By Jennifer Gill


Districts Matter: Cultivating the Principals Urban Schools Need

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Until 2011, that's all aspiring principals and assistant principals seemed to have to do if they wanted to be considered for work in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district. "People really didn't know how a principal got hired," says Rashidah Lopez Morgan, the district's director of leadership strategy. "They thought it was because someone was pushing for a particular person. That's certainly not the case now."

Indeed, the district has implemented a rigorous screening and selection process for would-be school leaders. It begins when candidates submit three years' worth of performance reviews, a transcript listing the continuing education courses and workshops they've completed, and data that show their impact on student achieve ment at their current school. Those who make the cut are invited in for an interview, a case-study discussion and a writing exercise that might ask the candidate to write a mock letter to parents about a certain issue. About 30 percent of applicants clear the hurdles and make it into a "talent pool," allowing them to seek leadership roles in the district. Once accepted in the pool, candidates receive training in how to hit the ground running, should they be hired for a leadership position.

Morgan says the district's six zone superintendents lobbied for the screening process because it was taking them too long to vet and hire high-quality candidates on their own. When a candidate didn't work out, there wasn't a reserve of qualified applicants waiting in the wings. The district made sure to seek input from the "zone sups" when developing the new process. "Buy-in doesn't just happen because you roll something out," notes Morgan. "This had to be owned by the hiring managers."

Some 615 school districts in 44 states have used VAL-ED since it became available commercially in 2009, according to Hardin Daniel, vice president of Discovery Education Assessment, which handles its distribution.37 In a 2011-12 pilot project involving 50 of its 200 principals, Prince George's County, Md., began using VAL-ED as a supplemental source of information about strengths and weaknesses in school leadership. Early VAL-ED data have revealed that principals need additional support in generating community involvement in their schools, a finding that points to a good topic for on-the-job training. The pilot is also providing the district with new information about the needs of assistant principals. An analysis of VAL-ED results suggests that principals should provide more genuine leadership opportunities to the APs.38

Invest in early mentoring and continuing professional development

A distinguishing trait of the world's best school systems - systems that regularly outperform the school systems in the United States - is that they "invest in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense," according to an international analysis.39 If U.S. school districts were to heed that finding, they would, for starters, provide mentoring for all novice principals for at least a year. They would use the information from principal assessments to shape the professional development they offer. Finally, they would provide regular expert help to principals individually or in networks to improve their performance as instructional leaders. [See article on p. 26 for an example of such district-level staff support for principals.]

The fact is, however, that historically principal professional development has ranked low on the priority list for many districts, especially in tough times when school systems may face the alternative of reductions in areas more immediately linked to classroom life. "You go back over the years and you see that every time budgets have to be cut, the first to go is professional development," says Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators. Adding to that vulnerability has been a long-held sink-or-swim attitude toward principals, even new hires, who are likeliest to fail without adequate guidance.


Top left: Rashidah Lopez Morgan, director of leadership strategy for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Fortunately, the last decade has seen markedly greater willingness by states and districts to invest in the support of school leaders, especially new hires. Reasons include evolving understanding of the principal's role as instructional leader, accountability pressures from states and the federal government, and worries about turnover and leadership shortages in high-needs schools. Since 2000, more than half of the states have adopted requirements for mentoring novice principals.40 And a number of districts have stepped up their emphasis on professional development and principal coaching despite harsh countervailing budget pressures. Novice principals in Gwinnett County, for example, attend a summer institute to hear from national experts on topics such as how to close the achievement gap. They, as well as all new assistant principals, receive two years of mentoring from retired principals with strong records of improving schools. Elsewhere:

  • In New York City, new principals get an average of 72 hours of one-on-one coaching over the course of their first year on the job. As soon as they are hired, principals use a self- assessment tool developed by the NY C Leadership Academy to identify three top coaching goals and guide mentoring and professional development.41
  • Despite persistent budgetary stress, the Providence school system now considers coaching and professional development a "right" firmly embedded in its culture, says Ed Miley, director of leadership support and development of the 23,000-student district. The district offers extensive coaching and professional development to its principals and even to teacher-leaders. District leaders credit this with sharply lowering principal turnover.42
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg relies heavily on coaching to bolster new and veteran principals. Because of its success in developing a stronger corps of principals, the district has shifted emphasis in coaching from "intervention" for principals who are not meeting performance expectations to help for principals to move from "good to great" and develop strategic plans for their schools, says Rashidah Lopez Morgan, the district's director of leadership strategy.43

