The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

Click here to download the full report:
 The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

Strategies of Highly Supportive Districts

  • Provide a balanced set of professional learning experiences at the district and school levels that are aligned with the district and school strategic plans, making it a priority to develop the capacity of principals, teachers and support staff to create rich, engaging experiences for students.
  • Create active professional learning communities in which key district and school leaders have common learning experiences.
  • Provide induction programs and mentoring for new principals and teachers.
  • Provide time for professional development.
  • Help school leaders develop a school culture based on the belief that students can succeed at high levels when they have a sense of belonging and support, can relate their learning activities to their goals and are supported to make greater effort to succeed.
  • Have a professional learning plan that continuously increases the capacity of district staff to support principals and schools.

Elevate the Importance of Professional Learning

Providing school leaders with high-quality professional learning opportunities is a core responsibility of districts, and the highly supportive districts in this study made professional learning a top priority. One highly supportive district cited the adoption of a culture of professional learning as key to its success. (See “Educators Who Read Together Lead Together” on page 31.) Another superintendent made elevating the visibility and role of professional development one of her goals when she took on the challenge of turning the district around. The professional development director in that district explained: “Prior to my taking this role, there was no one in this position. They did not have a staff development director. ... We’re trying to get it up and running because, up until the current superintendent took over ... staff development was all over the place.”

Research has identified key characteristics of an effective professional learning system for schools and principals:21

  • Provide common planning time for staff to meet and discuss their work.
  • Expect and support teachers to improve instruction through training, practice, dialogue and coaching, and through access to high-quality learning activities and content knowledge “refreshers” linked to their teaching responsibilities.
  • Use student performance results and student work to drive instructional decisions and to identify priorities for professional learning.
  • Flexibly allocate available resources (time, people, money, facilities) for schools to help them meet students’ needs.
  • Ensure collective responsibility for student outcomes within groups of teachers sharing students.
  • Provide high-quality mentoring for principals throughout their first two years as school leaders, and provide struggling principals with mentoring as needed.
  • Create induction programs for new principals and teachers.
  • Give principals control over their professional learning budgets, but require that they link their professional learning plans to their school improvement plans, with a focus on implementing proven practices that engage and motivate students.
  • Obtain feedback from participants, and use walkthroughs and student achievement data to analyze the effectiveness of professional learning.
  • When possible, arrange for extended contracts or stipends to encourage teachers and leaders to participate in professional learning.
  • Organize learning for principals in study groups involving the principal and a team of teacherleaders, rather than in isolation.
  • Provide professional development to address problems critical to high schools — low student motivation, low student engagement, low levels of student preparedness for college and advanced training, low reading achievement, etc. — by identifying root causes and formulating and implementing actions to address the problems.
  • Provide professional development to assist principals and teachers to use authentic problems and projects as a way to engage and motivate students to master essential academic knowledge and skills.

Although advances have been made in moving beyond the old professional development model of disconnected, single-day workshops, none of the districts in this study were able to report progress on all of these professional learning goals. Most of the districts in the study could improve their professional learning efforts by adopting an approach in which principals and teacher-leaders work on teams to address their most pressing problems.

Provide Mentoring and Induction

One of the most important ways in which districts can support principals is to provide them with high-quality mentoring.22 While five out of 10 respondents in the highly supportive districts mentioned mentoring for principals as one of their district strategies to support schools, only eight of 25 respondents in the moderately and minimally supportive districts mentioned mentoring as a support strategy. (See Table 7.) One superintendent of a highly supportive district reported that when his state cut funding for a second full year of mentoring for new principals, he made sure that the district funded the second year itself.

Table 7
Comments Indicating Districts Support Mentoring for Principals

District Level
of Support

Percentage of
Respondents Indicating
Mentoring Support

Total Number
of Comments

Comments per













Only three of the seven districts reported that they have formal induction programs for new principals. A highly supportive district that had an induction program for new principals also had an induction program for new teachers, led by master teachers and consisting of six modules that address typical problems for new teachers. Every new teacher in the district must go through the program, and teachers receive a stipend for their time.

