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How Central Office Staff Can Support Principal Leadership

Over the past several years, many school districts have shifted the role of their central office staff, moving away from jobs focused on compliance and management and more towards a role in helping principals becoming better instructional leaders.

But little research exists that shows what central office staff need to do to fulfill that role of "principal coach" effectively. Meredith I. Honig, an associate professor for education and policy studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, delved into that question for a report published in the April 2012 edition of Educational Administration Quarterly. (The journal's website has an abstract available; nonsubscribers have to pay for full access.)

For her study, titled "District Central Office Leadership as Teaching: How Central Office Administrators Support Principals' Development as Instructional Leadership," Honig and a team of researchers studied what they called "instructional leadership directors" in the central offices of Atlanta, New York and Oakland, Calif. public schools. Those urban districts were selected because they were making intentional efforts to provide support to their principals through coaching by central office personnel.

The report is based on close to 265 hours of observation, 283 interviews and over 200 documents, obtained mainly during the 2007-08 school year. The study was completed with the financial assistance of the Wallace Foundation, which also supports coverage of educational leadership in Education Week.

Among the findings: The leadership coaches universally understood that their job was to help principals improve their own practice. However, while many saw their jobs as working jointly with principals, other leadership coaches took more of a supervisory role monitoring principals rather than working together with them on areas of concern.

Other principals reported that meetings with their instructional leadership coach waned as the school year went on, which suggested that the coaches did not value that role as much as other district demands on their time.

Some instructional leadership coaches worked intensively with new principals, challenging them to explain the results of their teacher evaluations, for example. But experienced principals often received less feedback. And some coaches said they were responsible for so many principals that they didn't feel they could give each one enough individual attention, so they were forced to work with principals where the need was greatest.

The coaches who received the positive reports from their principals tended to explain the underlying rationale for certain practices. However, some coaches simply directed principals to do certain tasks, or stepped in to do those tasks for them.

In the conclusion, Honig wrote that she hopes the report serves as a foundation for future research. "The field of teacher education has made great advances in building knowledge about successful teaching by elaborating teaching practices—the moves teachers make with their own learners within the context of various activities—that strengthen their students' learning. This article suggests that the field of leadership would do well to take a similar approach," she wrote.

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