What does it take to build a large corps of high-quality principals who can improve schools and promote equitable education within them? Partnerships and a clear focus might be a good way to begin. That was a key message from a recent meeting of Wallace’s ESSA Leadership Learning Community, which brings together teams from 11 states working to see how federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) funding could be used to support evidence-based ways to develop effective school leadership.
“No amount of money, flexibility or investment is likely to make a difference for students if we just follow the familiar path,” said one of the participants in the virtual event, Hal Smith, a senior vice president at the National Urban League. “The work is complex, though the aim is clear. We can get there together.”
The Urban League, along with the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools, helps oversee the learning community, whose members generally include representatives from the education departments of the participating states, school districts within the states and Urban League affiliates that represent local community concerns.
The convening featured presentations by four state teams—Nebraska, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—to describe the work they’ve done for the learning community, share lessons learned and discuss what comes next.
The Pennsylvania team has focused on developing and supporting a diverse education pipeline for both teachers and leaders, with an emphasis on maximizing opportunities for all Pennsylvania students, especially those most in need. “As educators we know that in order for students to do their very best, students need to learn in an environment that is safe and empowering to them,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega. “It’s critically important as educators that we take advantage of the opportunities to strengthen and expand that awareness.”
A central goal of the team has been diversifying the educator workforce in the state. “There remain nearly 1,500 Pennsylvania schools and 184 entire school districts that employ zero teachers of color,” said Donna-Marie Cole-Malott, a consultant to the Pennsylvania team. Only five percent of teachers in the state are of color, according to Cole-Malott.
Efforts by the team have included holding two convenings about the Black male educator workforce—one focused on recruitment and the other on developing, supporting and retaining Black male educators. The team has also engaged stakeholders to learn about how others doing similar work have been successful and how they can work together.
In Minnesota, meanwhile, the learning community team has worked to support the development of a Minnesota equity framework for schools and communities. The partners are the Minnesota Department of Education, the Urban League Twin Cities and the Minneapolis Public Schools.
Marquita Stephens, vice president of strategic engagement and chief strategy officer for the Urban League Twin Cities, launched her presentation with an expression used by Hal Smith of the National Urban League: “Schools are made for communities and not the other way around.” She said the phrase “helped us center the reason for involving all of the partners together to make sure that the outcomes for children were exactly what we intended for them to be. All three partners were drawn back to this as a centering understanding of why we needed to work together. ”
The creation of the Minnesota Equity Framework is the result of all three partners being in the room together, constantly being in discussion and building relationships, said Marcarre Traynham, director of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Center at the Minnesota Department of Education.
“Equity is really about consensus,” she said. “It’s about having conversations, understanding where people are at, understanding what the point of view is, listening for understanding in order to make shifts in your own belief systems.”
The team was committed to creating shared understanding about equity, and helping people to think about what creating equity in their areas would mean, Traynham said. Discussion about this helped the team members build authentic relationships across the board, she added.
“Doing the equity work and living the equity work are intertwined,” said Kandace Logan, who served as executive director of equity and integration for Minneapolis Public Schools. “This work is hard and it must be done with authentic partnership and relationships.”
Forging strong partnerships has proved crucial for Nebraska’s team members, too. Kim Snyder, statewide teacher and principal support director at the state’s education department, said that participation in the learning community “taught us a lot about making sure we’re all at the table together.”
A big part of Nebraska’s work has focused on developing nontraditional rubrics for teachers and principals that align with the Nebraska teacher and principal performance standards, according to Snyder.
“They’re nontraditional in the sense that they’re designed to be a lever for growth versus the traditional rubrics that are used maybe once or twice a year for an evaluation process,” she said. “The rubrics are meant to strengthen the educator effectiveness lens through which districts can really create a portrait of the whole teacher and whole principal in their buildings.”
But how can stakeholders ensure that these standards have impact?
Through a grant from Wallace and work with The Leadership Academy, an organization that promotes principal effectiveness, the Nebraska team created an equity task force to support, among other things, their ability to work toward equity-driven leadership development.
The team supports the notion of fully integrating equity considerations into efforts to develop effective principals and other school leaders. “We’re trying to embed an equity lens into the leadership support that already exists,” said Ryan Ricenbaw, Nebraska Leadership & Learning Network Specialist at the Nebraska Department of Education. “We’re able to learn from one another, work with one another and make sure that communication is consistent and ongoing.”
Wisconsin team members agreed that powerful partnerships and a common goal can help advance the work.
The Wisconsin team was focused “from the get-go” on using federal ESSA dollars to support the development of principals statewide in order to “ensure they had the skills and capabilities to really address the inequities they saw every day in their schools,” said Mary-Dean Barringer, a facilitator for the Wisconsin team.
With a grant from the state’s Department of Public Instruction, the team was able to help the five largest districts in Wisconsin work with consultants to identify and begin to address the unmet needs of the schools.
“The project was so exciting—that we have a strong partnership from the Department of Public Instruction to make this a sustainable model that would also leverage community connection to help empower schools and bring solutions forward by using the connections and networks that already existed in our community,” said Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.
Barringer also stressed the importance of sustaining the work.
“As we look ahead, we would like to harness the power of this partnership and its action orientation to address other critical challenges in addition to supporting equity-centered school leaders,” she said.
The ESSA Leadership Learning Community, established in 2016, has been extended through December 2022, so the participating teams can use the partnerships they developed during the past five years to address today’s challenges.