Enable Principals to Select Professional Development Based on Schools’ Needs

When asked specifically about principals’ control over their professional development funds, educators in four of the seven districts reported that principals controlled at least some of the funds. Responses indicate that in the seven districts studied, the majority of resources for professional development are controlled by the district, rather than the school. For example, one of the districts managed its professional development funds from the central office and required its principals to file professional learning plans aligned with the district’s strategic improvement plan in order to access those resources. While the effort to ensure professional learning resources were utilized in a strategic manner was commendable, that objective did not require centralized control over resources critical to school improvement.

Some district-wide staff development can support major district priorities, but without in-depth follow-up at the building level, in the context of school needs, its impact will be minimal. Districts cannot hold principals accountable for improved school and classroom practices and student learning unless they give principals the necessary tools to succeed, including the ability to direct professional learning for their faculty. The district can help principals develop their capacity to design and lead effective professional learning, but the principal and his or her team — not the district — should own professional development for the school.

One of the highly supportive districts in the study reported that it provided the majority of its professional development in-house using district resources and only goes outside the district if it cannot respond to a principal’s request for professional development using internal talent. This professional learning model provides opportunities for teacher leadership, encourages ownership of professional learning within the community of teachers and administrators, requires constant identification and tracking of talent within the district to know who has the ability to lead training, and results in overall cost savings.


“The prime responsibility of all school leaders is to sustain learning. Leaders of learning put learning at the center of everything they do: student learning first, then everyone else’s learning in support of it.”

Alan M. Blankstein, Failure Is Not an Option23

Make Professional Development Job-Embedded and Relevant

Several respondents reported that the focus of professional development in their districts has shifted toward more job-embedded professional development. One respondent provided this representative description of the change: “We try to move away from one-shot workshops and topics to more jobembedded professional learning communities where the information that the teachers gain, they continue to work with that within their work environment.” Another positive finding in regard to professional development is that four of the districts in the study, including both of the highly supportive districts, reported they were extending teacher contracts and providing stipends to enable teachers to take part in professional development.

Analyze Professional Development to Ensure It Works

Districts in this study recognize that to continually improve professional learning experiences, they must assess their efforts. One district is purchasing a data-management system to track the success of professional learning and to replace self-reported surveys. When asked how the district evaluated the efficacy of its professional development efforts, an assistant superintendent in one of the highly supportive districts responded: “I’d like to say we’re the best in the world at doing that, but I don’t think we do a good job with that. I don’t think we really go back and measure or link what we’ve taught them to what we’re seeing.” Each of the seven districts seems to be struggling with a process for evaluating professional learning. They lack the capacity to help schools recognize when professional development results in improved school and classroom practices and when it does not.24 A director of professional learning explained the situation this way:

    “Research-wise, it’s very difficult to say, ‘Okay, it was professional learning that made the difference.’ Truly, if you know anything about integrated school systems and about how things work, it probably wasn’t just professional learning. There were probably multiple factors. But we can say we concentrated on writing training and our writing scores increased. So we can at least say we feel like we’re going in the right direction. I feel like evaluation of professional learning is something that doesn’t get done to the maximum potential that it could be. ... When you evaluate it [professional development], are you evaluating: ‘Did I like it?’ ‘Was it helpful?’ ‘Did the time suit me?’ ‘Was the presenter interesting?’ That’s not what we really need to evaluate. What we need to evaluate is ... ‘Did it make a difference for the teacher in the classroom?’ ”

To monitor the effectiveness of professional learning, districts can survey students to discover whether they notice improvements in instructional practices and school climate. Effective professional development for principals and teachers should translate into more engaging, rigorous and relevant instruction, with more hands-on and team-centered learning and classroom experiences. The effects of those changes should be revealed in student perceptions and will be measurable on surveys earlier than in test results. Students often are an overlooked resource when schools and districts want to find out what works and does not work.25