Some school districts have invested, as well, in training the people who help shape the principals. Hillsborough County Public Schools, a large district covering the Tampa, Fla., area, has six full-time coaches who work weekly with some 45 novice principals and provide intensive coaching for veteran principals who need support in specific areas. The coaches meet biweekly with Tricia McManus, director of leadership development for the district, to burnish their skills by discussing common problems of practice and how to better support principals. Often, the sessions have required reading. In the summer of 2013, the district plans to send the coaches to Harvard University's National Institute for Urban School Leaders to learn from experts in the field. "We are hoping that they will come back with more tools to further develop principals in our high needs schools," McManus says.44

Districts can also help principals develop instructional leadership muscle by flexing some of their own. "Modeling or demonstrating particular ways of thinking and acting are essential strategies for helping people such as school principals change their work practices," write University of Washington researchers.45 One way to do this is to create high-quality opportunities for principals to serve as resources for one another.46 Unfortunately, districts rarely establish such professional networks, or, when they do, not in a way particularly valued by principals. In the Minnesota-Toronto study, nearly 60 percent of principals surveyed indicated that their districts only occasionally provided them opportunities to work productively with colleagues from other schools. And close to half reported that district leaders infrequently provided "quality staff development focused on high priority areas of instruction." 47

Provide principals with timely, useful data - and the training to make the most of it

Just a decade ago, "it was disconcertingly easy to find education leaders who dismissed student-achievement data and systematic research as having only limited utility for improving schools or school systems," according to the Minnesota-Toronto researchers.48 Lately, the pendulum has been swinging sharply the other way. Many school systems have gotten the message that they need to be more data driven, and they are now awash in data - not just yearly student test scores, but figures on how different groups of students are doing in particular subjects or grade levels, how successful a school is at attracting and retaining teachers or closing the achievement gap among disadvantaged students, or how equitable funding is from school to school.

But having mountains of data isn't the same as having useful information to act on. Nor will data alone reveal the best way to address particular problems. That requires time and skilled interpretation - and unfortunately central office staff members and school leaders often lack the know-how to collect, analyze and make the best use of data.

The potential for misuse is considerable. Researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington singled out two problems: "The first is that, faced with piles of confusing and sometimes contradictory data, all shrug and throw up their hands. The second is that one or two discrete and readily understandable pieces of data will be seized upon as definitive evidence that the schools are 'failing' or, alternatively, 'turning the corner.'"49

Conelli, New York City's deputy chief academic officer for leadership, points to another common problem: "When principals see a set of data and see a group of students who aren't doing well, some will think that what they need to do is create something to 'fix' those kids. So they'll create an after-school program or some form of intervention that is good and necessary but it doesn't get them to the question of 'what are we not doing as a school that allows those kids to fail.' We address the symptom but not the problem."50

There are a number of steps that district officials can take to help schools and their leaders make the most of data. For starters, they should demonstrate appropriate data gathering and use in their own decision making. As the Minnesota-Toronto researchers found, "[T]he scope and complexity of data use in schools mirrored the data use orientations, practices, expectations, and support shown by district office leaders."51 Districts also need to help principals and teachers figure out how the data given to schools "might help them do the job they are trying to do."52

Districts should also consider:

  • Investing in strong data systems
    Created as the backbone of a citywide, data-based "accountability initiative" in 2008, New York City's $81 million Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) has gone a step beyond most district data "warehouses" by offering a single interactive online system allowing principals, teachers and other educators to explore data to improve student outcomes, share what they have learned, take part in discussions and blogs, find others facing similar challenges, and create communities to solve problems together. Parents also have access to much of the ARIS information that pertains to their child. A 2009 evaluation found that nearly two out of three city principals thought ARIS would help improve teaching and learning at their schools. Nearly three out of four ` considered it a good use of their time.53
  • Providing training and support to the school staff in effective data use
    One of the most important roles for districts is to provide school employees with the skills to use data to identify and solve pressing instructional challenges. In Portland, Ore., the district assigns its research and evaluation department to help principals and their teams gather, analyze and use data appropriately.54 New York City principals can request help from district instructional staff and coaches in expanding data literacy in their own staffs.55 The district also helps principals and their teams design and use their own tools to keep tabs on student performance throughout the year.56
  • Adding to the variety of data
    Taken alone, standardized test data offer little guidance on the causes of learning problems or how to address them. Districts should make available a wider variety of information to help schools pinpoint teaching and learning problems and arrive at promising solutions. Besides using state test data, Gwinnett County created two local data sources - "My Students" and "Elements" - to help teachers, principals and their teams measure student progress and the effectiveness of instruction. "My Students" gives teachers and administrators access to current and trend data for students from grades 1-12, which can be disaggregated for particular groups of students. "Elements" allows classroom teachers and others in the school to disaggregate district- and school-generated assessment results by a range of variables, guide instruction strategies, and enable teachers to pinpoint and give instant feedback on students' areas of mastery or weakness.
  • Increasing opportunities for school teams to use the information
    Some districts are encouraging schools to create structured time for principals and their staff members to work in teams - widely known as "professional learning communities" - to use data to identify, address and take collective responsibility for learning problems of specific groups of underachieving students. Fort Wayne actually requires its schools to set aside blocks of time each week for these data-driven discussions.

Since 2008, New York City has made "inquiry teams" a cornerstone of its improvement efforts in all of its schools. Each team, consisting of the principal and at least two other school staff members, is charged with using data to identify a change in instructional practice that will accelerate learning for a given group of underperforming students, then work with others to implement and monitor the change.57

A guiding principle for these inquiry teams is to "stay small." That means concentrating on how to improve a specific skill for no more than 15 to 30 underperforming students - for example, 6th-graders with weak understanding of phonics resulting in below-grade-level English Language Arts scores. Along with test scores and other data, the team's inquiry could include a review of student work and curricular materials as well as classroom visits to observe how students are responding to the curriculum. The team then identifies an instructional strategy to test out, setting performance goals to judge it.58 The ultimate goal is to translate what's learned from the subset of students into an instructional strategy that benefits many more students in the school.59

Help principals focus more time on instruction - and develop the expertise to do so well

Time to focus on improving instruction can be maddeningly short when a school leader's typical day includes a string of crises and non-instructional routines: the lunch menu, the angry parent, the fight in the schoolyard. Indeed, research has found that a principal is apt to spend one-third or less of his or her daily or weekly time on instructional matters.60 Increasingly, districts are recognizing that they can't fairly expect school leaders to concentrate on meeting learning goals unless they also provide them training and support to use their time differently.

Principals first need help in recognizing how they are actually spending their time each day and week. They then need coaching on how to delegate distracting non-instructional tasks that they still feel responsible for or attached to. Other employees need to learn how to work effectively as a team with the goal of protecting the principal's time so the principal can focus on improving student achievement.

One response has been the School Administration Manager (SAM) process, created in 2002 in Louisville, Ky., with Wallace Foundation support and in use in 82 districts across the country as of 2012.61 Participating schools either hire a SAM to assume non-instructional tasks from the principal, or more commonly, the principal designates a person or persons from the staff - typically an assistant principal and/or administrative assistant - to function as a SAM. Guided by tools such as a high-tech calendar that charts the time the principal is spending with teachers and others, the SAM or SAM team meets regularly with the principal to schedule instructional leadership time, reflect on whether and how changes in time allocations are affecting instruction, and designate other school staff members to tend to busing or other matters that don't need to be handled in most cases by the principal.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg has used SAMs as one aspect of its induction for novice principals since 2012 in 22 schools. "We decided first to develop the practices of new principals," says Lopez Morgan, the district's director of leadership strategy. The idea, she adds, is that eventually all principals will be trained in the SAMs process.62 The district also often assigns high-potential assistant principals to do the data collection for SAMs in schools other than their own so that they have the experience of shadowing principals with different leadership styles.

