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Leading Edge Blog

Strengthening Instruction and Outcomes: Priorities for Superintendents, Central Office, and DLTs

Guest Blog by: Dr. Brian McNulty

In 2012, the Wallace Foundation funded the largest leadership study of its time. With almost 10 years since the initial results, they have recently updated the report, How Principals Affect Students and Schools. The report highlights the critical role of central office staff and that it is essential that they be focused on teaching and learning. Oftentimes, this requires a skill set on the part of central office. Essentially, we’re asking principals to use more leadership in terms of instruction and learning. And, in order to do that, central office needs to reorient their focus toward that work.

The bottom line is that central office administrators’ knowledge of high quality instruction is fundamental to implementing ambitious, standards-based reforms. Research tells us that consistent reforms were enhanced when all members of the central office operated with a shared theory of action. Let’s back up a bit and talk about non-negotiables. You’ve heard me talk about these before, and that is that there must be a:

  1. Common focus,
  2. Shared leadership and collaborative inquiry, and
  3. Teams at every level using the 5-step process.

School district reforms do not stick when the central office does not effectively lead the reforms. Sometimes we see that central office is not focused on the right work, and that is focusing on instructional improvement and performance. Why? Because there is now clear, empirical evidence on the influence of district-level practices on the quality of instructional leadership. One of the most important strategies for district improvement is investing in the professional development of school leaders. School districts must make the development of stronger school leadership a top priority.

The Role of the Principalship Has Changed

As we look at the principalship over the last few years, it has become markedly more female, the level of experience has fallen on average, especially in high-need schools, and despite dramatic changes in the racial and ethnic composition of students, racial and ethnic diversity in school leadership has moved only slightly. Recent research tells us that the effectiveness of the principal is more important than the effectiveness of any single teacher. And, that if a school district could invest in improving the performance of just one adult in a school building, investing in the principal is likely the most efficient way to affect student achievement.

The impact of an effective principal has likely been understated, with impacts being both greater and broader than previously believed. Because of this, there are four big things principals need to focus on:

  1. Engaging teachers in focused interactions,
  2. Building a productive culture/climate,
  3. Facilitating collaboration and learning communities, and
  4. The strategic management of personnel and resources, including hiring and retention components.

Leadership for Equity

Equity and Engaging in Instructionally Focused Interactions with Teachers

Principals work with teachers to search for alternative instructional approaches (e.g., culturally responsive teaching) to meet the learning needs of marginalized students (Danridge, Edwards, and Pleasants 2000; Ylimakiet al. 2012) or engage teachers in specific professional development around serving the needs of subpopulations, such as English learners. Another instruction-related theme is setting and communicating high instructional expectations for marginalized students.

Equity and Building a Productive Climate

Equity-focused leaders build a school climate in which diverse students are valued and feel welcomed (Demerath 2018 and Theoharis, 2007). A key to an inclusive climate is how principals manage discipline and its implications for the racial disciplinary gap.

Equity and Facilitating Collaboration

Studies describe efforts to build purposeful connections with families and community groups to better meet schools’ obligations to serve marginalized students.

Equity and Managing Personnel and Resources Strategically

Principals prioritize diversity in teacher hiring as an equity strategy. For example, hiring diverse teachers along racial and gender lines to better represent the mix of students in their schools (Mansfield & Jean-Marie 2015, Harris et al. 2010), or they hire teachers with pedagogical skills to reach every student and who display a clear commitment to equity (Theoharis, 2007).

If principals are going to be successful at this work, there needs to be leadership and consistent support from central office. This is just a high level preview of what I plan to share live on June 16 from 1-3 p.m. During this free professional learning event, I’ll dive even deeper into the research and practical recommendations districts should consider now. I hope to see you there.