Prioritizing principal PD

Building leaders update skills to keep pace with learning standards and state accountability
By: | Issue: October, 2015
September 14, 2015

Some say that for principals, every day is their first day on the job. Alongside day-to-day building management issues such as hiring teachers, overseeing finances and student discipline, principals now guide teachers through new state standards and testing.

As principal evaluations become a more common practice, district leaders need to provide them with a PD boost to meet state accountability measures.

“Instructional leadership has become more crucial,” says Ann Cunningham-Morris, director of professional learning at ASCD and a former principal and administrator. “With all of the focus on teacher effectiveness and the high accountability associated with that, the principal’s role as learner and collaboratorÑsomeone who knows how to provide differentiated feedback and support to teachersÑhas become more important in recent years.”

However, only 4 percent of federal dollars for improving educator performance is spent on principal development. Most principal PD comes from Title II funds, while most PD funds allocated through Title I are for teachers.

Many principals work 60 to 70 hours per week, and spend only 2 percent of their time on their own PD, says Gail Connelly, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP).

“It’s an enormously demanding job, and they really have to deal with a number of different issues on an ongoing basis,” Connelly says. “It’s almost always in the after-hours when they have time to fill their own gaps and take charge of their own PD.”

Some 25 states have minimum PD requirements for principals to renew their licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. For example, Alaska, South Carolina and Wisconsin offer a five-year certification that can be renewed upon completion of six credit hours of graduate work. Rhode Island offers a three-year provisional certificate that cannot be renewed; upon the completion of nine credits, a five-year professional license is valid.

In recent years, principal PD in instructional techniques has become popular. This PD focuses on teaching and learning, as opposed to management and supervision. It might include how to observe teachers and provide them with standards- or lesson-specific coaching to improve their teaching methods.

“Principals, and particularly urban principals, are under a tremendous amount of pressure,” says Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Syracuse City School District in New York. “It’s a highly stressful and isolated position. It’s incumbent upon us as superintendents to make sure we are being very supportive and looking to evidence-based practices to make sure we support principals in ways that will reduce expensive turnover and burnout, which have a negative impact on student achievement.”

Instructional leaders

When Contreras arrived at Syracuse City School District in 2011, the district’s 34 principals received no formal professional development. Outside of Title I and other grants, the district did not budget for principal PD.

The law forces more rigor

Since 2010, at least 36 states have passed laws requiring principals to undergo regular, more rigorous assessments, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most states base 50 percent of the evaluation on test scores. In some states, that rate is even higherÑGeorgia mandates 70 percent.

The move to stronger evaluations is largely due to federal Race to the Top grant requirements that tie principal effectiveness “in significant part” to student achievement growth. Waivers for No Child Left Behind also mandate new evaluation systems.

Leadership is second only to classroom instruction when it comes to influencing student learning, according to a 2010 University of Minnesota and University of Toronto study of 180 schools in nine states.

Not a single school improved its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership, stated the researchers of the study, titled “Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning.”

Syracuse City’s 21,000 students make it the fifth-largest district in the state. It is high-poverty, and many schools are under state control.

“I wanted to provide intensive support to school leaders that balances the building of core competencies with in-time resources to turn around high-needs schools,” Contreras says. “We’ve focused a great deal on instructional support so principals can become strong instructional leaders.”

In the 2013-14 school year, Contreras worked with Insight Education tocreatethe Syracuse Aspiring Leadership Academy for new principals and vice principals. The group meets one full day per month and twice during the summer. The focus is primarily on instructional leadership and effective teacher evaluations and feedback.

Participants also study school climate and how to end racial disparities in discipline practices, which a 2014 state Attorney General Office report found was a problem in the district.

The district’s chief academic officer runs the academy sessions. The aspiring leaders’ first assignment is to develop a personalized individual learning plan that addresses their areas of need. They also learn how to analyze data, build relationships with teachers and establish a shared vision for school success.

The new principals are also assigned a mentorÑusually a high-performing veteran principal who offers guidance on day-to-day operations and challenges that arise. The seasoned principals meet with their new colleagues for an hour and a half per week, and help them create building-based PD and plans for struggling teachers.

