Rethinking Leadership

How do you improve schools? Start by coaching principals, says new study

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Gary Hughes (right) talks with his supervisor, Craig Hammond, at Nashville's J.T. Moore Middle School. Hammond spends a half day every other week working collaboratively with Hughes under an emerging administrative support and coaching model used by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Gary Hughes remembers rolling his eyes last year after learning that Nashville’s new school superintendent was completely revamping the way principals like himself would be supervised.

After all, as a 10-year school administrator, Hughes thought he had done just fine under the previous system. Occasional drop-in visits from central office personnel found that his school was in compliance with all district rules and regulations.

But beginning last fall, his new supervisor, Craig Hammond, began coming to J.T. Moore Middle School for about a half day every other week — visiting classrooms with Hughes, reviewing student achievement data together, and talking through ways to support individual teachers.

“I was not happy about the change,” Hughes recalls. “It was like a bunch of new hoops I was going to have to jump through.”

This month, as he began his second year under the new supervisory model, Hughes feels “transformed” as a school leader. He also believes that what he’s learning in collaboration with Hammond is trickling down to improve the quality of instruction in classrooms at J.T. Moore.

“This approach is about support, not compliance,” said Hughes. “It’s changed the way I think about what I do.”

Hughes’ experience mirrors the findings of the first three years of a four-year study into the role of those who supervise school principals. The research, by Vanderbilt University and Mathematica Policy Research, suggests that radically changing the job description of such supervisors to emphasize coaching and mentoring instead of operations and administration could refocus school communities on improving student achievement, retaining more teachers, and strengthening school climate.

The findings also have major implications for how central offices are designed — with a shift from a top-down compliance model to a more bottom-up one that focuses on servicing schools.

“This is a good news story about district reform,” said Ellen Goldring, the report’s lead author and a Vanderbilt professor of educational leadership and policy.

“It’s about fundamentally changing the supervisor role in a way that principals report that they’re feeling more supported and equipped. But in order to make that new role effective, it became very clear that central office also needed to rethink and realign to that perspective.”

Reshuffling priorities

The study, which is part of the Wallace Foundation’s $24 million Principal Supervisor Initiative, was based on changes made between 2014 and 2017 at six urban districts in Broward County, Florida; Baltimore, Maryland; Cleveland, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa, Long Beach, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Each district revamped the supervisor’s job description; reduced the number of schools each supervisor was responsible for; trained them on how to coach and support principals; and restructured the district’s central office to shift administrative, operations, and compliance tasks away from those roles.

With the changes, most districts reported that their supervisors were spending an average of 63 percent of their time working directly with principals to help them hone their skills in instructional leadership. That’s thought to be significantly more one-on-one time than in years past, when supervisors had substantially larger portfolios.

“That’s a lot of time that a principal has someone to plan with, problem-solve with, receive support,” Goldring said.

"This approach is about support, not compliance. It’s changed the way I think about what I do."Gary Hughes, principal

While Nashville’s district was not part of the study, Director of Schools Shawn Joseph heard about the initiative while working in Maryland public schools and adopted some of its components when he became leader of Tennessee’s second largest district in 2016.

That meant restructuring the central office so that each supervisor was overseeing about a dozen schools instead of the previous 30 or so.

Such investments are one of the biggest challenges — but also one of the most critical components — of facilitating meaningful instructional engagement with principals, said Sito Narcisse, Nashville’s chief of schools.

“We believe the lever of change for improving schools is through the principal,” said Narcisse.

The study has other implications for states like Tennessee, which launched a teacher evaluation system in 2011 that requires principals to observe classroom instruction and critique their teachers.

“There’s clearly a shift in the role of principals,” said Goldring, whose next report will focus on how the supervisory changes impact principal effectiveness. “But how do we coach and develop principals so that they can better coach and develop their teachers? That’s what this research is all about.”

Leadership matters

When it comes to the impact of school-related factors on student learning, research shows that school leaders are second in importance only to teachers — but also can have a multiplier effect on the quality of teaching.

