When Cara Tait became principal of Williamsburg High School of Arts & Technology in Brooklyn, N.Y., she worked hard to build staff’s trust.
As a young, new principal still finding her agency and voice, Tait focused on developing and communicating a strong vision to unite staff. In a school where classroom observations were not common practice, she worked on creating structures for consistent feedback and accountability.
With her predecessor’s abrupt exit, Tait was also mindful of how quickly, often after just a few years, principals tend to burnout and leave the job. Yet six years later, Tait is still the principal of this high school. Her secret? Her leadership coach. “If not for my coach, I know I would not be here,” she says.
With the support of a leadership coach, Tait has created a school culture in which teachers are encouraged to generate and implement new ways of improving the school. School discipline has shifted from punitive to restorative; administrators and teachers regularly examine school data; and in response to a growing English language learner population, teachers are experimenting with integrated classes of native and non-native English speakers, with success.
Experience and knowledge
The job of principal is tough and lonely. Without support, principals report feeling isolated, which can negatively impact job performance while also leading to frequent principal turnover. Frequent turnover often results in declining student achievement and rising staff turnover.
To stay in the role and make real sustainable improvements at their schools, school leaders need the support of an experienced and knowledgeable thought partner. Research has found that school leaders most improve their leadership skills when they receive ongoing, individualized, and job-embedded support.
The most effective professional learning challenges leaders’ thinking, provides effective and actionable feedback, and includes opportunities for reflection. Leadership coaching, if done well, includes each of these elements, and can lead to improved student learning and a reduction in principal turnover.
School leaders need the support of an experienced and knowledgeable thought partner.
In our recent study at the NYC Leadership Academy, “Still in the Game: How coaching keeps leaders in schools and making progress,” we found that principals who maintained a leadership coach for at least five years:
- Remained in their schools more than double the national average principal tenure in a school of 3.5 years.
- Improved their ability to supervise staff, distribute leadership, communicate, and lead with resilience.
- Avoided complacency. After their schools made some initial progress, the principals in this study did not just coast. They worked with their coach to continue to make improvements at their schools.
While nationally, school leader coaching has been reserved primarily for first-year principals or leaders in need of remediation, there is growing interest among state education leaders in making coaching a part of professional development.
Given the clear benefits of ongoing coaching, we offer the following recommendations for district and state policymakers to consider:
- Provide leadership coaching as part of new principal induction. As of 2016, only 20 states required some type of professional support to new school administrators. We encourage states and districts to adopt formal policies requiring leadership coaching for all new principals during the first two years on the job.
- Offer coaching beyond the first two years of the principalship. As we found in our study, even veteran principals benefit from coaching. The need to reflect on and improve practice is never ending.
- Budget coaching into per-pupil expenditures. Investing in leadership coaching is cost-effective. Research has found it can cost as little as $4/student per year to provide leadership coaching for one principal, while the cost of replacing that principal is estimated to be about $75,000. To ensure coaching is a regular part of principals’ professional learning, we encourage districts to calculate what providing coaching for each principal would cost per student, and to build that into their per pupil expenditures.
- Leverage Title II of the Every Student Succeeds Act to fund coaching. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers states and districts greater control over how they use federal funding for initiatives to support leadership development and learning. Under Title II, Part A, districts can reserve up to 3 percent of funds to support principals through activities such as coaching or mentoring.
- Re-envision the principal supervisor role. Providing non-evaluative leadership coaches may not be immediately feasible in some district. In such instances, with professional development and support, principal supervisors can provide effective coaching.
- Consider cost-effective ways to supplement and enhance one-on-one coaching, such as with group or peer coaching and/or creating professional learning communities of school leaders to share ideas and resources and hold each other accountable for applying new knowledge.
- Train and support leadership coaches. Most state or district coaching programs do not have required training for coaches. To ensure coaching is effective, we recommend systems provide foundational and ongoing training for anyone responsible for coaching. States and district coaching programs should also develop accountability structures for these programs as many do not gather data to assess program effectiveness
In our research, principals told us the same things again and again: “Without my coach, I would have left my school a few years ago.” “I would have stayed complacent.” “I would have continued to struggle to more effectively supervise my staff and communicate with our families.” “My coach made me a better version of myself.”
We know the impact that a strong school leader can have on a student’s school experience. For the sake of improving learning experiences for every child, let’s expand those opportunities to every school leader.
Jill Grossman is the senior director for Strategic Communications and Policy and Nikki Nagler is director of Research, Evaluation, and Impact for the NYC Leadership Academy.