New Report Calls on School Districts to Power Up High Schools

AASA New Superintendents E-Journal October 2009

A new report by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works with 16 member states to improve education, concludes that school districts must improve working conditions and support for high school principals or the nation will continue to be plagued by troubling dropout rates and high school graduates who are ill-prepared for college-level work. 

The report, The District Leadership Challenge: Empowering Principals to Improve Teaching and Learning, is based on interviews with principals and suggests several steps to reverse the current course. “A central reason for the unending graduation and preparation problems is the failure of many public school districts to systematically provide the working conditions that well-trained principals need to succeed,” the report says. 

The District Leadership Challenge notes that despite billions of dollars in private and public investments to improve high schools during the past several years, nearly 7,000 students drop out of U.S. high schools each day, while an estimated 1.2 million teenagers abandon the public schools without a diploma or an adequate education each year. The future is not much brighter for many of those students who earn a high school diploma. An estimated 40 percent of freshmen in community colleges (and 20 percent in public four-year institutions) require remedial instruction in reading, writing or mathematics. 

“Districts have to treat principals like they expect them to lead,” says the report. “Principals and teachers need control over the learning process.” 

What Principals Are Saying

SREB’s research sought to answer one key question: “What perceptions do high school principals have of the conditions their districts are providing in support of school improvement?” The initial study included confidential interviews with 22 principals implementing the SREB High Schools That Work improvement model. These principals led schools in small, medium and large districts in 17 states. 

By comparing the interview responses of principals in high-performing and low-performing schools, SREB learned more about how relationships between central office leaders and high school principals can magnify or diminish the principal’s capacity to effectively lead a school to higher levels of achievement. 

Principals at the most-improved high schools, the report finds, believed they had a collaborative working relationship with the district. They gave a much more expansive description of district staff responsibilities for improving student achievement and the support they received from the district. 

In contrast, at the least-improved high schools, most reform initiatives were centralized in the district office. The district was not concerned about empowering and building the capacity of school leaders to be real players in school reform. 

“These findings are consistent with SREB’s observations made over two decades of work to improve high schools and middle grades schools,” the report adds. 

The Principal Must Be a Player

The important role that school leaders play is supported by a growing body of knowledge. As the report notes, recent research finds that schools cannot make significant gains in achievement, slash the dropout rate and offer demanding and highly engaging instruction without the principal as a key player. 

A recent National Academy of Sciences study concluded that purposeful district-level support of high school reform is even more critical than that of elementary- or middle-level school reform. 

The report stresses the importance of the district role in providing high school principals with training, technical support, adequate resources and supportive policies to become instructional leaders. They need encouragement and political support from their local school boards in order to take risks and implement innovative organizational structures, school schedules and partnerships with employers and postsecondary institutions. 

Such support of principals is critical if high schools are to help more students meet grade-level or higher standards, stay in school and graduate prepared for the next steps in their education and careers. “Even the most talented and best-trained principals will fail if their working conditions do not support their improvement efforts,” the SREB report says. 

How District Leaders Can Power Up High Schools

The District Challenge report draws from the interviews with principals to offer the following high-priority strategies for districts to improve leadership in ways that can help improve student achievement, graduation rates and college readiness: 

1. Find or develop the right principal for each high school. Expect principals to become instructional leaders. Give them the authority and support to assume that role. Then hold them accountable.

The most consistent research finding about school district effectiveness is this: Districts must maintain a strong focus on improving instruction and raising standards and achievement by supporting principals to become instructional leaders. 

By this standard, few school systems can claim to be near peak effectiveness. The challenge for districts is two-fold: (1) Clear away regulations and conditions that hinder the ability of principals and teachers to improve curriculum, instruction and student achievement; and (2) build capacity within the district’s central office to support school ownership of the learning process. 

2. Expand the vision for teaching and learning in high schools beyond the minimums. Emphasize instruction that engages all students in authentic types of learning. Create the motivation for students to pursue a high school diploma. 

In too many districts, the district strategy is to circumvent principals on curriculum and instructional matters. Too often, the district mission is for students to meet minimum standards — not to accelerate achievement for all groups of students.  

