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The Hard, but Necessary Work of Growing Great Principals

June 11, 2014 6 minute Read by William McKenzie

Early one morning this winter, three future principals bundled up for a ride-along with Mike Miles, the Dallas school district’s reform-minded superintendent. Along with Miles, Stephanie Burns, Angel del Rio Rubio and Quentyn Seamster would visit Dallas classrooms for several hours.

Each of them was part of the Dallas Independent School District’s 2014 Leadership Development-Fellows Academy class. During the school visits, they would take notes, huddle with students at their desks, and visit with the superintendent and a school’s principal in the hallway after each classroom observation. Rubio, an educator himself, said he looked for how well the teachers aligned their stated lessons of the day with the instruction they actually were providing students.

This on-site training is part of what the leadership academy program provides its fellows, each of whom wants to become a principal. The academy began with about 60 fellows in the 2012-2013 school year, shortly after Miles arrived in Dallas. This year, the 2013-2014 class consists of nearly 50 members. They are a cornerstone of Miles's strategy to create a flow of well-trained, strong school leaders.

Producing new leaders is one way to generate talent for a district. Dallas isn’t alone in creating leadership networks either. Districts like those in Montgomery County in suburban Maryland, Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta and Hillsborough County in the Tampa Bay area also are grooming leaders, which is exactly what they should do.

The Great Principals at Scale report released this week by the Bush Institute and New Leaders notes that districts can’t wait for super-heroes to step forward. (You can read the report here.) They have to create conditions and opportunities for strong principals to develop.

One key condition is making sure the central office is supporting existing campus leaders with the tools they need to succeed. For instance, the district should provide principals managers who help them better understand and address the needs of their campuses.

To its credit, DISD has such managers. They are known as executive directors, and they oversee about 10 to 12 schools. Their work includes regular visits to the campus, where they observe the school and its leader in action. They also work with the principals as a group to review data from their classrooms.

Last year, I sat in one of those data review sessions at a Dallas school. Principals from a small cohort of campuses met with their executive director in a classroom. They spent the better part of the morning poring over information about each school and sharing strategies that might work on their campuses. The session was more open and collaborative than I expected. It wasn’t the manager saying do this, do that. It was the team working on solutions.

But here is the challenge for Dallas and any other district. They have to really work hard at grooming leaders and creating the conditions in which those leaders can excel.

Here’s one of the hurdles: Those who manage 

Those who manage principals shouldn’t do the work for the principals themselves. Instead, they must manage their principals like a coach who equips his players to star on the field.

Miles himself acknowledges this is hard work, that managers can be tempted to essentially be the principal. That serves no function. In fact, it is a waste of time. The principal hasn’t learned to solve a problem on his or her own, and the manager hasn’t managed.

This is only one example of how creating good conditions is hard work. There are others, such as making sure a district sets clear goals and aligns resources around them. All of this requires honest self-assessment. (The Great Principals at Scale report includes a toolkit that can help districts with their assessment.)

Fortunately for students, the study reports on a number of districts that are trying to create the necessary conditions. They include the Houston school district, the Denver school district and, yes, the Dallas district.

But the truth is, there are not nearly enough districts. One reform-minded educator says other districts will need to see a lot more success before they will change.

That’s probably true. After all, districts hear plenty about various reforms. But, if enough districts start creating the conditions that yield strong leaders, the results could send an important wave through education.

The impact would matter most to students. Research shows that a strong principal can improve achievement in their school by as much as 20 percentage points. That’s a clear reason why families across the country need people like Stephanie Burns, Angel del Rio Rubio and Quentyn Seamster  knowing how to lead.


William McKenzie is editorial director of the George W. Bush Institute.


Author

William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he co-teaches an education policy class at SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development. He also participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News and The Weekly Standard.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

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