Islands of excellence in school leadership are not enough | Chalkboard Project

Islands of excellence in school leadership are not enough

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 Frank Caropelo

Last month, the Distinguished Leaders Council (DLC) released its report and recommendations for improving school leadership in Oregon. Recognizing the urgent need, and grounded in the recommendations from the DLC, Chalkboard Project is partnering with the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Washington to launch a program aimed at building districts’ capacity to develop effective principals. The program’s goal—designed for current central office leaders who have supervisory roles with principals—is to strengthen central office administrators knowledge and skills in the leadership practices that ultimately drive significant gains in student achievement by increasing the capacity of school principals. As the DLC noted, principal supervisors who prioritize instructional leadership, emotional intelligence, and student-centered accountability are ultimately better able to support principal performance. I’m pleased to say that we are now accepting applications for the first cohort, due back to Chalkboard on October 30.

A hallmark of effective school principals is that they find a way to prioritize instructional leadership over traditional administrative tasks. While no two schools operate exactly alike, in my experience a common trait in schools led by highly effective principals is that they empower leadership at all levels of the organization, which allows them to focus more deeply on improving student achievement.

Through coaching teachers in the classroom, working with teachers and staff to respond to formative assessment data, and managing human capital, principals become a key lever in school improvement. Effective principals are highly visible in their schools. They provide useful feedback and ensure high-quality professional development resulting in strong school cultures of support, trust, and continuous improvement. They lead through an equity lens to develop and advance culturally responsive practices and close achievement and opportunity gaps.

Yet for many principals, the seemingly endless number of administrative tasks can often overwhelm their best intentions to devote significant time to instructional leadership. It can feel like a trap. As a former principal, I can attest first hand to the challenges of juggling administrative tasks with finding time for instructional leadership. I knew both sides of the job were critically important to the success of my school and both placed large demands on my time. I was often left having to, in the words of Kim Marshall “attend to the urgent at the expense of the important.” And, often I fell short.

Part of running a successful school, I learned, required enlisting leaders at all levels of the district. Slowly, and with lots of help from my amazing staff, I learned how to build a culture of trust that created the conditions and expectation that our staff (and students!) could take ownership for many facets of our daily operations. This allowed me to shift how I spent my time and gave me the time I needed to support educators to do their best work.

We’ve known for a long time that school leadership matters. After educators, effective principals have a significant impact on student achievement. Helping central office supervisors to create the conditions that lead schools to new levels of student achievement can only happen with an intentional focus on leadership, and because district leaders have been given training, support, and experiences that deepen their knowledge and skills. I’m excited to see this work take shape.

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