Observation, feedback

Part of the principal’s changing role as instructional leader is providing effective observations and feedback to help teachers improve. However, most principals have not taught in a classroom for at least five years, says Jon Corippo, director of academic innovation at CUE, a nonprofit PD provider.

“In the last five years, the classroom has changed into a totally different place,” Corippo says. “Principals need to be able to have technical understanding of what teachers need. The concern is that as principals lose touch with classrooms and as we move farther from the classic model of the classroom, they won’t be able to stay as relevant.”

In Brevard Public Schools, a district with 73,000 students, administrators credit the Educational Technology department for keeping principals up to date on edtech. In 2014-15, administrators changed principal PD to focus intensively on building each building principal’s skills working with teachers in the modern classroom.

“It’s all about the cultureÑif a teacher views a principal as improving teaching and learning, and as someone who’s in the foxhole with them who wants to help them improve, then the onus isn’t just on the teacher,” says Jane Respess, Brevard’s director of professional learning and development. “The principal also takes responsibility for those teaching and learning outcomes.”

Principals also learn to offer coaching on the content of lessons and class participation rather than just on the actions of the teacher.

Principals learn to give specific feedback, as opposed to just telling a teacher, “You did a great job.” In addition, they learn to help teachers reflect on instruction by asking, for example, how engaged students were and what aspects of their lessons seemed most effective.

Administrators conduct principal observations throughout the school year and score them on rubrics. If a principal is not performing well, they are put on a PD assistance plan that can include more training or supervisory coaching.

Giving principals time to work together and to share best practices is also effective, Respess says.

“We need to have a growth mindset, and model for our teachers and students that no matter where we are in our careers, there’s more we can know,” Respess says. “We can always improve upon what we did last year.”

Leadership at all levels

In the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System, a suburban Tennessee district of 32,000 students located 50 miles northwest of Nashville, 30 out of 38 principals rose from within the district thanks to a leadership development program that grooms staff to eventually move into administrative positions.

“We believe you lead where you areÑwhatever position you hold, you’re going to lead,” says Superintendent B.J. Worthington. “We want to make sure you get that opportunity to access leadership training.”

The Comprehensive Leadership Development Course invites all faculty and staff to take a basic introductory course together. The course covers personal leadership, communications, team-building and organizational change.

“What’s really unique is this is classified staff and employee-certified staff going through training together,” says professional development coordinator Susan Jones. “The feedback we get is how valuable it is for the lead custodians to have a better understanding of the instructional side, and for teachers to understand the administrative side. It gives everyone a common foundation to work through things.”

Principals and assistant principals in the Clarksville district attend eight full days of PD between August and December, as well as monthly meetings and PLCs.

The sessions are offered through a nonprofit. Sessions focus on topics such as how to guide teachers through changing policies and curricula, and how to spot and support struggling teachers. Coaching also focuses on cross-curricular integration, such as ensuring writing takes place in social studies and science classes.

“It’s a fluid process, and we try to be involved with what the principals are doing so that any problems will come out before the evaluation,” says Clarkville’s Chief Academic Officer Bryan Johnson. “If a principal is underperforming, we will address it but it will not be isolated to that evaluationÑconversations are had along the way.”

This year, many high schools had openings for assistant principals, and the educators who had risen through the ranks to take the positionsÑand who had taken part in leadership trainingÑwere more prepared than candidates had been in the past, Johnson says.

Chief responsibilities

Superintendents are ultimately responsible for creating a culture that prizes principal PD and succession planning, says Cunningham-Morris of ASCD. “District leaders have to make sure a strong leadership development program is in place that supports building a pipeline of highly effective instructional leaders,” she says.

Superintendents should also prioritize principal collaboration, says Connelly of NAESP. Principals report that they learn best from one another, particularly when they can connect with successful colleagues in schools of similar size and demographics. This may occur online, during visits to other schools, in PLCs or at conferences.

“We know that schools require great, effective principals in order to achieve the levels of success that we want for schools and students,” Connelly says. “Perhaps the best investment we might make that would have the most impact for getting the results we’re all seeking would be to invest in PD for principals.”

Alison DeNisco is news editor.