Is the Principal's Job Doable?

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Is the Principal's Job Doable?

By Frederick Brown, deputy executive director, Learning Forward

Someone asked that question a few years ago during a meeting of The Wallace Foundation Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) professional learning community in New York. I felt it was an incredibly appropriate question considering the many demands being placed on today’s school leaders.  To provide a bit of context, let me remind you that the principal pipeline initiative involves helping six large urban districts create a large corps of “instructional leaders” – principals whose main task is to improve teaching and learning. The districts include Hillsborough County, FL, New York City, Gwinnett County (GA), Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Prince George’s County (MD), and Denver.

This particular question about the viability of the principalship was directed to a panel that included the superintendents of these six districts. Keep in mind that these districts survived a vetting process by Wallace before receiving their funding. As a result, they are among the top districts in the country when it comes to focusing their attention and resources on the principalship. Several of the superintendents were quick to acknowledge their beliefs that the job of school principal is incredibly demanding and perhaps not for everyone. However, each superintendent who answered highlighted that principals absolutely need the appropriate supports in order to do their jobs effectively, but they all felt the job is definitely doable.

I will come back to that word “supports” in just a bit, but first I want to take a moment to contrast that moment in New York with another moment when that same question was posed during a State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness (SCEE) meeting several years ago in Baltimore. At this particular meeting were principals from across the country, and they were the ones to respond to the question about how “doable” their jobs are. Their answers were both passionate and poignant. Although no principal said it wasn’t possible to do their jobs, many of them described a set of circumstances that left the audience wondering how long they would be able to sustain their pace. They described being required to complete formal evaluations of dozens of teachers each year. They emphasized their districts’ responses to their state student assessments and their roles in supporting the testing processes. They described work weeks that typically lasted 80+ hours and weekends that were all but nonexistent. It was a sobering moment and left many people in the audience wondering if we are simply asking our principals to do too much.

As I reflect on both the SCEE meeting and the superintendents’ panel, I’m drawn back to that word “supports.” What is it that districts (and perhaps provinces and states) can do to help support our school leaders? Built into Wallace’s Principal Pipeline Initiative itself are the foundation’s beliefs about some of those supports including:

  • Very clear leadership standards in place that outline what leaders are expected to know and be able to do
  • Strong leadership preparation that ensures leaders can move into a principal position with the skills needed to do the job
  • An induction process that provides job-embedded learning experiences during the first few years on the job
  • Ongoing mentoring and support to help principals navigate the ever changing educational landscape

The six PPI districts had to prove these supports were either partially or completely in place before they were awarded the grant. After hearing from some of the overwhelmed principals from the SCEE meeting and other districts I’ve visited, my guess is their districts may have lacked some of those basic supports. So what other supports do principals need? Here are a few I would offer:

  • As part of their training, induction, and ongoing professional learning, I would argue that principals need help understanding how to more effectively distribute leadership, particularly the management aspects of their work. Gone are the days of the superhero principals trying to manage all aspects of the work.
  • Building leaders need central offices and regional service centers that are viewed by principals not as “mandate generators” but as “centers of support” and “providers of resources.”
  • Principals need opportunities to network with their colleagues in learning communities where they can take ownership of their own learning and focus their efforts on solving “problems of practice” that will help move their collective work forward.
  • It’s imperative that principals receive support to help them strengthen their effectiveness of leaders of adult learning. In order for principals to become “multipliers of effective teaching” as Paul Manna outlined in his 2015 report, they must understand the basic tenets of professional learning as outlined in the Standards for Professional Learning (2011).

Is the principals’ job doable? In many places, unfortunately, I would say the answer might be NO. However, we know what it takes to change that reality, and it’s my hope that those principals who find themselves in “undoable” positions will find a way to advocate for a new reality.

Supporting Principals and Assistant Principals

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Supporting Principals and Assistant Principals

By Jackie O. Wilson, Ed.D, director, Delaware Academy for School Leadership, University of Delaware 

As an educator, professional developer and policy advocate for all matters related to education leadership, I am constantly surprised when state policy leaders, district decision-makers and local school boards do not understand the value of investing in principals and assistant principals. 

In 2004 Leithwood, Lewis, Anderson and Wahlstrom conducted a review of the research titled How leadership influences student learning.  The important finding in the report was that “school leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on learning.” This finding prompted some districts to rethink the role of principals and their role in recruiting, developing and retaining teachers. 

Districts began offering new opportunities for principals and assistant principals to participate in professional development. With Race to the Top additional funding was provided to some states to support coaching and mentoring programs and specialized training for turnaround principals. Although some states had success stories about their investment in school leadership, there are mixed reviews about the impact on student learning. 

In 2015 the Professional Standards for Educational Leadership were approved by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration. The revised standards were different from the ISLLC (2008) standards and signaled the change in what principals and assistant principals were being asked to do in schools. The standards were based on 600 empirical research studies and input from thousands of practitioners. The consensus of the planning committee was that the work of education leaders is more challenging than in 2008 and the standards should reflect the change in those responsibilities. 

For those of us who work in schools every day, this came as no surprise. Principals are spending more time on the social and emotional needs of their students and teaching staff while balancing the work they are doing to lead instruction, develop teachers, and engage communities.  

We know that schools need strong leadership. We know that teachers want to work for principals they trust and respect. Teachers leave if they are not supported, challenged, and respected. We also know that principals create the environment where teaching and learning can take place. If we know this—why do we fail to invest in school leadership? 

