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.”

School choice

Secret CPS report spotlights big vacancies, lopsided options for students

The school district says the report will help inform how it invests in and engages with communities. Communities groups worry the document will be used to justify more school closings, turnarounds and charters.

An unreleased report by a school choice group backed by the business community paints in stark detail what many Chicagoans have known for years: that top academic schools are clustered in wealthier neighborhoods, and that fewer black and Latino students have access to those schools.

The report highlights startling figures: About 27 percent of black students are in the district’s lowest-rated schools, compared with 8 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of whites. It also says that while Chicago Public Schools has more than 150,000 unfilled seats, 40 percent, or 60,000 of them, are at top-ranked schools. That surplus will grow as enrollment, which has been plummeting for years, is projected to decline further by 5.1 percent over the next three years. What that means is the cash-strapped district is moving toward having nearly one extra seat for every two of its students.

The document effectively shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

In a city still reeling from the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, this report could lay groundwork for another round of  difficult decisions.

The “Annual Regional Analysis” report, compiled by the group Kids First Chicago on CPS’ behalf, has been circulating among select community groups but has not been made public. It comes on the heels of a report showing students’ high school preferences vary with family income level. Students from low-income neighborhoods submit more applications than students from wealthier ones and apply in greater numbers for the district’s charter high schools.

The group behind the latest report has had many iterations: Kids First is a new name, but its origins date back to 2004, when it started as the charter fundraising group Renaissance Schools Fund. That was during the Renaissance 2010 effort, which seeded 100 new schools across the city, including many charters. The group changed its name to New Schools Chicago in 2011 and again rebranded this year as Kids First, with a greater focus on parent engagement and policy advocacy.

The report has caused a stir among some community groups who’ve seen it. Because the school district has used enrollment figures to justify closing schools, some people are worried it could be used to propose more closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

“To me this is the new reason [for school closings],” said Carolina Gaeta, co-director of community group Blocks Together, which supports neighborhood schools. “Before it was academics, then it was utilization, now it’s going to be access and equity. Numbers can be used any way.”

In a statement on the report, Chicago Teachers Union Spokeswoman Christine Geovanis blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration for policies that she alleged “undermine enrollment at neighborhood schools,” such as the proliferation of charter schools, school budget cuts, and building new schools over the objection of community members.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kids First CEO Daniel Anello confirmed that his organization helped put the report together, but declined to comment on its contents, deferring to the district. CPS Spokeswoman Emily Bolton acknowledged the report’s existence in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat Chicago that said the school district “is having conversations with communities to get input and inform decisions” about where to place particular academic programs. The statement said CPS is still in the process of drafting a final version of the document, but gave no timetable. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office didn’t grant requests for interviews about the Annual Regional Analysis.

Below is a preview of the report provided to Chalkbeat Chicago.

Gaps in access to arts and IB programs

Data released this week from the district’s GoCPS universal high school application clearly shows what academic programs are most in demand: selective enrollment programs that require children to test in;  arts programs; and career and technical education offerings, or CTE.

The Kids First’s analysis puts those findings into context, however, by detailing how supply is geographically uneven, especially when it comes to arts. Maps in the report divide the city into regions defined by the city’s planning department and show how highly-desirable arts programs are not spread equally throughout the city, and are most concentrated along the northern lakefront and downtown.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of fine & performing arts program seats available per 100 elementary school students in each planning area.

Worse, four regions offer 10 or fewer arts seats per 100 students, including the Bronzeville/South Lakefront region that includes neighborhoods such as South Shore, Woodlawn, Kenwood and Hyde Park. They are also scarce in the West Side region, which includes Austin, North Lawndale, and Humboldt Park and in the Northwest neighborhoods of Belmont Cragin, Dunning, and Portage Park.

The report also shows an imbalance in the number of rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

The highest number of IB seats are in the wealthy, predominately white Lincoln Park area. In contrast, there are far fewer IB seats in predominantly black communities such as  Englewood and Auburn Gresham, Ashburn and in the predominantly Latino Back of the Yards.

When it comes to selective-enrollment elementary school programs such as gifted centers and classical schools, which require students to pass entrance exams, options tend to be concentrated, too, with fewer choices on the South and West sides of the city. This map shows where selective enrollment high school options are most prevalent:

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of selective enrollment high school seats available per 100 students in the city’s planning regions.

STEM programs are more evenly distributed across Chicago than both IB and selective enrollment schools, yet whole swaths of the city lack them, especially on the South Side, including the Greater Stony Island. As the other maps show, that region lacks most of the high-demand academic programs the district has to offer.

PHOTO: Sam Park
This map shows the number of STEM program seats available per 100 elementary school students.

Racial disparities in school quality

The analysis also shows disparities in quality of schools, not just variety.

At CPS, 65 percent of students districtwide are enrolled at Level 1-plus or Level 1-rated schools. But only 45 percent of black students and 72 percent of Latino students are in those top-rated seats, compared with 91 percent of white students.

The disparities are even more severe given that the school district is mostly Latino and black, with fewer than one in 10 students identified as white. 

A page from a presentation of the Annual Regional Analysis showed to select community groups.

In the Greater Lincoln Park region, 100 percent of elementary schools have one of the top two ratings — the highest concentration of them in the city.  The highest concentration of top-rated high school seats, 91 percent, is in the Central Area, which includes Downtown and the South Loop.

The lowest concentration of top-rated elementary seats, 35 percent, is in the Near West Side region, and the lowest concentration of high school seats, 14 percent, is in the West Side region.

