Revising standards and evaluations for principals, strengthening the roles of principal supervisors, and creating new administrative positions to relieve principals of non-instructional duties are a few of the ways that states and districts are helping principals be more successful as instructional leaders, speakers said Wednesday during a panel discussion held by New America, a Washington-based think tank.
The session expanded on the research that New America has already done in this area, which shows that 26 states have explicitly labeled one of the standards for principals as “instructional leadership.” The other half of the states have a standard that might be called “teaching and learning” or use other terms, but they essentially convey the same emphasis on curriculum and instruction, creating a culture of learning and providing feedback to teachers, Roxanne Garza, an education policy analyst at New America, said during the event, which was live streamed.
As standards have changed, however, principals are often still responsible for a host of other tasks, Garza said, referring to a Metlife survey in which 75% of principals responded that their jobs have become too complex.
The session also comes in the same week that researchers at Vanderbilt University and Mathematica Policy Research released a report on districts participating in the four-year, $24 million Wallace Foundation’s Principal Supervisor Initiative, which has aimed to change the position to better support school leaders in improving student learning.
Jessica McLoughlin, a project manager with the Texas Education Agency, said during the Wednesday event that state officials took a systemic approach by creating a manager of instructional leadership position in its regional service centers. Those managers work with outside providers to coach principal supervisors, principals and school-level instructional leadership teams. Some schools have already seen academic growth and have moved off the “improvement required” list, she said.
The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) also created standards that “reflected the changing role” of principals, along with an evaluation model, said Michael J. Coty, a principal development and evaluation specialist. The agency, however, found itself fighting the perception that it was only focused on compliance. He said that he is now trying to stress “that we are there to support, not just watch over you.”
MDE created a coaching guide for principal supervisors and hired former principals and superintendents to work in the state’s Regional Centers of Excellence. Supervisors are now providing on-site professional development with principals. “Every day, we get more calls for help within their systems,” Coty said.
In the Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa, former superintendent Martha Bruckner brought the School Administration Manager Project to some of her schools, in which the principal creates a position for a manager to handle non-instructional duties, such as working with the parent association, managing bell schedules and other operations. After the first year, she said the percentage of the time principals were spending on instruction significantly increased.
But she added that principals also have to learn how to use the additional time they have efficiently. “Just bringing extra people into the building to work with the principal isn’t enough,” said Bruckner, who is now the executive director of the Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Scott Thompson, the deputy chief for innovation and school design with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), said there has been a misconception that districts could focus on hiring “superstar” principals that are capable of being both good instructional leaders and handling everything else.
“Those people just don’t exist, and they can’t do that work for 100 hours a week for 10 years,” he said.
Like Iowa, DCPS created a position to take some of the burdens of building management off principals — a director of school operations, who supervises non-instructional staff members. He added that while teachers care about school leaders, they also care about how well a school runs.
“We shouldn’t be losing teachers because we don’t have working copiers,” Thompson said.
Whereas principals in the district were spending almost half of their time at work focusing on non-instructional issues, those who have implemented the model now spend about 19% of their time on those tasks.
Challenges with making the shift
One challenge the state leaders have faced is designing standards and systems that meet the needs of districts varying in size. In some small, rural districts in Minnesota, for example, a principal supervisor is also the superintendent — and the bus driver, Coty said. “It’s a challenge to customize things for all these types of districts around the state.”
But in Texas, McLoughlin said in smaller districts, where the superintendents were also the supervisors, there was greater agreement around a common approach because they were all in the same room together.
“The supervisor needs to be the lead instructional leader,” she said. “Our supervisors are required to attend trainings with principals and instructional leadership teams.”
Thompson said that another lesson learned is around the expectation, perhaps misguided, that a principal should be able to walk into any classroom and be the best teacher in the building. With the content-area expertise required to teach to the Common Core standards, that’s not really possible. But it is realistic that principals should be able to offer feedback in any content area and recognize quality instruction.
Melissa Tooley of New America, who moderated the panel, raised the issue of the role of teacher leaders in providing coaching to their peers and whether that takes some of the responsibility off principals.
Bruckner said she faced that challenge in Council Bluffs when the state offered financial support for schools to encourage teacher leadership. But distributing instructional leadership too much misses the point, she said.
“What the principal spends time doing sends a message to everyone in the building.”