Education Leadership: An Agenda for School Improvement

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 Education Leadership: An Agenda for School Improvement

By M. Christine DeVita, President, The Wallace Foundation1

For the past decade, The Wallace Foundation has worked to improve public education by seeking ways to ensure that principals do well by the students entrusted to them.

This matter of “school leadership” was hardly a hot issue 10 years ago. Indeed, it was seen as a distraction, noticeably absent from most major school reform efforts. Even those who recognized leadership as important expressed uncertainties about it. Why and how did school leadership matter? What could be done to improve it? Could states, districts and schools work together to figure out new ways to recruit, select, prepare and retain principals? If so, how? The field was long on questions, but short on answers.

In response, Wallace gathered together a lot of smart people – from state and district offices, school buildings, universities, research organizations and elsewhere – to think, study, take risks and work hard with us. Through their efforts, we have found answers to many of the questions and challenges.

So, what have we accomplished?

And what have we learned?

To the first question: Leadership is now on the agenda. Federal officials increasingly accept that school improvement cannot succeed without effective school leadership. In fact, the word “principals” appears 24 times in the Federal Register notice of the Race to the Top education reform program.2 More to the point, one of Race to the Top’s four aims is the development not only of great teachers but also great principals. Recognizing the connection between teaching and leadership, and the interdependence of the two, represents enormous progress.

State leaders, too, now see the importance of leadership. A recent survey by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education found that most state superintendents and school board presidents across the country believe that school principals have important effects on student learning.3 Moreover, a majority say the training and support of school principals is on their state’s education improvement agenda.

It’s one thing, however, to insert school leadership into the conversation, another to act on it. That leads to our second question, regarding what Wallace has learned in its decade of work on this issue. We believe there are four lessons that point the way to actions that can strengthen school leadership:

  • State and district education leadership policies must work in harmony.
  • District leaders need to support strong principal leadership.
  • Top-notch principals are a must for school improvement.
  • Better training results in better principals.

First, building an education leadership policy that coheres from states to districts to schools has important benefits. Such coordination has not been the norm, and indeed there is often tension between state and district leaders. But new research from the RAND Corporation tells a surprisingly positive story of what can happen with a break from past practice. For example: Where states and districts work in harmony on school leadership, the research found, principals on average report having significantly more authority than other principals on important instructional matters like establishing a curriculum and removing teachers.4

Second, district leadership makes a difference, especially in turning around low-performing schools. Only district leaders can direct additional resources to the highest-needs schools and create incentives to help attract and retain highly qualified staff. Only district leaders can reorganize the central office to better support principals in their learning improvement agenda. Only district leaders can provide principals with reliable assessments that help them focus on what matters most. And only district leaders can free up time for principals to concentrate on instruction. Take the example of a Louisville, Kentucky, program that assigns a “school administration manager,” what we affectionately call a SAM, to handle non-instructional tasks that would otherwise occupy the principal. An evaluation found that, on average, principals with SAMs are spending nearly five hours more per week on instruction than they did before.5

Third, research we’ve commissioned has concluded that there are virtually no documented cases of troubled schools being turned around without a powerful leader.6 One reason is that a good principal is the single most important determinant of whether a school can attract and retain high-quality teachers. The principal is also uniquely positioned to ensure that excellent teaching spreads beyond isolated classrooms in his or her building. The bottom line is that investments in good principals are a particularly cost-effective way to improve teaching and learning.

Lastly, we’ve learned that training matters. A 2007 Stanford University study we commissioned identified the characteristics of exemplary training programs,7 and earlier this year, an evaluation of the New York City Leadership Academy, which incorporates these characteristics, demonstrated how high-quality training can pay off. The evaluation found that compared to schools led by new principals who were not Academy graduates, elementary and middle schools led by recent Academy alumni made more significant gains in English-language arts and comparable gains in math after three years, even though the Academy principals’ schools were initially lower-performing than the others.8 So, if we do a better job preparing our principals, they will do a better job for us in leading student improvement.

