Good School Leadership Doesn’t Just Appear

It’s a week where the education sector is acknowledging teachers and school leaders. In that spirit here’s a guest post by Anne Wicks, Director of Education Reform at the George W. Bush Institute. 

Think for a minute about the very best boss you ever worked for in the past. What was it about how they “bossed” that made it great?  That person likely had your back, supported and challenged you, and was invested in your success. He or she wanted you to get better and to do well in your role.

That is exactly what great principals do for the adults and students on their campus. They hire and support strong teachers, they bring a focus to high quality instruction, and they set a positive school culture for staff, students, and families. Principals are the leaders closest to the goal of every school: student success.

Ann Clark, former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and current George W. Bush Institute Education Reform School Leadership Initiative advisor, describes the impact of principals, “The principal is the key lever for transformational change at a school. Everything they do supports the magic that happens in the classroom between a teacher and a student.  Great teachers might be hired by a mediocre principal, but they won’t stay at a school with a mediocre principal.”

As we honor school leaders on National Principals Day, which was yesterday, it is important to remember that great school principals are developed over time. They don’t show up on campus as fully developed leaders on day one, yet most districts operate as if they do. The work of preparation, recruitment, selection, supervision, compensation, incentives, evaluation, and working conditions often function disparately instead of systemically.

Each district has practices and policies in place that impact principals, but few districts ask if what is in place helps to recruit, support, and retain highly effective principals in every school.  Our work is designed to help answer that question – and to share what we learn with our colleagues across the field.

We developed a principal talent management framework to showcase what elements connect to support (or frustrate) principals over their careers.  We selected four districts as research partners to help us test this framework – along with our effective implementation framework – to see if we got it right.

The four districts in our cohort work with a dedicated expert district advisor, created and curated tools and resources, and benefit from a learning community built around three convenings a year. Our goal is for the districts to use the frameworks to explore, amend, and build systems that support their principals – and to tell us what they need to make and sustain change over time. So far everything from very practical management tools to nuanced policy discussions has emerged from our work together.

We started by asking our district teams – which include a combination of district leaders, principal supervisors, and principals – if they shared a commonly held definition of a highly effective principal in their district. They each believed that they did, but reviewing existing frameworks and artifacts together exposed some interesting gaps around norming, assumptions, and applications of that definition in practice.

Do our job descriptions reflect that definition? Do our preparation program partners understand our definition of high quality and embed it into their curriculum? Is our selection process transparent and equitable for both adults and students? Does our evaluation system reflect our definition of a high quality leader – and does our evaluation system inform our professional learning curriculum?

We believe that exploring and addressing questions like these will help districts better recruit, support, and retain great principals over time. Important research around principal talent management is beginning to emerge, notably the Wallace Foundation/Rand Corporation recent report on the positive impact of their principal pipeline work.  Our own early results show that change is possible when implementation capacity and high quality interventions combine.

Systems work is not sexy or exciting. In a field where shiny objects attract a lot of attention and funding, it can feel Sisyphean to get people on board with the critical work of systems. We are nearly halfway through our research project, and I continued to be inspired by the professionals who are eager to learn more, to apply new ideas and tools to their particular context, to make change in service of their students, and to share what they have experienced with other educators.

This work is not easy. We don’t expect it to be. But our district colleagues show us that it is possible, and that it makes a difference. All of our kids need schools led by great principals and classrooms led by strong teachers, and it is OK to acknowledge that strong systems make that possible.

Anne Wicks is Director of Education Reform at the George W. Bush Institute.