by Jennifer Gill


Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

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Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

A typical day for Lynne Wheat, an assistant superintendent for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., goes something like this: Starting at 7 a.m. sharp, she "works the bus and car line" to greet arriving students with a middle school principal who parents say is distant. Once the bell rings, she heads to a high school to mentor a principal dealing with an older teacher who doesn't want to follow the new curriculum. After lunch, she visits an elementary school and tags along with the principal on classroom observations. In the car, she squeezes in a pep talk with a talented school leader who's disappointed by her students' marginal gains in test scores. Then, she's back at the middle school where she started her day to ensure an orderly dismissal alongside the principal. PTA meetings, professional development workshops and other school functions round out her schedule.

All of which leaves Wheat little time to sit behind a desk in the central office. Not that she minds. A 24year veteran of the district, Wheat is in her first year as one of its six assistant superintendents. Her job description says she's responsible for the academic achievement of the 22 schools she oversees. For Wheat, that means spending nearly all of her time with her principals - role-playing difficult conversations, helping them analyze data, even teaching them how to make small talk with parents at pick-up. "There's no guidebook on how to do this," she says. "Principals are still in charge of their buildings, but they can no longer do the job in isolation. It takes a total team effort."

School districts across the country share that sentiment. Under pressure to raise academic performance, many central offices are creating new positions - or redefining old ones - that charge administrators like Wheat with helping principals do their job better. The titles vary and include principal supervisor, managing principal, executive director and assistant superintendent. Job duties differ, too. Some, including Wheat, both coach and formally evaluate principals, while others do not.

There's so much emerging interest in the job that the Council of the Great City Schools has been working with The Wallace Foundation to get a better sense of what the position typically entails. An online council survey completed by 41 big-city districts in fall 2012 found that the tasks most commonly carried out by their principal supervisors were: visiting schools (93 percent of the districts); conversing with principals about school performance data (90 percent); and visiting classrooms with principals (82 percent).

Some 72 percent said that the job included evaluating principals, the same percentage that said it included coaching. "Ensuring that principals have the support they need to guide and inform instruction has the potential of being quite critical," says Council of the Great City Schools Executive Director Michael Casserly. "We're curious to see what part these people play in the overall improvement of large school systems."

Meredith Honig, associate professor for educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Washington, says that the best people for the job approach the work more as teachers than managers or evaluators. With Wallace support, Honig and a team of researchers studied what they called "instructional leadership directors" in three urban districts. The most effective ones "get their hands dirty and work alongside principals," she says. Instead of just asking a principal if she has talked with her staff about school data, for instance, the instructional leadership director actually sits in on data meetings, joining in to demonstrate how to conduct the conversation and providing the principal with feedback.

Honig cautions that other central office functions such as instructional services have to line up behind the new approach in order for it to succeed. "This flips the traditional way of a central office working on its head,"she says. "It puts the principal on top."

It also means that principal supervisors assist with the full spectrum of issues confronting school leaders. Ask Ivan Duran, who supervises principals in 17 differ- ent elementary or K-8 schools in southwest Denver. One day he's helping the head of a school with many Spanish speakers plan for a new approach to English language instruction. The next day, he and another principal are wrestling with the details of introducing an extended day schedule. Before the week is out, Duran might have assisted school leaders with matters ranging from teacher professional development to time management. "I see my job as helping our principals navigate systems and structures to support the best learning environment for their teachers and students," says Duran, one of 10 "instructional superintendents" in the Denver public school district.

Wheat, meanwhile, feels that her hands-on coaching is working. She says principals welcome her input and that they see her as an ally, not a monitor coming to check up on them. Indeed, some keep tally and jokingly complain that she visits other schools more than theirs. "I never thought I would hear that," she says.

