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

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

Strategies of Highly Supportive Districts

  • Provide a framework for aligning the curriculum from one grade level to the next and from one transition point to the next (such as middle grades to high school) and for instructional practices to engage students in learning and develop students’ intellectual, analytical and problem-solving skills.
  • Have a practice of preparing principals and district office staff to observe classrooms and conduct walkthroughs to ensure teachers’ instruction and assessment is engaging, relevant, intellectually challenging and grade-level appropriate.
  • Give principals more autonomy to adjust schedules and curriculum and instruction to help students succeed and stay on course to graduate.

Support Principals as Effective Instructional Leaders

In recent years, with greater local and national emphasis on improved student learning, expectations that principals act as highly effective instructional leaders have risen steeply in some districts and states. One respondent said: “It used to be that if [principals] could run a building, keep the kids behaving, keep the teachers happy, [they] could coast. It’s not true anymore. They have to have a huge skill set.” To help principals raise student achievement, lead teachers to be better instructors and transform schools, districts must provide stronger support.

All of the districts in the study, and 27 of 35 respondents, described how their districts expect principals to be instructional leaders. (See Table 5.) However, the number of such comments per interview fell from the highly supportive districts, to moderately supportive districts, to minimally supportive districts. District leaders in the highly supportive districts talked about their principals being “instructional leaders” almost three times as often as their counterparts in minimally supportive districts. One of the strongest statements emphasizing instructional leadership came from a superintendent:

    “I think the biggest thing in the way of communication from a superintendent has got to be around instruction. If it’s around instruction, then it’s important to the principals. If you talk about money, if finance is what’s important, then that’s what’s important to the principals. So we really focus on instruction here.”

Table 5
Comments Indicating an Emphasis on Principals as Instructional Leaders

District Level
of Support

Percentage of
Respondents Indicating
Emphasis on

Total Number
of Comments

Comments per













Utilize Walkthroughs as a School Improvement Strategy

One of the most important tools a district office can use to help school leaders provide instructional coherence and support is training in strategic classroom walkthroughs. Walkthroughs provide a critical link between assessment data and instructional practices. Assessment data show who is succeeding and failing; strategic walkthroughs can help school leaders (including teachers) learn why students are failing and how to turn failure into success.

Many first-year principals do not learn in their education leadership preparation programs how to use walkthroughs effectively. One superintendent said that his district worked to “equip those principals to be able to go into those classrooms to look for evidence to the fact that teachers are truly teaching the standards.”

In many of the interviews, district staff failed to mention important “look-fors” beyond teaching to the standards — such as creating an engaging and fun learning environment; teaching the standards in material that is relevant, rigorous, and hands-on; showing students that teachers believe in them; and making sure every student is connected to at least one teacher who knows and looks out for him or her. Teaching to standards alone will not improve achievement if classroom lessons and assignments are not sufficiently engaging to keep students from turning off and dropping out — and, in too many cases, that is what students are doing. If schools in low-performing districts are to improve, district leaders must assist principals and teacher-leaders to move beyond test-prep instruction and understand instructional practices that motivate and engage all groups of students in learning that results in higher achievement.

Benson County was one of three districts in this study that identified walkthroughs as a critical component of support for principals. In separate interviews, both the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and the professional development coordinator detailed the use of walkthroughs as a key district-improvement strategy. Principals in the county are trained in conducting walkthroughs. They are given clear expectations and regular feedback on the basis of the districts’ walkthrough findings. The districts’ philosophy is that walkthroughs are to be supportive rather than punitive, and it has incorporated walkthroughs into its capacity-building and succession-planning strategies by consistently involving assistant principals and teacher-leaders.14

The walkthroughs are part of a district strategy that weaves together curriculum, instruction and professional development. Benson County residents were not satisfied with the academic direction of the schools, and new leaders have begun working with schools to implement a set of comprehensive classroom changes to engage students in more challenging learning experiences. A district respondent, describing the role of walkthroughs, said, “We haven’t seen the level of change in teacher behaviors that needs to happen to implement higher levels of instruction,” but they are taking the first steps of visiting schools to identify the additional support teachers need to make the desired change.

Districts providing a minimum level of support need assistance to develop their capacity to effectively support schools to improve instruction. In The District Leadership Challenge, SREB reported on principals who did not have confidence in the instructional leadership expertise of the district staff. Some districts need to develop the instructional leadership capacities of their staff and hold them accountable for working effectively with principals and school leadership teams to advance quality learning experiences for students.