Districts failing to make major improvements in their high schools often do not have a cohesive improvement agenda. Instead, their efforts are characterized by many disjointed actions. Successful districts have a clear vision for improvement. They convey to principals an urgent need to examine all aspects of the school to identify and address the problems that contribute to poor student performance. They help principals accomplish this task. 

3. Give principals authority commensurate with their responsibility. 

Regardless of district size, the principals of the most-improved schools in the study were more likely to describe loose district control over decisions about school improvement. Principals of the least-improved schools were more likely to describe tight district control. 

The principals who believe their authority is more commensurate with their responsibility reported that their superintendents and school boards support decentralized decision making — and especially the principal’s ability to make personnel decisions and recommend moving or dismissing teachers who do not meet expectations. 

In districts that decentralize decision making, leadership roles have been redefined at all levels — from the superintendent, district office staff and school board, to principals and teachers. District staff members understand that their role is to support principals, not circumvent them.

4. Develop a collaborative partnership among the district, the principal and the school leadership staff. 

Rather than working with a supportive district, many principals spend time and effort finding ways to work around the district office to improve student achievement. They feel forced to circumvent protocols for hiring and develop underground relationships with individuals in the district office to find support. 

The best districts demonstrate evidence of a collaborative “lattice” approach between the school and central office. With the right principals in place, districts provide the necessary support for them to lead their schools to success. 

5. Give principals a full arsenal of strategies to meet the weighty expectations now being set for America’s high schools. 

SREB’s research indicates that principals’ capacity to instigate improvements effectively is particularly lacking in high-needs schools. Principals often pointed out the failure of school districts to provide adequate staff support, technical assistance, professional learning, data analysis or resources to help at-risk students. 

Successful districts provide school leaders with proven reform strategies such as new ways of using school time and organizing staff so teachers can work together on instructional issues, additional teachers and personnel with expertise in instruction, a range of extra-help strategies for students, and an adequate supply of up-to-date instructional materials. 

6. Tailor support to the needs of individual schools. 

In many districts, some schools may perform well while others flounder. Districts need to set systemwide goals and then tailor their reform and support strategies to the unique characteristics of each school. 

In the SREB study, principals in the most-improved schools were more likely to report frequent visits from district staff than were the principals in the least-improved schools. Districts must provide the greatest amount of attention and assistance to schools in need of greatest improvement. The goal is to build the capacity of each school leadership team to adapt and implement improvement strategies effectively. 

Principals of the most-improved schools were also more likely to describe visitors from the central office as being focused on instructional matters than were their counterparts in the least-improved schools. 

7. Ensure principals have the necessary data and data-analysis skills to link information about results to students’ experiences in school.

Effective districts provide and use data to guide district, school and classroom improvements in instruction and student performance. Yet many districts hoard important performance data at the district level. 

Often, if schools do get data, the primary focus is on fixing the students. The data seldom are used to reveal what could be fixed in the learning system that allowed students to perform below grade level. Districts with effective improvement plans provide data to schools in ways that enable principals and teachers to disaggregate and analyze the data by teacher, students’ gender, students’ ethnicity and other groupings.

8. Send a clear message to the community about the need for change. 

Districts must develop awareness among parents, business and community leaders about how they can support high schools in creating learning experiences that foster greater motivation among all groups of students. Unfortunately, community involvement in schools often amounts to little more than information sharing. 

Districts that build such community and parent partnerships begin by demonstrating their commitment to a vision of high-performing schools and the research-based practices that will realize that vision. They identify and acknowledge poor performance. They take steps to help stakeholders understand that, to ensure more students finish a challenging core curriculum, schools will need to link their learning experiences to authentic activities, problems and projects that expose them to the real work of careers. 

Principals as Leaders of Change 

The SREB report does not urge school districts to abandon their oversight of schools. Rather, it suggests that district leaders must support a comprehensive framework for school-level improvement and implementation. 

Central office staff must reach agreement with principals about the improvement design and then expect schools to implement it. Districts should monitor implementation in action and define good implementation of improvement strategies. 

The district leadership challenge is to move from oversight, from holding principals accountable at arms length, to providing the capacity-building support that true district-school partnerships require. “Depending on principals to be superheroes is not a solution to the problem of working conditions that hinder widespread high school reform,” the report says. “The research is clear and overwhelming: If school districts want high-achieving high schools, they must empower principals to be leaders of change.” 

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