Historically, however, principals’ professional development has been limited to periodic workshops and trainings that focus mostly on administrative, operational, and compliance issues. They rarely receive ongoing, embedded coaching and problem-solving support based on the instructional needs of specific schools.

The Wallace Foundation identified existing principal supervisors as a potential resource to change that dynamic in large urban districts.

“They already have one foot in the schools and one foot in central office,” explained Jody Spiro, the foundation’s director of education leadership.

But few districts have taken that route on their own.

Even though these educators are responsible for evaluating principals and usually report to the chief academic officer, they tend to focus on “putting out fires” — things like parent complaints and broken air conditioners — instead of coaching teachers.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
From left: Principal Gary Hughes confers with supervisors Dottie Critchlow and Craig Hammond about the upcoming school year. Critchlow helps oversee support for school leaders under the Nashville district’s new supervisory model.

Dottie Critchlow recalls what it was like to supervise Nashville principals under the district’s previous model. With about 28 schools to monitor, giving all of her principals meaningful critiques was logistically impossible, she said.

“It was like saying to a mama, ‘Who do you love the most?’” said Critchlow, who now coaches the district’s principal supervisors. “The answer is ‘the kid who needs me the most.’ I spent a lot of time with brand new principals figuring out the job and others who weren’t being effective. It wasn’t about developing instructional leaders; it was about maintenance.”

Last year under the new model, Hammond monitored a dozen schools — the average number that the study landed on for effective engagement between supervisors and their principals.

“If I had 20 schools, I’d start losing track of who’s where,” said Hammond, himself a former principal. “This number allows me to walk with principals in a building, to give feedback, and remember the things that I see.”

The investment paid off when Hughes received his first evaluation from Hammond. It was, the principal said, an “aha! moment” — the most meaningful feedback of his career.

“It’s clear he knew me, understood my school, and really thought this through,” Hughes said. “He was very in tune with what I needed to improve.”

devos watch

Obama-era discipline rules should be scrapped, Trump school safety commission says

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Trump administration officials say it’s time to reverse Obama-era guidelines meant to curb suspensions and expulsions, especially for students of color.

The federal school safety commission recommends the move in a report released Tuesday, saying that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to rescind the guidance soon, notching a victory for the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools — a connection that remains questionable.

“One of the things that the commission was concerned with was the recurring narrative that teachers in the classroom or students in the hallway and on campus were afraid because individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances, aggressive, trending toward violent, behavior were left unpunished or were left unchecked,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday. “So that is the first move that the report makes, to correct for that problem.”

The school safety commission’s 177-report also recommends:

  • More access to mental health services for students
  • Various approaches to school safety, which could include considering “arming some specially selected and trained school personnel”
  • More training around how to prepare for an active shooter

Those conclusions come from a commission formed after a school shooter in Parkland, Florida left 17 dead in February. Chaired by DeVos and composed of just four members of President Trump’s cabinet, the commission has hosted a series of hearings and courted controversy by avoiding discussion of gun control measures.

Scrapping the school discipline guidance is especially notable. That guidance was issued in January 2014 by the Obama education and justice departments, and it told school leaders to seek out alternatives to suspension and other penalties that take students out of the classroom.

It also noted that black and Hispanic students were suspended much more often than other students, and that suspensions were correlated with higher dropout rates and lower academic achievement. Significant, unexplained racial disparities in discipline rates could trigger a federal review into whether a district had violated civil rights law, it warned.

To civil rights leaders, this was an effort to address racism in schools. To conservatives, it represented government overreach. In schools where suspensions were reduced without alternatives, the guidance encouraged misbehavior to go unpunished, they argued.

That argument is expanded in the safety commission’s report.

“When school leaders focus on aggregate school discipline numbers rather than the specific circumstances and conduct that underlie each matter, schools become less safe,” the report says.