Best Practices in Using Walkthroughs to Support Instructional Leadership

  • Train principals in conducting walkthroughs to help them identify when students are engaged intellectually and emotionally in learning and how to support teachers to provide engaging instruction.
  • Tell principals in advance what the district wants them to look for during walkthroughs.
  • Use walkthroughs to look for evidence that professional development is making a difference in classroom instruction.
  • Require assistant principals to conduct walkthroughs in their schools to help them develop their capacity as instructional leaders.
  • Talk with students during walkthroughs, asking them questions such as: “What are you doing?” “How are you doing on it?” “How do you know?”
  • Ask teacher-leaders to accompany administrators on the walkthroughs.
  • Let teachers know they can reschedule for a later visit if they are nervous or not at their best. Walkthroughs are for professional learning, not catching bad behavior.
  • Follow up by using walkthroughs as the basis for conversations with teachers about instructional practices and identifying future professional learning needs for the school and district.

Give Principals Autonomy to Lead Schools

Creating, in the words of one respondent, “a system of schools, as opposed to individual schools” was a common theme in interviews with officials in minimally supportive districts. Respondents from one district emphasized the importance of alignment because that particular district had a high student mobility rate. One respondent said, “When children transfer from one place to another, we’ve got to make sure that we’re pretty much on the same page.”

Unfortunately, district efforts to improve instruction and student achievement by making all schools alike are unlikely to succeed.15 Ten of 16 respondents from the minimally supportive districts reflected an emphasis on alignment, with a total of 22 such comments recorded. (See Table 6.) Strict alignment can inhibit the creativity of capable educators and place ownership of challenges and solutions outside of schools. Such inflexibility can prevent principals and teachers from finding the solutions that will best meet the needs of their students. Most district staff members need to improve their skills in facilitating the work of school principals and school leadership teams in taking ownership of solving their own problems and implementing proven solutions. School principals and teachers under a trained coach will learn more if they work through problems themselves and will be more motivated to implement a solution they developed than one that was imposed. As Dennis Sparks of the National Staff Development Council has observed, “the solutions to most problems of teaching and learning require creation and invention rather than prescription or duplication.”16

In the highly and moderately supportive districts, only five of 19 respondents discussed the need to have uniformity in scheduling, curriculum and instruction across schools. The superintendent of a highly supportive district emphasized that “schools are empowered to set their paths. I think that’s key for us. It’s not a top-down approach. I know this whole reference of decentralizing ... is probably an old and tired reference, but I think it’s important.”

What this superintendent of a highly supportive district described fits the definition of “defined autonomy,” coined by Robert Marzano and Timothy Waters to describe building-level autonomy coupled with clearly defined district-level expectations.17 Through a meta-analysis of district leadership research, Marzano and Waters have found that defined autonomy is positively correlated with higher student achievement in a district.

Table 6
Comments Indicating a Focus on Aligning All Schools

District Level
of Support

Percentage of
Respondents Indicating
a Focus on Alignment

Total Number
of Comments

Comments per













Encourage Flexibility to Raise Graduation Rates

Superintendents and district staff mentioned in interviews that raising graduation rates and providing credit-recovery options were major areas in which they support principals and schools. Seven of 10 respondents in highly supportive districts mentioned efforts to provide credit-recovery options, while only seven of 25 respondents in the moderately and minimally supportive districts discussed their strategies to promote credit recovery.

The Broad County school district offers an example of how districts can use flexible scheduling to provide students with every possible opportunity to graduate. The district:

  • has adopted flexible scheduling for its high schools. About one-third of its students have elected to take classes during an extra period before the start of the school day. Other students, who might otherwise drop out in order to work, may attend school from 9:30 to 4:30 four days a week. Some students both start early and end late to earn eight credits per year, instead of the usual six.
  • offers after-school and evening classes. Drama classes are taught from 4 to 6 p.m. two days a week. A marine biology class meets from 5 to 9 p.m. one day a week and includes a nine-day field experience over spring break.
  • provides 0.5 credits to its marching band students, because they spend three weeks of summer vacation practicing.

These opportunities allow students to match their interests to educational requirements in a time frame that works best for them, rather than in a one-size-fits-all schedule that is more convenient for teachers and administrators.

Broad County also has decided to implement a 4x4 block schedule to provide students with even more opportunities to earn the credits they need to graduate. The superintendent, who was driving the change, explained:

    “… right now, you have to have 23 credits to graduate. In a six-period day, you can earn 24 credits in four years. That leaves you very little wiggle room to mess up … or to get recovered. We’ve found that if you’re behind at the end of nine weeks, you’re generally behind for the whole year. So what we want to do is go to where you can earn eight credits in a year, so now you can look at 32 credits. That gives you a lot more flexibility to earn your 23 credits.”

