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Great Teaching Requires Great Leadership

The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning recently released a policy brief identifying the connections between leadership and the quality of teaching practice. School Leadership: A Key to Teaching Quality is based on the results of a nearly year-long exploration of school leadership issues, including a policy forum entitled "Strengthening Teaching Practice: The Role and Responsibilities of School Site Leaders."

The policy brief reaffirms what earlier Wallace Foundation-commissioned research has argued: that principals are absolutely essential in creating the conditions that enable effective teaching and learning. In fact, there are virtually no documented cases of a low-performing school being turned around without the direct engagement of an effective leader. The Center's brief highlights four specific key levers policymakers should consider when seeking improvements in school leadership systems:

  1. Strengthen teacher evaluation;

  2. Improve the system of evaluation and support for principals;

  3. Identify models of effective school leadership teams; and

  4. Build a comprehensive data system to guide policy and practice.

So, given everything we know about the importance of leadership, why aren't more districts investing in identifying, developing, and supporting building principals?

First, it's much easier to make an argument for pouring most of a district's limited resources into curriculum and teacher training. After all, the performance of the classroom teacher is the number one school-related factor contributing to how well students do in school. And we have all read the research that describes what happens to a child's learning when he or she is exposed over time to ineffective instructional strategies. However, it's important to realize that effective teaching practice doesn't happen at scale without effective leadership.

Second, policymakers and districts have a relatively clear sense of what teachers are expected to know and do. Teacher evaluation systems, while not perfect, typically receive more attention in districts' discourse. National Board Certification gives us an even clearer picture of what highly effective teaching practice looks like.

But what about leadership practice? Do such clearly defined descriptions of critical leadership behaviors and skills exist? The answer, of course, is yes. ISLLC, Vanderbilt University's VAL-Ed leader assessment, The Wallace Foundation's wealth of information and knowledge products, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning's recent report, etc., all provide very clear pictures of what leaders are expected to know and do in order to increase student achievement. Once clarity is reached on leaders' practice, evaluation instruments and processes can be developed that are focused on the aspects of a leader's work that impact teaching and learning. The bottom line is, a district can't effectively select, support, and evaluate principals if there isn't a crystal clear understanding of what it is these leaders are expected to do.

Third, districts don't exercise their power to influence the programs that supply their principals. More than once I've seen a district develop its own "add-on" leadership development program to compensate for the inadequate preparation many of its aspiring leaders receive. "We can't change what's happening at the university, but we can at least provide something in-house that better meets our needs," district leaders complain. While some districts are pouring valuable resources into developing their own competing programs, others are working directly with universities and non-profit external providers to become what the Education Development Center (EDC) calls "discerning customers." EDC explains this approach in their recently released Wallace-Funded report, Districts Developing Leaders - Lessons on Consumer Actions and Program Approaches from Eight Urban Districts.

Discerning consumer districts set clear expectations for school leader standards and competencies, and use them strategically to articulate recruitment and selection criteria for principal training programs. Selection processes in these programs are rigorous, curriculum is engaging and relevant, and internships are meaningful and directly connected to district expectations. Many of these programs also meet the criteria set by the EDC's Quality Measures tool and the Wallace Foundation's knowledge product, Becoming a Leader: Preparing Principals for Today's Schools.

Districts don't have to sit back and hope quality programs just happen to exist in their regions; instead they can work with providers to ensure principal preparation is specifically tailored to their needs. The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning's report reminds us yet again how critical it is to strengthen leadership systems for the purposes of improving teaching and learning.

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development, Learning Forward

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