An independent evaluation found that among 93 principals using the SAMs process for two or more years, the mean percentage of time spent on instruction rose from 32 percent to some 52 percent after two years. That translated into more than an hour and a half extra each day on instruction by principals in that study. 63

At the same time, it's important to point out that research has so far found little connection between principals' participation in the SAMs project and improvement in student achieve- ment on standardized tests.64 Does this negate the contention that the amount of time a school leader spends on instruction matters? More research is surely called for, but our suspicion is that the finding is a lesson about expertise: Districts need to make sure not only that principals have time to focus on instruction but also the skills to use that extra time well, that is, the expertise to help teachers improve. Among the SAMs schools they examined, the researchers found only a few that gave the impression "that the principal had 64 strategically selected a set of high-leverage leadership activities that would serve specific purposes in school improvement."65 In response to such findings, the SAMs project has changed in recent years to focus not just on time allotment but time use.

Plan for orderly leadership succession and turnover

"Principal turnover is a problem districts help to create, and so must help to resolve." That's the blunt message from the Minnesota-Toronto report.66

A good deal of principal turnover is inevitable, stemming from retirements, promotions or transfers, and districts should be able to remove weak principals who can't or won't improve over time. The real concern is frequent, unplanned changes in school leadership - whose consequences are far from trivial. Schools with abrupt leadership disruptions on average experience "significant negative effects" on student achievement.67 Furthermore, such schools "are often reported to suffer from lack of shared purpose, cynicism among staff about principal commitment, and an inability to maintain a school-improvement focus long enough to actually accomplish any meaningful change," according to the Minnesota-Toronto report.68

Studies suggest that optimally, a principal needs to be at the helm for at least five years to establish bonds of trust and have changes take root.69 On average, however, schools experience principal turnover every three or four years. Some policies may worsen the problem - for example, arbitrarily rotating principals to other schools after a certain number of years to "reinvigorate" those leaders or having "a one-size-fits-all approach to principal succession."70

How can districts lessen the likelihood of rapid leader transition and its damage? One step is to identify, early in their careers, talented teachers who have the potential to become principals.71 Better training and mentoring for novice principals may also help reduce unwanted turnover. Jefferson County district leaders credit a high-quality training program developed in 2002 with the University of Louisville with a 70 percent drop in principal turnover between 2005 and 2010. Similarly, in Providence, R.I., a successful principal training collaboration between the district and the University of Rhode Island has placed graduates in leadership positions in roughly half of the district's 49 schools since 2002, without a single termination to date. 72 And yet, training alone is unlikely to be the answer. The researchers studying the New York City Leadership Academy's Aspiring Principal Program (APP), for example, found that APP principals had a higher rate of turnover than other new principals in similar schools.73

There is also evidence that distributing leadership and building strong leadership teams in schools can help foster continuity in reform efforts even if a principal leaves. At the least, districts have a responsibility to provide training and support to school staff members to assume new leadership roles.74 Some districts go a step further by allowing some transferring principals to bring in their own leadership teams to smooth the transition and speed school improvement.

This proved to be an effective strategy for Springfield, Mass., when the state classified the district as "underperforming" in 2010 and ordered it to replace all principals and instructional staff members who had served two or more years in its 10 lowest performing schools. District officials tapped some of Springfield's most successful principals to take on these tough turnaround assignments, but also realized that much of the principals' past success stemmed from the strong leadership teams each had built over the years. The upshot? The district allowed several transferring principals to bring along their English Language Arts and math coaches, one or two high-performing teachers to serve as models for other teachers in their new schools, and an assistant principal in the case of middle and high schools. "It made sense to us to move the entire team into the new situation, rather than just bring in the leader and have to wait for a couple of years while that leader assessed members of the school, the organization, and could build a new team," said Mary Kate Fenton, the district's chief instructional officer. The results so far, according to Fenton: Three of the five schools where entire leadership teams were transferred have outperformed state averages in math and English Language Arts.75

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37. Interview with Daniel, Aug. 29, 2012; e-mail from Daniel, Jan. 28, 2013.