Develop the Skills, Knowledge and Capacity of District Staff

While the interviews with district staff focused on the professional learning opportunities they were providing to principals and teachers in their districts, it became apparent in the interviews that SREB conducted for The District Leadership Challenge that many principals did not believe the district staff could help them move beyond test preparation and meeting minimum state standards to create a highperformance, high-engagement learning environment for all students. Abel County clearly was doing more than most other districts in the study to make sure the central office staff had the capacity to lead high schools in creating a culture of high expectations for all groups of students. (See “Educators Who Read Together Lead Together” on the following page.)

Too often, there is little or no framework or expectation for holding district staff accountable for supporting schools to improve student learning. Professional standards for central office personnel, and the professional learning necessary to meet those standards, are critical unmet needs. States have professional standards for their teachers and principals, and in some cases superintendents; but, with few exceptions, states have not defined professional standards and expectations for district leaders. Iowa, with the leadership of School Administrators of Iowa (SAI), and Ohio, with the leadership of the Ohio Leadership Advisory Council (OLAC),26are breaking new ground in setting standards for district leaders, higher expectations for district offices, and professional learning frameworks so that district staffs have the capacity to meet higher expectations. Iowa has adopted six standards for all school leaders, including principals, superintendents and district leaders. The first standard, for example, states “An educational leader promotes the success of all students by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.” Further descriptors for that standard are provided for both principals and superintendents. SAI has worked with central office administrators from across Iowa to develop a set of descriptors that will be useful for the evaluation of all central-office leaders under the superintendent, whether in curriculum and instruction or the business office, and whether they are an associate superintendent or a specialist. Standards and descriptors help in setting expectations for central-office personnel and formalize what they are accountable for.

Educators Who Read Together Lead Together:
Lessons From a District Instructional Leadership Team

A strong focus on professional development is one reason that Abel County is a highly supportive district and a high-achieving district. All of the respondents repeatedly and easily cited current education literature in their comments, and clearly considered their own reading to be very important. The assistant superintendent of business operations for the district described the focus on professional reading and learning brought to the district by a new superintendent as a turning point for both the district and himself:

“Instruction was kind of out of my [focus]. ... It wasn’t expected of me. I didn't know at that time that I needed to be a part of that. Then, when we changed leadership here, that all changed and we began book studies, we began to read, and I've become much more involved in the instructional side of it and the school side of it. …

“I'll have to tell you this about me: Probably six years ago, the extent of my reading for most of the time was two local newspapers and my Sunday school lesson most Sundays. Then we started to talk about research that was done. We started to read. That had been something I wasn't familiar with. I had to read, too, if I was going to keep up, if somebody called on you and asked something, or somebody was talking about something. So I started to read and have become an avid reader.”

The assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the district described how the central office’s focus on professional reading has spread throughout the district:

“We read all the time, actually. [Principals] always have current literature in hand, and it drives much of what we do. If everybody can’t go to PD and get to see all the great leaders in the country, we think we can put the literature in their hands and accomplish much of the same thing. And we don’t just read. We process. We discuss. We see what implications there are for our district.”

The Abel County superintendent has formed a district instructional leadership team that includes teacher-leaders, principals, assistant principals and key district staff. The instructional leadership team makes major decisions for the district and takes those decisions back to the schools for implementation. The superintendent works with the instructional leadership team to generate improved strategies and address challenges. To stay current on school and classroom practices, the instructional leadership team conducts three to four major book studies each year. Individual schools are encouraged to establish their own professional learning communities to replicate this.

Teacher-leaders participate on the instructional leadership team on a rotating basis so that new teacher-leaders join the team each year. This has allowed the district to develop a cadre of highly effective teachers who have leadership capacity. One respondent explained, “If half of our principals left today or if half of us in this central office left today, we wouldn’t miss a lick. We’d go right on because we have people out there [who] are trained, have been on a leadership team and think like we think.”



< < Previous | Next > >