IV. Conclusion: Setting a Districtwide Vision for Leadership Success

In this report, we've described actions districts can take to ensure that principals are well trained when hired and fully supported on the job. But the evidence also underscores three other points:

  • In successful schools, leadership and authority don't reside in any single person or position. The most enduring improvements occur through the consistent, shared exercise of leadership by many in the school community and the district central office. 76
  • Leadership-building actions are interdependent and will likely fall short if done haphazardly or in isolation. For example, standards matter only if the district uses them to govern principal training, hiring and assessment, and little good will come of data unless districts train principals in data' s proper use.
  • The steps described in this report - such as creating data systems, providing high-quality mentoring to new principals, and assigning district staff members to work closely with school leaders - involve costs and, just as often, tough choices for districts, especially when budgets are tight.

An important corollary to this last point is that district leaders need to summon the fortitude to make sometimes controversial decisions if principals of the neediest schools are to receive the resources and backing required for success. At a Wallace Foundation conference in 2009, Jerry Weast, then-superintendent of Montgomery County, Md., schools, alluded to the stiff opposition he had faced when he took steps including "differentiated funding" to promote greater equity for the district's disadvantaged students. He called on education leaders to find "the will and the courage" to make necessary changes.77

District leaders should also be willing to grant principals enough flexibility and authority to bring their vision to life in the unique context of each school. Districts that invest heavily in better training and support for their principals, only to treat them as ciphers once they are hired, are a long way from cultivating the brand of leadership described in this report, which holds that authority and responsibility must be broadly exercised in order to create sustainable learning improvements schoolwide.

It's also important to acknowledge that districts don't operate in a vacuum. State actions that take place in tandem with district efforts tend to reap the best results. The good news is that states have been taking more aggressive steps to build strong school leadership. For example:

  • Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and New York are among states that now require university- and non-university principal training providers to redesign their programs and reapply for accreditation in keeping with leadership standards.
  • To raise the quality of principal candidates statewide and improve retention rates, Arkansas offers incentive bonuses to those who achieve "master principal" status or who serve for at least five years in high-needs schools. Georgia compensates educators for their professional training only if they actually assume leadership positions.
  • States including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois and New Mexico now gather a wider range of data that allow districts to track the performance of school leaders from their pre-service training on.78

This report suggests that a well-crafted district strategy to promote better school leadership makes sense because effective principals offer perhaps the surest route to effective teaching. Still, major unanswered questions remain: What does such a strategy look like in action? It's one thing to say that districts should, say, take a more active role in the training of aspiring principals or change hiring practices or introduce new evaluation systems. But how do such efforts play out? What works and what doesn't? And what concrete actions ultimately lead to measurable movement in student achievement?

Then there's the question of ultimate purpose: Would an investment in a districtwide leadership-building strategy bring gains for students districtwide, in high-needs and lower-needs schools alike?

To probe these questions, The Wallace Foundation in 2011 launched a five-year, $75 million initiative to help six large districts build stronger principal pipelines by (1) creating clear job requirements detailing what principals and assistant principals must know and do, (2) ensuring high-quality training for aspiring leaders, (3) developing more selective hiring procedures, and (4) using well-crafted evaluations to identify the needs of principals and ongoing support to address them.79 Over the life of the initiative, it is expected that participating districts will have filled at least two-thirds of their principal slots with graduates of high-quality training programs - enough to enable independent researchers to gather meaningful evidence on whether and how better leadership can transform the academic fortunes of children.

Stay tuned.

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76. Seashore Louis, Leithwood et al., Learning from Leadership; Bradley S. Portin, Michael S. Knapp et al., Leadership for Learning Improvement in Urban Schools, University of Washington, 2009. Available at

77. Richard Lee Colvin, "A 10-Year Climb: Education Leadership Reaches the National Reform Agenda," Education Leadership: An Agenda for School Improvement, The Wallace Foundation, 2010, 15.

78. Sara Shelton, Preparing a Pipeline of Effective Principals: A Legislative Approach, National Conference of State Legislatures, 2012, 5-10. This report was prepared with support from The Wallace Foundation. Available at

79. The districts are: Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Denver; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; New York City; and Prince George's County, Md. For details, visit