-month residency under the mentorship of an experienced principal. As of the 2012-2013 school year, some 72 percent of APP graduates – 343 people – were serving as principals or assistant principals or in other leadership positions for New York City public schools.

The Windy City Gives Would-Be Principals a Blast of Reality

Chicago Public Schools continues to refine the screening process for a school leader hiring pool that it introduced several years ago. Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, high-potential candidates experience a typical day as a Chicago principal. They might do several mock classroom observations, get an unexpected phone call from a parent who demands immediate attention and handle other curveballs. The idea is to see how well candidates prioritize and manage the many responsibilities that an average principal juggles every day, according to Steve Gering, Chicago’s chief of leadership development. “People can talk their way through an interview,” he says, “but once you put them in a situation and observe them figuring things out on the fly, that’s so much more real.”

Along with the leadership academy, the city has designated "preferred" training programs, including the not-for-profit New Leaders and the department of education's own Leaders in Education Apprenticeship Program, which provides on-the-job, 14-month apprenticeships to aspiring leaders within the city's schools. Nonetheless, these high-quality programs meet only about 25 percent of the city's need to fill 150 to 200 principal vacancies per year, says Conelli. The district therefore has begun working with area universities willing to review their leadership programs to more closely align their curricula to district leadership standards and needs. In return, the city designates those programs "preferred providers," steers aspiring principals to them and gives preference to their graduates.16 "What's interesting," says Conelli, "is that we've been approached by other colleges and universities. Some we've passed on." But, he notes, if providers show promise, the district will work with them to better mesh their programs to district expectations and work toward preferred status.17

A big question hangs over all the various district-spurred ventures to improve leadership training: Will they ultimately pay off in providing well trained principals for high-needs schools and in having a measurable, beneficial impact on student learning? The New York City Leadership Academy was formed specifically to train effective principals for the city’s most challenging schools. It is also one of the few training programs to date to commission an independent study of its placement record and the performance of its graduates. Early research findings are mixed and are being used to improve the effort.

The study looked at APP graduates from the program’s beginning years. It showed that a greater percentage of APP graduates than novice principals as a whole became principals in higher-need, lower-performing schools. In examining student achievement at APP-led and non-APP-led schools, the research adjusted for student background differences. The research found that the students of the early APP principals did about as well in English Language Arts as students of other novice principals, but lagged behind in math.18

NYCLA has revised its curriculum to ensure that future leaders do not focus on literacy to the exclusion of math. It has also introduced new on-the-job supports to assist novice APP principals with literacy and math instruction in their schools.

Hire the right people

Another key to building a sufficient corps of well-qualified school leaders is establishing more selective and systematic hiring procedures. "Not just anyone can be a successful principal today," says J. Alvin Wilbanks, Gwinnett County's superintendent. "The demands of the job are great and require exceptional expertise. With enrollments of 1,000 to 3,000 students, staffs as large as 300 people, sizable local budgets, and key performance goals that must be achieved, a principal in Gwinnett is essentially the CEO of a good-sized company."19

Yet in many districts, principal hiring takes place without a proper assessment of an applicant's training or motivation for the job. Also, many districts lack the tools and processes to create a good match between a candidate's qualifications and the needs of particular schools.

Some districts have been tightening their hiring practices. Gwinnett County, Prince George's County, Md., and Springfield, Mass., for example, are among those using screening tools, such as Gallup's PrincipalInsight, that allow them to quickly gather information on why a candidate wants to be a school leader and his or her likely ability to foster collegiality, or motivate teachers, students and parents.20 To ensure that would-be candidates genuinely want to lead schools and not just get a salary bump that comes with an advanced degree, Chicago, St. Louis and Springfield, Ill., require would-be leaders to agree to serve as principals for a set number of years. In exchange, the district agrees to pay for their leadership training and internships. Jefferson County, Ky., is among districts that give hiring preference to graduates of leadership training programs whose curricula and teaching methods are well matched to district needs.21

Denver has been revamping its hiring process so it is in sync with new leadership standards. The district was already giving preference to graduates of the University of Denver's Ritchie Program, whose curriculum was jointly created by the district and university faculty to fill district needs. A remaining challenge has been to ensure consistency in how the district's 13 instructional supervisors interview and evaluate principal candidates. In 2012, Denver began testing new tools to help in that and to better place new principals. The tools include a detailed rubric for matching a candidate's skills and experiences to different school leadership openings and a "learning walk" protocol that gives district supervisors a way to observe and assess a candidate's point of view and interpersonal skills as the candidate observes and comments on actual school practices, teacher actions and student behaviors. [See article on p. 20 for a look at how one district has created a pool for principal hiring.]

