We include below links to various articles dealing with improving student achievement and leading system-wide reform. These articles are written by Targeted Leadership senior executives and consultants.
The Superintendent’s role today is so complex, deals with so many competing issues, and is measured by such high standards tied to increased accountability for results that few are willing to tackle the job these days. With such a seemingly impossible job to tame, can superintendents truly affect student achievement?
As a student in Harvard University’s Urban Superintendent Program, I wanted to explore that question in more depth by studying superintendents who had, indeed, made a difference in student learning. With the help of Harvard faculty, I identified district leaders who had successfully spearheaded efforts to improve student achievement.
Libia Gil, formerly of Chula Vista, CA, Elementary School District; and Diana Lam, formerly of Providence, RI, Public Schools were two of the leaders that met the criteria. In addition to the two superintendents from my study, I also considered the work of Tom Payzant, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, whom I had the opportunity to work closely with for two years as one of his deputy superintendents. In all three cases, these superintendents have been able to steadily increase student achievement as measured by standardized tests and/or benchmark assessments, narrow the achievement gap and with the exception of Chula Vista, which is only a K-6 district, increase the high school graduation rate.
I interviewed, observed, and collected data on these three superintendents over a course of four years. I also interviewed their leadership teams and the principals in their districts to determine what the superintendents did that affected their roles as instructional leaders. What did I conclude? Yes, superintendents can have a positive impact on student learning, primarily through the promotion, support and development of principals as instructional leaders.
Many principals say they spend more time on management, paperwork, and meetings than on instructional leadership because that is what they perceive to be the district’s priorities. However, the superintendents I studied identified their first priority as promoting the principal’s role as instructional leader. Although the superintendents had the same goal, they used several different strategies.
First, the superintendents placed the focus on student learning by establishing a districtwide vision centered on meeting student learning needs, and by tying district goals for student performance to that vision. They also engaged principals in discussions about holding high expectations for all students.
Second, the superintendents set clear expectations by establishing the primacy of the principals’ instructional leadership role verbally and in writing. They clearly defined what it means for principals to be instructional leaders and established standards tied to evaluation and, in one case, merit pay.
Finally, the superintendents held principals accountable for being instructional leaders. They implemented site visits and walkthroughs that were focused on instructional practices and followed up with written feedback. Further, they aligned the principal supervision and evaluation process with the instructional leadership focus and included in the process the review of student performance data. It was not enough to seem to be doing the right things; principals were held accountable for generating measurable improvement in student learning.
Tom Payzant outlined his plan for whole district improvement in a public document titled “Focus on Children.” He made professional development in the area of literacy and mathematics a priority in the district, established measurable student outcome goals in each school, and clearly articulated the key role principals and their instructional leadership teams played in guiding and supervising the implementation of promising practices.
One principal in the Boston Public Schools said, “The success we have had is directly connected to our system’s relentless focus on math and literacy and connecting all professional development to those areas. It enabled me to provide the kind of instructional leadership I knew we needed, especially with the support of our collaborative coaching and learning model.”
Principals acknowledged the need for a districtwide focus in the area of literacy and mathematics and knew that walkthroughs, both collegial and evaluative, were aimed at finding evidence of how well these practices were being implemented. Payzant conducted instructionally focused walkthroughs in buildings and had responsibility for principal evaluation along with his deputies.
It is perhaps easier to take the first steps to promote principals as instructional leaders than it is to continuously support them in that role. Lam, Gil and Payzant used a variety of strategies to help principals grow as instructional leaders.
First, they supported the principals by reorganizing central services. They hired assistance superintendents or deputy superintendents who had been effective principals themselves and saw their role as both supportive and supervisory. The assistant superintendents or deputies visited schools and met with principals often to discuss the progress each school was making in meeting student achievement goals, to problem solve obstacles that prevented principals from exercising their instructional leadership, and to monitor the implementation of promising instructional practices.
In addition, two out of the three superintendents reorganized departments to be more responsive and accessible including moving some offices to school sites, arranging meetings between departments and the schools they served, and requiring that each department set specific measurable goals for improving the way they responded to school requests.
One principal who worked under Gil in Chula Vista explained her situation this way, “We are truly fortunate in this district…I can go directly to the superintendent or any of the assistant superintendents and know that I can walk away with a sense of direction. I couldn’t ask for greater support so I can do my job.”
Second, these superintendents increased direct support to the principals, giving them more time to be effective instructional leaders and specific tools to help them maintain that focus. For example, to support the principals in stabilizing their staff, they implemented procedures to help them handle teacher dismissals and mandatory teacher seniority transfers. In addition, the superintendents provided on-site staff developers or coaches to work with teachers and implemented a support structure to reduce the amount of time principals spent on administrivia and paperwork.