Long commutes from some neighborhoods

The number of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood boundaries has increased in recent years.

But the report shows that school choice varies by race: 44 percent of black students attend their neighborhood elementary school, compared with 67 percent of Latino students, 69 percent of white students, and 66 percent of Asian students. For high schoolers, only 14 percent of black students attend their neighborhood school, compared with 28 percent of Asians, 30 percent of Latinos, and 32 percent of whites.

More students enrolling outside their neighborhood attendance boundaries means more and more students have longer commutes, but how far they travel depends on their address. 

Again, this is an area where the Greater Stony Island area stands out.

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far elementary school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

The average distance traveled for elementary school students is 1.5 miles — but K-8 students in Greater Stony Island travel an average of 2.6 miles. The average distance to class for high schoolers citywide is 2.6 miles, but students in the Greater Stony Island region travel an average of 5 miles, about twice the city average. 

A graphic from the Annual Regional Analysis executive report that shows how far high school students in each of the city’s 16 planning regions travel from their homes to school. The data shows that students on the South and West Sides tend to have longer commutes.

Looking forward

The introduction to the Annual Regional Analysis describes it as “a common fact base” to understand the school landscape. It clearly states the intent of the report is to assist with district planning, not to provide recommendations.

It still bothers Wendy Katten, founder of Raise Your Hand, who has seen the report and said it tells little about how kids are actually learning at schools.

“It sounds like some data a company would use to reduce inventory at a manufacturing plant,” she said.

Gaete with Blocks Together said the numbers in the report are also missing important context about how the proliferation of charter schools, a lack of transparent and equitable planning, and a lack of support for neighborhood schools in recent decades has exacerbated school quality disparities across race and neighborhoods in Chicago, one of the nation’s most diverse but segregated cities.

It’s unclear when the final study will be published, or how exactly the school district will use its contents to inform its decisions and conversations with communities.

But an event posting on the website for Forefront, a membership association for “nonprofits, grantmakers, public agencies, advisors, and our allies,” mentions a briefing for the report on Oct. 10.

Kids First Chicago CEO Dan Anello and CPS Director of Strategy Sadie Stockdale Jefferson will share the report there, according to the website.

Q and A

In a wide-ranging interview, Carranza takes issue with admissions to New York City’s gifted programs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Since becoming schools chancellor, Richard Carranza has questioned city admissions methods that critics say exacerbate segregation. Here, he speaks to a crowd at a town hall about school diversity.

Ever since the city launched a push to scrap the entrance exam for its vaunted specialized high schools, Chancellor Richard Carranza has made it clear that he doesn’t believe a single test should be used to make school admissions decisions.

In an exclusive back-to-school interview with Chalkbeat on Friday, he said that also goes for the city’s gifted and talented programs.

Just like specialized high schools, gifted programs are deeply segregated. Only 22 percent of students in gifted programs are black or Hispanic, compared with 70 percent citywide. And just like specialized high schools, admission to most of the city’s gifted programs hinges solely on the results of an exam.

“I think that’s not a good idea,” Carranza said. “When you look at the disparities in representation across this system, you have to ask the question, ‘Do we have the right way of assessing and making decisions about students?’”

Most students enter gifted programs when they’re in kindergarten, so they are only 4 years old when they take the test — an approach that Carranza questioned.

“There is no body of knowledge that I know of that has pointed to the fact that you can give a test to a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old and determine if they’re gifted,” he said. “Those tests — and it’s pretty clear — are more a measure of the privilege of a child’s home than true giftedness.”

A full transcript of our interview with the chancellor is coming soon. We’ll have interesting insights about Carranza’s relationship with his predecessor, what he thinks about the city’s Renewal turnaround program now that he’s had time to get to know it better, and the problems he’s trying to solve with a recent bureaucratic overhaul. Here are some highlights to hold you over until then.

Why few schools may get shuttered under Carranza’s leadership — even though he’s ‘not scared’ of closures

In one of his very first moves as chancellor, Carranza spared a storied Harlem school that was slated for closure. Since then, he has shaken up the school’s leadership, initiated new partnerships, and brought in a different support structure.

It’s just one example, but it could be a hint of what’s to come during Carranza’s tenure.

The school that won the reprieve is a part of the mayor’s high profile Renewal program, which aims to boost student learning by offering social services and a longer school day. The program has shown mixed results, at best, and many Renewal schools have been shuttered after failing to make progress. 

Carranza indicated there could be more closures ahead: “Let me be clear: I’m not scared of closing a school if it’s not serving the needs of the students,” he said.

But he added: “My experience — nine times out of 10 — has been that we haven’t done all we can do to give schools that are struggling to improve the right conditions, the right resources and the right support to actually improve.”

Did Carranza push City Hall to do something about segregation at specialized high schools?

City Hall has indicated that its plans to overhaul admissions at the city’s vaunted specialized high schools had been in the works for some time. Indeed, de Blasio promised to do something about the stark underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students at the schools during his first run for mayor.

Carranza wouldn’t reveal much about what happened behind the scenes in the lead-up to the city’s June announcement that officials would lobby to scrap the exam that serves as the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The chancellor said he brought up the issue in his talks with the mayor before coming onboard, and said his boss shared the same vision.

“I can tell you the mayor is passionate about making sure that our schools are just as diverse as our city,” Carranza said.

Asked whether he personally played a role in the decision, Carranza would only say that the mayor “knew what he was getting,” when he was tapped to be chancellor.

He later added: “One of the things that I appreciate is, that what the mayor hired was an educator to be the chancellor, and he lets me do my job.”

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.