Attract able leaders to struggling schools

"Business and industry leaders do not flinch at the idea of placing top talent in struggling departments and divisions," Ann B. Clark, deputy superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district, has written. "This is not always the case in public education."22

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1. Karen Seashore Louis, Kenneth Leithwood, Kyla L. Wahlstrom, Stephen E. Anderson et al., Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improv ed Student Learning, University of Minnesota and University of Toronto, 2010, 9. The report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, can be found at

2. Ann B. Clark, "Strategic Staffing," School Administrator, American Association of School Administrators, Aug. 2012, 16-20.

3. Interview with Domenech, Oct. 1, 2012. The American Association of School Administrators has received several Wallace Foundation grants since 2008 to disseminate research and lessons on school leadership.

4. See, for example, Gene Bottoms, Jon Schmidt-Davis, The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership, Southern Regional Education Board, 2010, 1."Often, the school board and district staff are considered no more than middlemen in the education enterprise, passing federal and state funds on to schools - where the 'real work' of education takes place - and keeping track of school compliance with federal and state laws, regulations and policies." Available at

5. Bottoms, Schmidt-Davis, The Three Essentials. Bottoms is senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

6. Council of Chief State School Officers, Educational Leadership Policy Standards: ISLLC 2008, 2008. Available at Wallace provided funding for revisions of the standards, which were developed originally in 1996 by the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, an array of state representatives and national educational organizations under the aegis of the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. The 2008 revised standards call for: (1) setting a widely shared vision for learning; (2) developing a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and professional growth; (3) ensuring effective management of the organization, operation, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment; (4) collaborating with faculty and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources; (5) acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner; and (6) understanding, responding to, and influencing the political, social, legal, and cultural contexts.

7. Margaret Terry Orr, Cheryl King and Michelle LaPointe, Districts Developing Leaders: Lessons on Consumer Actions and Program Approaches from Eight Urban Districts, Education Development Center, Inc., 2010, 43; also, Lee Mitgang, The Making of the Principal: Five Lessons in Leadership Training, a Wallace Foundation Perspective, 2012, 17. Both available at

8. Interview with Conelli, August 1, 2012.

9. Chicago's six principal competencies in draft as of January 2013 are: (1) champions teacher and staff excellence through a focus on continuous improvement; (2) creates powerful professional learning systems that guarantee learning for children; (3) builds a culture focused on college and career readiness; (4) empowers and motivates families and the community to become engaged; (5) relentlessly pursues self-disciplined thinking and action; and (6) leads school toward achieving the vision.

10. Mitgang, The Making of the Principal, 6, 14-15.

11. Interview with Youngquist, December 7, 2012.

12. Orr et al., 42-43.

13. The programs are: Loyola University, Teach for America/Harvard, New Leaders and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

14. Interview with Charisse Redditt, assistant director for leadership development, Gwinnett County Public Schools, August 16, 2012; and draft copy of A Guide to Leadership Education Programs in Georgia for Aspiring Leaders in Gwinnett County Public Schools. The four programs reviewed in the guide are: University of Georgia, University of West Georgia, Mercer University and Georgia State University.

15. Interview with Glenn Pethel, August 16, 2012.

16. The city currently has three such university partners: Baruch College; Bank Street College; and Teachers College, Columbia University.

17. Conelli interview, August 1, 2012.

18. Sean P. Corcoran, Amy Ellen Schwartz and Meryle Weinstein, "Training Your Own: The Impact of New York City's Aspiring Principals Program on Student Achievement," Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, June 2012, 232-253.

19. Statement by Wilbanks appears on Gwinnett County Public Schools Web site:

20. Mitgang, The Making of the Principal, 9.

21. Orr et al., 43.

22. Clark, "Strategic Staffing," 16-20.