“[Diana Lam] told us early on that we were going to be her focus, that she was going to give us a great deal of professional development that was going to enable us to be facilitators in our buildings for instructional change,” a principal in Providence said. “She didn’t expect us to do it alone and she was going to support us all the way.”
In Providence, Lam implemented a districtwide structure for instructional improvement. This plan was based on key principles of learning. All district staff members were trained in these instructional principals and practices, and principals were held accountable for ensuring their implementation in the classrooms.
To support the principals in this roll, Lam reorganized how the central office worked with principals. For example, principals in the district had never met one another. They were only brought together once a year for a meeting labeled by principals as a “nuts and bolts” meeting that had nothing to do with instructional improvement or student achievement. Lam changed this immediately and scheduled monthly meetings and study groups with principals to give them the opportunity to learn together, engage in problem solving and share successes. In addition, lead principal positions, with significant pay differentials, were created to allow successful principals to mentor their struggling colleagues. Principals were encouraged to request additional support as needed, and many took advantage of the offer.
A lead principal in Providence explained, “We are used as mentors and we are starting to see people’s strengths and weaknesses in a collegial way…really encouraging people to come out to our schools and do learning walks… I think colleagues have taken this idea of lead principals seriously and are using us if they have questions, need somebody to sound off, get feedback, and be a critical friend.
Even effective principals do not have all of the expertise necessary to ensure every student is achieving at a high level. Principals must be seen—and must see themselves—as learners. Lam, Gil, Payzant helped develop instructional leadership skills in their principals by providing training in proven practices.
For example, they used external consultants with a proven track record to provide targeted professional development in instructional leadership. They also implemented collegial principal walkthroughs and site visits and provided opportunities for peer-assisted learning through principal support groups, study groups, and in one case, informal book study clubs.
In Chula Vista, Libia Gil worked hard to create a district of independent schools. Part of this approach entailed assigning as many resources as possible directly to the schools which resulted in a very thinly staffed central office.
To develop principals’ instructional leadership skills and practices in his rapidly growing district, which now ranks as the largest elementary district in California, Gil brought in a team of external consultants to provide monthly training to principals. This program, funded by the Ball Foundation, included in-depth professional development training for principals and teacher instructional leadership teams in identifying an instructional focus; creating targeted professional development plans tied to specific, measurable student outcome goals, and building learning communities.
“Our instructional leadership team and I had the opportunity to engage in challenging and yet rewarding conversations centered on developing a joint sense of responsibility for improving learning for all students. [We focused on] identifying best practices for all classrooms, utilizing data to make informed decisions, and aligning our instructional program and resources around our work in improving our literacy program,” one principal explains. “The work was hard but the results were significant.”
To support this work and further build on the independence of the schools, peer groups of six or seven principals met regularly throughout the year to discuss their progress and challenges. They also contributed 25 percent of the formal evaluation of their peer group members. A series of dipstick walkthroughs conducted by teams of teachers and administrators in the fall and then again in the spring, helped track improvement in the schools.
A Chula Vista principal explains, “We now interact not only with each other more effectively, but with other schools in our district. We have truly developed a ‘community of learners’ as we all work to move our instructional program forward.”
Superintendents or districts considering moving forward with a focus on instructional leadership should determine the local context and decide which of the measures discussed here will have the greatest positive impact. All of the superintendents I studied have seen consistent growth in student achievement in their districts, although none of them used every strategy discussed here. Each superintendent, regardless of the strategies used, however, promoted, developed and supported principal as instructional leaders. Addressing fewer than all three of these points will reduce the effectiveness of any attempt.
A great deal more can be learned and understood about how successful superintendents lead their districts toward improved student learning. As a member of the Targeted Leadership team, I, along with several partners, have had the opportunity to support the powerful work of several outstanding superintendents who have employed the strategies mentioned above.
For example, we have worked closely with Agnus McBeath, superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada, as he focused on promoting, supporting, and developing principals. In addition, he has provided international leadership in site-based management and parent choice, which together are helping the district to make great strides toward becoming recognized for outstanding student achievement.
Superintendent Edwin Dias has led a transformational effort in the Gilroy, CA, Unified School District with a specific focus on principals. His leadership is resulting in dramatic improvement in student learning, particularly with his large number of English language learners.
These and other superintendents with whom we have worked have convinced us that superintendents can play a major role in improving student learning if they are willing to focus their energies and resources on that specific result.