38. Interview with Douglas Anthony, Prince George's County acting chief of human resources, Sept. 7, 2012.

39. Marc S. Tucker, Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems, Harvard Education Press, 2011, x. The nations cited in the study are Shanghai, Finland, Japan, Singapore and Canada.

40. Getting Principal Mentoring Right: Lessons from the Field, The Wallace Foundation, 2007, 5-6. Available at

41. The "Leadership Performance Planning Worksheet," developed with Wallace Foundation support, has been used outside of New York City, too, in 12 states by some 450 coaches.

42. E-mail correspondence with Ed Miley, Sept. 23-24, 2012.

43. Interview with Rashidah Lopez Morgan, Aug. 10, 2012.

44. Interview with Tricia McManus, December 7, 2012.

45. Honig, Copland, et al., 33.

46. Honig, Copland, et al., 47.

47. Seashore Louis et al. 141-142.

48. Seashore Louis et al., 179.

49. Mary Beth Celio and James Harvey, Buried Treasure: Developing a Management Guide from Mountains of School Data, University of Washington, 2005, 5. Available at

50. Interview with Anthony Conelli, August 1, 2012.

51. Seashore Louis et al.,193.

52. Seashore Louis et al.,195.

53. Betsy Gotbaum et al., ARIS on The Side of Caution: A Survey of New York City Principals on the City's Accountability Computer System, Office of the New York City Public Advocate, August 2009, 19. Along with the positive findings, the report noted some skepticism among survey respondents concerning the system's benefits relative to its high development costs: Some 69 percent of respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that the local Department of Education had spent too much money on the system; another 14 percent "somewhat agreed."​cuments/ARISFINAL.pdf

54. Plecki, Knapp et al., How Leaders Invest Staffing Resources, 55.

55. Ibid., 56.

56. Conelli interview; ARIS Web site.

57. New York City Department of Education Office of Accountability, Children First Intensive Inquiry Team Handbook, July 2008, 3-4.

58. Marion A. Robinson et al., School Perspectives on Collaborative Inquiry: Lessons Learned from New York City, 2009-2010, Consortium for Policy Research in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2010, 3. The report was funded under a grant from The Wallace Foundation through the New York City Department of Education.

59. New York City Department of Education Office of Accountability, Children First Intensive Inquiry Team Handbook, July 2008, 5-7.

60. Brenda J. Turnball, M. Bruce Haslam et al., Evaluation of the School Administration Manager Project, Policy Studies Associates, Inc., 2009, 21. Available at

61. Interview with Mark Shellinger, creator of the SAM process, August 3, 2012. The SAM project is operated by the National SAM Innovation Project, an independent 501.c3 organization, led by Shellinger. For more information, visit

62. Interview with Rashidah Lopez Morgan, August 10, 2012.

63. Brenda J. Turnbull, Erikson Arcaira and Beth Sinclair, Implementation of the National SAM Innovation Project: A Comparison of Project Designs, Policy Studies Associates, Inc., 2011, 10. Available at

64. Brenda J. Turnbull, Richard N. White and Erikson Arcaira, Achievement Trends in Schools with School Administration Managers,(SAMs), Policy Studies Associates, Inc., 2010, 15-18. The study found, for example, that: After two years of participation in S AMs, a minority of schools examined (13 of 54) had higher (and statistically significant) gains in student achievement than comparison schools; and that the 25 schools that achieved the SAMs goal of an increase of at least 13 percentage points in principal time devoted to instruction did not significantly outperform matched schools after two years.

65. Ibid, 4.

66. Seashore Louis et al.,165.

67. Ibid., 173.

68. Ibid., 165-6.

69. Ibid., 168.

70. Ibid., 168-9.

71. Bottoms et al., v.

72. Mitgang, The Making of the Principal, 6; e-mail from Miley, Jan. 30, 2013.

73. Corcoran, Schwartz and Weinstein, "Training Your Own," 250.

74. Seashore Louis et al., 178.

75. Interview with Fenton, Sept. 6, 2012; e-mail from Fenton, Jan. 23, 2013.