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Priming Principal Pipelines

Leadership training options for district administrators.
At the Keller ISD, new district administrators met at the District Administrator Summit last summer, whereby they learned a deeper understanding of the district’s values and learned to communicate the essence of those values to stakeholders.

Most principals today are hard pressed to find time for the multitasking they are expected to do, from overseeing the daily operation of their schools and interacting with parents to evaluating teachers and providing them with professional development to do their jobs at a high level.

What these principals have frequently been lacking, say experts in the field, is sufficient professional development for themselves. In fact, a 2008 survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) found that its members allocated just 2 percent of their school time, on average, to their own continuing education as school leaders.

That statistic has collided with recent demands by Race to the Top funding requirements, and the majority of state legislatures, that principals and assistant principals conduct more extensive, frequent, and rigorous teacher evaluations—all of which have given principals an even higher profile.

As a result, superintendents are faced with developing principals who are well-qualified for these new responsibilities, and more. “There is an enormous level of accountability,” observes NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly. “There’s a heightened emphasis on the principal being effective in instructional leadership.”

As a result, Connelly adds, she has seen a new emphasis on training principals. “Their professional development has progressed from a one-day ‘drive-by’ session to a team-oriented, site-based program that takes place over a period of time and allows principals to apply what they’ve learned and to grow with it.”

Educational organizations such as NAESP, ASCD, the international education association, and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) are promoting more intensive leadership training.

The New York-based Wallace Foundation, meanwhile, is funding comprehensive principal development programs in districts around the country over a five-year period. Now in its second year, the $75 million Wallace program is aimed at establishing strong principal pipelines in six large urban school districts, including Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenberg (N.C.) Schools, Denver (Colo.) Public Schools, Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools, Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, and the New York City Department of Education.

Instructional Leadership Comes to the Fore

All of these groups agree that the most critical role principals can play is that of instructional leader. For starters, they say principals need to devote a larger portion of the school day to supervising curriculum, visiting classes, and providing effective professional development for teachers—from having them view videos of successful peers to having more experienced faculty mentor them.

A decade ago, with that priority in mind, the Wallace Foundation launched its School Administrative Managers (SAM) Project, which strictly monitors how participating principals invest their time. Noting that school leaders spend up to 75 percent of their day on non-instructional management responsibilities, SAM equips them with TimeTrack, a software calendar program, in which they log the time spent on various activities—with an eye toward increasing time for instructional leadership activities such as classroom observations and following up with options to improve the practices of the teachers who are under observation.

The program, which began in the Louisville (Ky.) Public Schools, has since expanded to nine districts nationwide. It mandates a monthly meeting with a Time Change Coach, usually a retired school administrator, who helps with the transition. And there’s mounting evidence, the Wallace Foundation reports, that this approach makes a difference on principal behavior.

A 2011 study of the SAM districts revealed that after two years, principals spent an average of almost five hours more per week on instructional matters than they did before entering the program.

Leadership Initiatives in Texas

The newfound importance of the principal as instructional leader hasn’t been lost on the 34,000-student Keller Independent School District, which serves the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “In the past, there were pockets of leadership brilliance on the part of principals, but when you get to be a large district, it can be very difficult to achieve that level for all school leaders,” explains Michelle Howard-Schwind, Keller ISD’s director of organizational leadership. “We’re now engaged in a systematic growing of our leadership. We’re consciously looking at what we can do to give everyone the tools to be successful.”

At the monthly meeting of the district’s almost 100 principals, there are at least two hours of professional development activities designed by Howard-Schwind’s office and focused on areas as diverse as what is involved in the 30 hours of training for teachers of A.P. courses and how to handle the input of stakeholders such as parents, community leaders, and the school board in running a school.

The district also concentrates on aspiring principals. Almost 50 assistant principals looking to advance are spending two years in Keller’s Leadership Academy, which meets monthly and has recently covered topics including the use of data to improve student achievement and an in-depth introduction to the Response to Intervention program in the district’s early grades. While about 50 percent of Keller’s principals come from within the district right now, Michelle-Schwind observes, “Going forward, we’re hoping to increase that percentage.”

