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ESSA and Principals: What States Are Pledging to Do for School Leaders

How are states planning to support principals and other school leaders under the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Some states will develop and expand programs to diversify their ranks of principals and other school leaders; others will emphasize building up instructional leadership skills. Some are planning to build stronger pipelines into leadership roles; some will strengthen principal-preparation programs; while others will retool on-the-job support and coaching for school leaders.

That's all according to a new analysis of state ESSA plans by New Leaders, the New York City-based school leadership training program.

But just how many of the states are well-positioned to accomplish these goals is less clear as the plans often lacked specificity, including details about how they will put their plans into action and data to buttress how their proposals would address state needs, according to Alexandra Broin, New Leaders' director of policy and advocacy.

And while the organization said it saw some promising strategies to target specific aspects of school leadership—such as supporting teacher-leaders, assistant principals and principal supervisors—not many state plans demonstrated a comprehensive approach that takes into account the entire leadership pipeline.

"... Few states intend to make comprehensive investments along a principal's career trajectory," New Leaders wrote in the brief released Wednesday. "And there could be stronger alignment across strategies targeting leaders at the classroom, school, and system levels."

Some states said they plan to pursue "evidence-based strategies," but only a small number of them included what that meant or how they were going to help districts and schools to do that, Broin said.

That's a big issue, she said, because "many districts and schools don't have the expertise or, frankly, time to cull through research studies to understand, for example, how they meet the evidence tiers defined in ESSA."

Still, New Leaders was able to spot some positive trends after reviewing the plans. The plans, the organization said, signal recognition of the important role that principals play in schools. 

All 50 state plans, including those for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, indicated an intention to invest in school leadership. Eight states plan to revise school leadership standards. Twenty-four states, including Texas and Wyoming, plan to use 3 percent of their Title II, Part A funds on school leadership.

Forty-one states, including Alabama, Maine, and Washington, include school leadership in their plans to improve the lowest-performing schools or in closing achievement gaps. Thirty-six states are focusing on teacher-leadership, while 21 are expanding existing high-quality principal-preparation programs. 

Louisiana, for example, will expand a fellowship for rural principals, while Montana will continue a program to recruit Native American educators to serve in leadership positions in schools with large American Indian enrollment, according to the brief.

Broin said that while all of the plans had room for improvement, some were noteworthy for their emphasis on school leaders. Among them: Tennessee, which plans separate programs to support school leaders, including for teacher-leaders, new principals, and those who are already in the position. Arkansas and Wyoming were also recognized, the latter for working with the state's community colleges on a statewide professional development program for its school leaders at various stages in their careers.

State and district officials have always been able to use federal education funding known as Title II, Part A for principals. But historically, the majority of those funds have been geared toward providing support for teachers and their professional development. (ESSA also allows states to set aside 3 percent of their Title II, Part A funds for school leaders, including for leadership academies and residencies.)

Title II has been under the threat of elimination since the beginning of the Trump administration—though this administration is not the first to question whether the money is used effectively. New Leaders was among the group of education organizations fighting against cuts to the program.

The brief does not analyze the quality of the proposed initiatives, but it includes recommendations and resources that states can use as they start to think about implementation.

The full brief can be found here.

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