Strong Leaders Strong Schools: 2010 School Leadership Laws

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Strong Leaders Strong Schools: 2010 School Leadership Laws

Leadership matters. A lot. In today’s climate of heightened accountability and limited resources, effective leadership is critical to improving teaching and learning and turning around low-performing schools. Research confirms that, among school-related influences on student learning, principal leadership is second in importance only to classroom teaching. Nearly 60 percent of a school’s influence on student achievement is attributable to principal and teacher effectiveness: principals account for as much as a quarter and teachers over a third of a school’s total impact on achievement. Research also suggests that there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without an effective leader. Investments in effective principals can be a cost-effective way to improve teaching and learning, and these investments have the ability to dramatically improve student achievement. Improving the quality of one teacher allows a classroom full of students to benefit. Improving the quality of one principal, however, allows all the students in a school to benefit. Effective school leadership is undoubtedly a catalyst to school reform.

Why are principals key to ensuring school success?
A good principal is the single most important factor in attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, as reported from working condition surveys of teachers across the country. The principal also is uniquely positioned to ensure that excellent teaching and learning are spread school-wide. A successful school leader closely resembles an orchestra conductor, rather than a virtuoso soloist. Good leadership is about cultivating a shared vision and building a strong leadership team. Effective principals are dedicated, well-prepared individuals who know how to create vision, share authority and are ultimately held accountable for their school’s success. In addition, effective principals:

  • Attract, develop and retain talented teachers and school staff;
  • Strengthen school culture;
  • Lead instructional improvement;
  • Support school staff;
  • Use data to inform decisions;
  • Engage parents and the community; and
  • Mobilize resources for learning.

What do principals need to be effective?
At the top of the list are leader training programs and districts’ need to recruit the "right people" to be future leaders. Once the aspiring leaders with the necessary potential are selected, they need quality preparation and ongoing support. They also need rigorous standards against which to be held. States and districts need to create conditions and incentives to support the ability of leaders to meet those standards. These include the authority to direct necessary resources (people, time and money) to schools and students with the greatest needs and access to quality and timely data to inform decisions about teaching, learning and resource allocation. In return, school leaders need to be held accountable for student achievement. All components of a leaders’ career continuum—recruitment and retention, selection, preparation, mentoring, licensure, professional development and evaluation— must be inextricably linked. They cannot operate well in isolation. Coordinating state-, district- and school-level policies also has important benefits. New RAND Corporation research has found that, when states and districts work in collaboration to strengthen school leadership, principals on average report having significantly greater authority than other principals on important instructional matters such as establishing a curriculum and removing teachers.

Across the country and at every level—be it the classroom, school, district, state or federal—educators and policymakers are challenging the status quo and working together to create an education system that is responsive to students in today’s globally competitive environment. The emphasis on effective school leadership continues to inform national and state discussions about educator effectiveness and school turnaround. A number of competitive federal grants, including the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, have spurred immediate action from states to provide alternative pathways for aspiring principals and strengthen statewide evaluations systems for both teachers and principals. At least a dozen states enacted legislation during the 2010 legislative sessions to significantly reform educator evaluations and tenure, and more states likely will follow suit in 2011.

As states continue to face historic budget gaps and acute state and federal accountability requirements to dramatically increase student achievement, the need to invest in cost-effective ways to improve teaching and learning is imperative. More than ever, states need to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to ensure that today’s leaders have the skills, knowledge and support required to guide the transformation of schools and raise achievement for all students.

  • What are the specific leadership challenges and successes in your state?
  • Does your state have rigorous, well-defined leadership standards that specify what leaders should know and be able to do to improve teaching and learning? If so, do they guide all aspects of a leader’s career, including preparation, licensure, mentoring, professional development and evaluation?
  • Has your state defined or revised the roles and responsibilities for teacher leaders, assistant principals, principals and superintendents? Does this answer differ for urban, rural and suburban school districts?
  • Does your state have a shortage of effective school leaders, including teacher leaders, assistant principals, principals and superintendents?
  • Is your state cultivating and preparing a pipeline of effective school leaders, including those who are specifically trained to turn around low-performing schools?
  • What is the quality of your state’s leader training program, both for aspiring leaders and the professional development offered to sitting leaders? Does your leader training program accountability (accreditation) system hold programs accountable for the quality of their training?
  • Are the licensure requirements in your state relevant to the demands required of today’s school leaders?
  • Does your state provide quality mentoring for new principals and superintendents?
  • Does your state have quality ongoing professional development opportunities for school leaders?
  • Do school leaders have authority over budgets, curriculum and staffing?
  • Does your state have valid and reliable measures to evaluate school leaders? Do the evaluations include impact on teacher quality? Student achievement?
  • Does your state have a comprehensive longitudinal data system that can answer key questions about the supply and demand of leaders; projected retirements; preparation program enrollment, completion rates and effectiveness; licensure; professional development; evaluation; and retention?

What legislators need to know. State policymakers will want to understand the specific challenges and successes unique to their state to find the best policies to support effective principals. Legislators may want to seek answers to the questions below.

Lawmakers have responded by crafting legislation and policies to recruit, prepare, support and retain effective school leaders. At least 23 states enacted 42 laws to support school leader initiatives during the 2010 legislative sessions. A Michigan bill enacted at the end of December 2009 to reform educator evaluations also is included in this report. The laws address:

  • Roles and responsibilities;
  • Recruitment and selection;
  • Preparation programs and accreditation;
  • Licensure and certification;
  • Mentoring;
  • Professional development;
  • Authority;
  • Evaluation;
  • Compensation and incentives;
  • Data systems; and
  • Education governance structures.


This publication is the fourth annual report featuring state legislative efforts to support school leaders and provides a snapshot of legislation. It is not intended to focus on all areas of state-level activity, including the role of the governor, chief state school officer, or state and local school boards. Included again this year are examples of fiscal appropriations to provide a more complete picture of how states are strengthening school leader initiatives. New this year are the section on recruitment and selection, the stand-alone section on authority, and inclusion of what legislators need to know and consider in developing policy that accompanies each section.

Preface and Acknowledgments

Author Sara Shelton thanks NCSL staff Julie Davis Bell, education group director, for her contribution to this project; Leann Stelzer for editing and coordinating art and production; and the talented and dedicated legislative staff who reviewed the publication for accuracy.

The author gratefully acknowledges The Wallace Foundation for its generous support and its steadfast commitment to helping states and school districts understand and effectively respond to key and unanswered challenges of school leadership.

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