The district spent a full year planning and training for the transition from a traditional schedule to a block schedule to make sure that teachers, especially in areas such as AP classes and foreign languages, successfully adapted their instructional methods to the new class length.

Some of Broad County’s initiatives to raise graduation rates have come directly from the district office, but others, such as the flexible scheduling and after-school classes, were the result of principals finding creative solutions and receiving support from the district office. The district set clear goals, and the principals are expected to use their professional expertise to achieve them. Preliminary data indicate that recent changes and credit-recovery options have helped raise the district’s graduation rate from 62 percent in 2006 to 67 percent in 2008.

Provide Autonomy, Flexibility, Accountability and Support

Where there is support, districts can give principals autonomy and flexibility without sacrificing accountability. Three elements necessary for autonomy and flexibility to exist along with accountability in a school system are ownership, trust and vision.

The first element necessary for accountability and autonomy is vision. A district cannot hold a principal accountable if its leaders do not have a vision for highly engaging and high-performing high schools. In the absence of a strategic plan based on a shared vision, districts cannot lead schools toward success. District leaders too often are forced into a reactionary mode, responding to problems as they arise and in isolation from each other. Districts must have a long-term plan that includes a vision of effective schools, the intervening steps that schools need to take and the support schools need from the district. The vision and the strategic plan can establish the boundaries in which principals have discretion to operate. They also can enable districts to identify the skills and expertise that district staff, principals and teachers need in order to create effective schools.

Second, when the district has a clear vision of a high-performing school and a long-term plan for reaching it, then the school principal and teacherleaders need to take ownership of school improvement. Principals can be held accountable to work with their teachers to identify the specific needs of their own students and to craft and implement strategies to meet those needs, and for identifying and solving problems in their own schools. They and their staff must have the ownership, motivation and passion to take the steps necessary to improve instruction throughout the school.18 Change cannot be mass-produced, but must be accomplished school by school. Districts must provide support and the tools for continuously building the capacity in each school so that its principal and teacher-leaders take ownership of problems.


In the absence of a strategic plan based on a shared vision, districts cannot lead schools toward success.

A third necessary element is trust, coupled with support, and a collaborative working relationship. The district must trust its principals to do the right thing, and principals must trust the district office to provide meaningful support and to make them a true partner in framing and achieving the district plan. Five of the 10 respondents from highly supportive districts mentioned the importance of creating a culture of trust, while only one of the other respondents in the study brought up the issue of trust.

As SREB reported in The District Leadership Challenge, some high school principals said that they did not trust that their district staff had the capacity to provide meaningful assistance in improving curriculum and instruction. Districts must respond to those concerns where they exist by increasing their own capacity and by challenging the district culture to focus more on support and collaborative working relationships with high schools.


In many low-performing districts, principals may be expected to fail, resulting in a high annual attrition rate. This occurs because a district has neither a plan to support and develop the principals it has, nor a plan to identify, recruit, develop and support future principals.

At the same time, districts need to know their principals are up to the challenge. In many lowperforming districts, principals may be expected to fail, resulting in a high annual attrition rate. This occurs because a district has neither a plan to support and develop the principals it has, nor a plan to identify, recruit, develop and support future principals. Every district should ensure a pipeline of strong school leaders by developing a carefully crafted succession plan that includes preparing aspiring principals in collaboration with a university partner or another entity and provides future leaders with opportunities to engage in progressively challenging learning experiences. When the district knows a highly capable person is leading a school, it is more likely to support that principal rather than look for a replacement at the first sign of trouble. When principals know they are trusted, they are more open to expressing their needs and concerns and will be more confident, innovative, collaborative, and likely to create a highly engaging, high-performing school culture.

Make Literacy a Centerpiece of School Reform

In dysfunctional high schools, the school principal and teacher-leaders should be supported by the district office to make literacy the centerpiece of their school improvement effort. Achievement in all subjects is supported by and depends on one’s ability to read and comprehend materials. A real focus must be on embedding reading and writing standards and literacy strategies in all courses and training all teachers to do this effectively.19

Somewhat surprisingly, none of the districts expressed a concern about or strategies to address the emerging national gender gap. Male students are falling behind in academic achievement, especially in the development of reading skills. Leonard Sax raised this issue in his 2007 book, Boys Adrift, and some educators are developing strategies to address gender differences in learning. When researchers began raising legitimate alarm several years ago over another gender gap — female students were underachieving in math and science because they were not receiving encouragement in those subjects — educational leaders began focusing efforts to attract more females to and support them in math and science courses. Today’s schools face a new gender gap, and districts similarly need to use emerging research and practices to reverse a trend of academic underachievement and disengagement among male students.20

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