Leadership: An Agenda for School Improvement

The following is excerpted from a talk by Wallace Foundation President M. Christine DeVita at Wallace’s October 2009 national education conference Education Leadership: An Agenda for School Improvement. To watch video highlights from the conference, click here .

Ten years ago, education leadership was not what anyone would call a “hot issue.” It was noticeably absent from most of the major school reform efforts of the past twenty years. It was not on most policy agendas. 

And even when leadership was recognized as important, there was uncertainty about why it mattered, what could be done to improve it, and whether and how states, districts and schools could work together to create a more cohesive system to recruit, train and support it.

So, what have we and our partners accomplished and what have we learned?

To begin with, leadership has taken its rightful place on the school reform agenda. It is increasingly accepted – at both the federal and state levels – that school improvement cannot succeed without effective leadership. 

In fact, the word “principals” appears 24 times in the Federal Register notice on the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund. States applying for this and other innovation funds must meet four criteria. One of them is ensuring great teachers and leaders. Seeing the importance of both teachers and leaders – and their interdependence – acknowledged here by the Department of Education represents enormous progress. State leaders also recognize the importance of leadership. A recent survey conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education found that most state superintendents and board presidents across the country now believe that school principals have important effects on student learning. And a majority says the training and support of school principals is on their state’s education improvement agenda.

So, there seems little doubt that leadership is higher on the policy agenda. 

But it’s not enough for something to be on the agenda. We need to know what to do about it. 

I want to briefly highlight four lessons we’ve learned that point the way to what we can do to improve leadership. You can read more about them in Research Findings to Support Effective Educational Policymaking: Evidence and Action Steps for State, District and Local Policymakers but here’s a quick summary of key findings. 

First, building a cohesive system of education policy from states to districts to schools has important payoffs. While this sounds logical, such coordination has not been the norm. Indeed there is often tension between leaders at different levels. 

I once asked a school superintendent what the state could do that would be most beneficial, and the reply was “stay out of the way.” When I asked a state chief what districts could do, the answer was similar: “Obey the rules.” 

But new RAND research to be shared today tells a surprising story. It finds that where district and state policies are closely aligned, schools principals report benefits including relatively strong authority over hiring teachers and the ability to devote more of their time on average to improving instruction. 

Second, district leadership is critically important, especially in turning around low-performing schools. 

  • Only district leaders can direct additional funds and staffing to the highest-needs schools – and create incentives to help attract and retain those staff.
  • They can reorganize the central office to better support principals in their learning improvement agenda.
  • They can provide reliable assessments of principals, to help them focus on what matters most.
  • And they can free up time for those principals to focus on instruction. For example, an evaluation of a program began in Louisville, Kentucky that is being tried in nine states, found that, on average, principals with School Administration Managers were spending nearly five hours more per week on instruction. 

Third, at the school level, research we’ve commissioned has concluded that there are virtually no documented instances of troubled schools being turned around without intervention by a powerful leader. 

  • One reason is that a good principal is the single most important determinant of whether a school can attract and retain high-quality teachers.
  • And the principal is uniquely positioned to ensure that excellent teaching and learning spreads beyond single classrooms. 

For us, the bottom line seems to be that investments in good principals are a particularly cost-effective way to improve teaching and learning. 

Lastly, we’ve learned that if we do a better job of training principals in the first place, they do better in their schools. A 2007 Stanford study  we commissioned identified the characteristics of exemplary training programs. And earlier this year, an evaluation of the New York City Leadership Academy, which incorporates these characteristics, demonstrated how high-quality training can pay off. The evaluation found that Academy graduates placed in extremely low-performing schools improved their schools’ academic performance at higher rates than other new principals in English-language arts, and at comparable rates in math. 

States and universities – and even districts that can take advantage of their purchasing power – can all help make these characteristics the rule, rather than the exception. 

  • In fact, in the 16 states that Wallace works most closely with, more than 200 university-based leadership preparation programs have either been forced to improve their programs or have been shut down.
  • And we know of 24 new high-quality programs – both district-run, and district-university partnerships – that have been started by our partners. 

There is much more we can do to ensure widespread use of effective leadership practices in schools, districts, states and universities. 

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.