We need to create conditions where our school leaders can grow and develop. It is imperative that we invest in what matters most to our students—great teachers and principals. If we want to retain and grow teachers, then we must grow and retain effective principals. Here are some ways we can do that:

  • Provide principals with a coach during their first year as a school leader. In years two and three the coach transitions to a mentor—less intense but still supportive. 
  • Create a Professional Learning Network where principals can engage with other educators on topics of interest or need. These networks provide the leader with the opportunity to discuss a research article or book, to master an innovative digital tool, or share resources on an innovation they would like to pilot in their school. 
  • Develop a Professional Growth Plan for principals and assistant principals that is personalized to meet their personal career pathway goals. 
  • Finally, provide the school leader with district support such as a Principal Supervisor who is dedicated to providing on-going support, feedback, and professional learning opportunities.  

Isn’t it time that we provide principals and assistant principals with the support they need to provide academic success and well-being to all our students?  

The Critical Need for Social & Emotional Learning Programs

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The Critical Need for Social & Emotional Learning Programs

MaryAnn Jobe
Director, Leadership Development
AASA, The School Superintendents Association

In March 2018, The Wallace Foundation released a report on the effects of social and emotional learning programs in 25 elementary schools across the country. The Wallace-funded research brief, Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation, was completed by Stephanie Jones, Rebecca Bailey, Katharine Brush and Jennifer Kahn at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and published by Harvard.

Today, more than ever, we need to be attentive to students’ needs in the public-school environment because they are bringing more and more issues into the classroom. We worry now about nutrition and if students eat well. We try to help with dysfunctional families, and violence at home and in the neighborhood. We also try to educate these young minds so they can be college and career ready in the future. What are we finding out about social and emotional learning programs in elementary schools?

This is what the researchers have to say:


Research indicates that the most effective SEL programs incorporate four elements represented by the acronym SAFE: (1) sequenced activities that lead in a coordinated and connected way to skill development; (2) active forms of learning that enable children to practice and master new skills; (3) focused time spent developing one or more social and emotional skills; and (4) explicit defining and targeting of specific skills. But SEL is about more than just targeting and building skills. Our own research builds upon the SAFE elements to add that SEL efforts are most successful when they also:

1. Occur within supportive contexts. School and classroom contexts that are supportive of children’s social and emotional development include (a) adult and child practices and activities that build skills and establish prosocial norms, and (b) a climate that actively promotes healthy relationships, instructional support and positive classroom management. For this reason, efforts to build social and emotional skills and to improve school culture and climate are mutually reinforcing and may enhance benefits when the two are pursued in a simultaneous and coordinated fashion.

2. Build adult competencies. This includes promoting teachers’ own social and emotional competence and supporting the ongoing integration of SEL-informed pedagogical skills into everyday practice.

3. Partner with family and community. This includes taking into consideration the environments and contexts in which children learn, live and grow by building family-school-community partnerships that can support children at home and in other out-of-school settings, fostering culturally competent and responsive practices, and considering how specific educational policies may influence children.

4. Target key behaviors and skills. This includes pursuing, in a developmentally appropriate way, skills across multiple domains of development, including: (a) emotional processes; (b) social/interpersonal skills; and (c) cognitive regulation or executive function skills.

5. Set reasonable goals. This includes articulating a series of short- and long-term outcomes that are reasonable goals or expectations for the specific SEL effort. These include (a) short-term indicators of children’s growth and progress in areas proximal to the specific SEL activities and (b) longer-term indicators of more distal, future impacts.

(excerpt from Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation.: )

As a leader in your school district, what are you doing to provide a school culture that embraces the uniqueness of every child? Have you developed an SEL program? If so, have you looked at the data? Is it making a difference?

(This blog is made possible through the generous support of The Wallace Foundation)

MaryAnn P. Jobe, Ed.D. is the director of education and leadership development at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Districts Benefit from Leader Tracking Systems

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Districts Benefit from Leader Tracking Systems

MaryAnn Jobe
Director, Leadership Development
AASA, The School Superintendents Association 

AASA is proud to produce the Ed Leadership Blog that will provide relevant school district leadership information and research, as well as commentaries. This blog is supported by The Wallace Foundation.

Struggling schools need effective principals to turn them around, but little is known about how districts can develop such principals. Supported by The Wallace Foundation, the Principal Pipeline Initiative (PPI) helped six urban school districts improve how they train, place and support principals.

According to one key research finding, most of the districts were interested in boosting the number of strong principal candidates in part because they had seen a decrease in the size and quality of the applicant pool. (PSA Report, 2013)

The six urban school districts that looked at how they could increase their bench of leaders to find qualified principals for their schools are: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools, N.C.; Denver Public Schools, Colo.; Gwinnett County Public Schools, Ga.; Hillsborough County Public Schools, Fla.; New York City Public Schools, N.Y.; and Prince George’s County Public Schools, Md.

I have been to Gwinnett County Schools and what it is doing is amazing. The staff involved in the PPI work have built a technology dashboard and data system where Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent and CEO of the district, can search district candidates for openings that occur in leadership positions. This did not come easily. Gwinnett had to look at the internal practices and the leader standards it used for developing, nurturing and keeping great leaders. It worked on developing leader standards that tie into the Georgia state requirements and built an observation and evaluation system around the new standards.

Today, Gwinnett is among one of the leading districts across the country that is using state-of-the-art technology and data decision-making to ensure that the right person can do the job. Does your district look at your talent and is your ‘principal bench’ deep enough?

This work is being emulated in another Wallace initiative, The University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI).

MaryAnn Jobe is the director of leadership development with AASA and serves as project lead of AASA’s Principal Pipeline Initiative.   

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