PLCs for Principals

The 42,000-student Killeen Independent School District, near the sprawling Ft. Hood U.S. Army base in Texas, also has made the development of school leaders a priority. “Building the capacity of our leadership team is very important to us. We take it seriously,” says Killeen’s Chief Academic Officer Diana Miller. “Our hope is to develop our principals’ capacity to lead beyond simple assessment and think about curriculum and instruction. That’s where school improvement will come from.”

In the past, professional development for Killeen’s principals was concentrated in the days before and after the school year and through their monthly meetings. But last year, Miller divided Killeen’s 51 principals into face-to-face Professional Learning Communities, each with five to seven members and organized according to the grade levels of their schools.

“In every PLC, we study ways to strengthen skills as an instructional leader,” Miller explains. “And there’s an investment of time,” four hours, once a month, on Monday mornings, she notes.

Periodically, each of the PLCs makes “instructional rounds,” a visit to one of their schools that involves observing four or five classrooms for 10-to-15 minutes each. These rounds focus on particular instructional areas, Miller notes, such as making sure that there are clear goals and objectives for the lesson and that every student knows what they are. “The principals have to stay specifically focused on that item,” Miller says. “They write down what they’ve seen and what they’ve learned from the visit, and they look for good practices to replicate.”

Afterward, the PLC members analyze patterns and commonalities that they have observed in the various classrooms. For instance, members might notice that a teacher may not have been engaging all of the students. Or, that teacher may have made excellent use of a website projected onto an interactive whiteboard.

The principals also discuss resources—from the district’s professional development specialists to PD in Focus (a collection of videos of exemplary teaching examples assembled online by ASCD)—to which they could direct the teachers. “The purpose is to build the capacity of the principals as instructional leaders and to get them to use the same protocol to help teachers at their schools expand their practice,” Miller adds.

She notes that the district’s 120 assistant principals use part of their regularly scheduled monthly meeting to review the process used in the instructional rounds of the principal PLCs.

From Teacher to Principal

Along with their grants, the Wallace Foundation stipulates four areas on which recipient districts must concentrate:

  • setting high standards for school leaders
  • training future principals vigorously
  • hiring selectively
  • offering strong on-the-job support for novices

Within these guidelines, districts are expected to develop their own homegrown programs. In the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, which is receiving a $12.5 million Wallace grant over five years, 98 percent of the almost 240 principals have worked their way up through the district’s ranks, reports Tricia McManus, the district’s director of leadership development.

Now, she adds, there’s a greater emphasis on what those coming into the principalship know and what they will need to do in that position.

Along those lines, teacher leaders interested in moving into school administration can enter the district’s Future Leadership Academy (FLA), which lasts six months and convenes mostly after school days and on Saturdays.

Besides introducing the roles and responsibilities of assistant principals, FLA, which the district created, provides professional development not only in instructional leadership but in other areas of operating a school (including knowledge of transportation, school safety, and district computer systems) and focuses on competencies such as promoting student achievement, problem solving, and managing people.

Those who pass muster in this introductory course move into the Assistant Principal Induction Program, which requires completion of four courses offered by the district, four half-day training sessions during the school week, and a two-day summer institute.

The focus of the assistant principal training incorporates teacher evaluation and using data in assessment, says McManus. Twice a month, participants meet with a mentor, or a veteran school leader, who helps reinforce these skills and addresses any problems or barriers in achieving them.

After three years as successful assistant principals, applicants can advance to the district’s own Preparing New Principals Program, which lasts for two years and follows a similar training regimen to the assistant principals program.

What’s added are Saturday sessions; a curriculum that includes crisis management, finance and budgets, and media and public relations; and monthly meetings with a “principal coach,” or a high-performing principal in the district. Those moving into vacant principal positions continue to receive coaching from these mentors for their first two years on the job.

“We think we’re going to be producing high quality school leaders,” concludes McManus, who has funded the salaries of six principal coaches with part of the Wallace grant.

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.