States, universities and school districts that can take advantage of their purchasing power can all help make these characteristics the rule rather than the exception. In the 16 states that Wallace works with most closely, more than 200 university-based leadership preparation programs either have been forced to improve or have shut down. At the same time, 24 new principal leadership programs started by our grantees have been ranked as high-quality. Some are district-run; others are operated in partnerships between districts and universities.

Our four lessons can teach states, districts, policymakers and practitioners measures to take to ensure widespread use of effective leadership practices. But there’s a fifth consideration they need to keep in mind, too. Leadership is a crucial component of improving public education in this county, but it’s not the only one.

This is especially important to acknowledge today as we stand at what feels like a turning point in the long history of public education in the United States. We now have a federal administration that has demonstrated a firm commitment – backed up for the first time ever with serious funding – to improving educational opportunities for all our children. Across the country, state and city and district leaders are rethinking their roles and working with each other more strategically and cohesively. And although we do not agree on every issue or how best to proceed on every aspect of reform, we do have broad consensus that reform is urgent and absolutely necessary.

Because of this confluence of events, we have an unprecedented opportunity to think differently about education: about how our schools are structured, about how they can connect with other community institutions, and about how we can surround children with learning and enrichment opportunities both during the traditional school day and throughout the year. We know that learning doesn’t begin and end at the classroom door and that children spend the majority of their time outside school. For many, particularly those in the most distressed schools and neighborhoods, there are few options after the last bell rings. There is also little opportunity for them to participate in enriching learning programs during the summer months – not remediation but the kind of programs that other children take for granted and that can stave off the “summer learning loss” that contributes so heavily to the achievement gap between poorer and more affluent students.9

We see some hopeful signs. A number of cities, including Boston, Chicago, New York, Providence, and Washington, D.C., are finding new and innovative ways to connect schools with other community organizations to create more high quality out-of-school time options for children.

Ten years ago, few people were thinking about leadership, but look at the progress we have made. If we seize the opportunity we have today, perhaps 10 years from now we’ll think about the education “system” as incorporating not only schools but also the many other resources that our communities have to offer our children.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other leaders have talked about education as the civil rights issue of our time. In that spirit, I’d like to close with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Although social change cannot come overnight,” he said, “we must always work as though it were a possibility in the morning.”

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

M. Christine DeVita has been president since 1987 of The Wallace Foundation, a private charitable foundation created by Lila and DeWitt Wallace, the founders of Reader’s Digest.

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1. This paper is adapted from a speech DeVita delivered to Wallace’s national conference, Education Leadership: An Agenda and Plan for School Improvement, in Washington, D.C., October 15, 2009.

2. Since the conference, the Federal Register has published Race to the Top’s final rules, which include the comment that, “… research supports that effective teachers and principals are essential to improving student achievement.” The words “principal” or “principals” appear more than 100 times: Federal Register, vol. 74, no. 221, November 18, 2009, p. 59697.

3. Unpublished survey for The Wallace Foundation.

4. Catherine H. Augustine, Gabriella Gonzalez, Gina Ikemoto et al., Improving School Leadership: The Promise of Cohesive Leadership Systems, RAND Corporation, December 2009, p. 83.

5. Brenda J. Turnbull, M. Bruce Haslam et al., Evaluation of the School Administration Manager Project, Policy Studies Associates, Inc., December 2009, p 24.

6. Kenneth Leithwood, Karen Seashore Louis, Stephen Anderson and Kyla Wahlstrom, How Leadership Influences Student Learning, Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, September 2004, p. 5.

7. Linda Darling-Hammond, Michelle LaPointe, Debra Meyerson, Margaret Orr, Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs – Final Report, Stanford and The Finance Project, April 2007.

8. Sean P. Corcoran, Amy Ellen Schwartz, Meryle Weinstein, The New York City Aspiring Principals Program: A School-Level Evaluation, New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy, August 2009.

9. Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Steffel Olson, “Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap,” American Sociological Review, April, 2007.