Disparities in discipline rates may not have to due with discrimination, it says, but “may be due to societal factors other than race.” It also says “local circumstances” may play a role in behavior differences “if students come from distressed communities and face significant trauma.”

There’s limited evidence that cutting back on suspensions made schools less safe. One study in Chicago found that when the district modestly cut down on suspensions, student test scores and attendance actually rose as a result. There’s also not much known about how effective alternatives, like restorative justice, have been either.

Read the entire report here:



Matt Barnum contributed reporting.

funding battle

Defiant, Cuomo invites ire resisting more New York State funding for schools

PHOTO: Philip Kamrass/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again laid the responsibility of equitable school funding on local districts Monday, earning the nickname “Ebenezer Scrooge” from an advocacy group and kicking off what could be a contentious fight over education spending.

In a speech to the New York City Bar Association, Cuomo released his legislative priorities for the first 100 days of his new term as governor. He devoted a small portion of his comments to education, immediately sparking anger from his critics.

Cuomo directly placed responsibility for funding schools on local districts, saying the money is “not fairly distributed by them.” He pointed to a law he pushed to pass last year that required school districts to compile a report on how state funding is distributed among schools.

“The truth is the poorest schools do not receive any more funding than the richer schools from their local districts,” Cuomo said. “And that, my friend, is a critical injustice because the poorer schools have a great need that needs to be funded.

Then, Cuomo called the foundation aid program — designed to send extra dollars to high-needs school districts — and the 1993 lawsuit filed by New York City parents that laid the groundwork for foundation aid as “ghosts of the past” and part of “a political game.”

“The question is the local distribution of aid,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we have to focus on if we’re actually going to move from political pandering to progressive policy. It’s a question of math and theory, not philosophy and political posturing.”

Advocates say the state still owes the education department about $4 billion in foundation aid funding. The state halted funding under the formula during the recession. In 2017, Cuomo proposed changing it to a level that advocates described as a “repeal.” But Cuomo’s proposal could not overcome these advocates’ opposition and failed to pass.

“Cuomo is the Ebenezer Scrooge of public schools, starving children of much needed resources and state funding,” said Jasmine Gripper, legislative director for the union-backed advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement after Cuomo’s speech.

The problem, Gripper said, is that under Cuomo, the “state doesn’t provide enough funding to meet the growing needs that result from growing poverty and increased numbers of English language learners.”

A Chalkbeat analysis of New York City’s school funding data found there are funding disparities, which can amount to thousands of dollars per pupil, between schools, largely because of the Fair Student Funding Formula that sends more dollars to schools with hard-to-serve students, like those with disabilities or those from low-income families.

Some educators, including school principals, argue this formula does not go far enough to address school inequities — holes often filled by rich PTAs.

In the past, some scholars have questioned whether spending more money on schools necessarily results in sufficiently better outcomes for students. But a new review of the research suggests that additional money can play a role in student academic performance. But how that money is spent also likely matters.

The state Department of Education recently proposed a $2.1 billion increase in school funding, most of it tied to boosting foundation aid dollars. The state teachers union and Alliance for Quality Education lauded the Board of Regents’ proposal.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers Federation, said it’s “time to take the politics out of state resources for education,” adding that low-income students have been “shortchanged for years” by the state formula.

As they have in the past, state education policymakers also endorsed a $4.9 billion, three-year phase-in of the money many argue is still owed under foundation aid.

“As we said when we released our proposal last week, all children should have access to a high-quality education regardless of their race, where they live or where they go to school,” said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. “We look forward to working with the legislature and the executive to achieve this for all New York’s children.”

With more progressive Democrats in the Senate who campaigned on boosting education spending, Cuomo’s comments could signal a contentious budget fight ahead. Lawmakers must hash out a budget pan by April 1, and Cuomo’s budget proposal is expected in January.

Lawmakers don’t typically grant the full funding request from state policymakers. Last year, for example, legislators approved $1 billion in more funding for education, which was still more than half a billion dollars less than what the Board of Regents asked for.