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Principal Leadership: The Instructive Journey of Katie Lundgren

Article by William McKenzie August 26, 2015 //   8 minute read

This week, Katie Lundgren begins her second year as leader of Marie Reed Elementary School in the Adams-Morgan section of Washington, D.C. She describes her journey to becoming a principal as unintentional. But the 35-year old educator's pathway to leading a diverse, urban school is nonetheless instructive.

Her story provides a way to understand how school districts can prepare principals for their critical work. Her career also shows how districts can provide principals with the right supports. And her journey underscores that recruiting, developing, and retaining strong leaders does not happen without districts intentionally making that happen.

A 2002 political science graduate of Rhodes College in Memphis, Lundgren did not set out to become an educator. Yet she saw a flier advertising Teach for America, applied and was admitted into TFA’s teacher training program. Soon, she was headed to New Orleans as a third grade teacher in the Lower Ninth Ward.

After serving in the classroom, Lundgren discovered she wanted to get into school leadership. She took the next step by attending the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she graduated with a master’s degree in school leadership. She then became an assistant principal in Washington, D.C. “The district took a chance, but they have invested in me since 2009,” Lundgren said as we talked in her office this summer.

Part of the investment was the Mary Jane Patterson Fellowship she earned from D.C. Public Schools in 2013. The fellowship put Lundgren on the path to becoming a principal herself. 

How Districts Can Invest in Leaders

Such investments are crucial. Districts cannot wait for strong leaders to emerge. Nor can they simply hope to keep them in place. They need to create conditions so school leaders can succeed and remain in posts that directly impact the lives of students.

Colleagues here at the Bush Institute and New Leaders, working with education researchers, identified in a 2014 study four areas in which districts can make this happen:

*Align goals, strategies, structures and resources so that all staff members are working on increasing student achievement.

*Create a sense of shared responsibility, balanced autonomy and continuous learning and improvement.

*Effectively manage and support principals, including through regular feedback and opportunities for development; and

*Give principals the authority and backing to manage the talent on their campuses.

Those sound like common sense, but it is not common for districts to have policies in all of these areas. It is particularly difficult putting them in place across the board.

Balanced autonomy, for example, requires districts to oversee campuses and supply them with resources while also giving principals the freedom to implement policies. Sounds sensible, but school boards may upend that balance by putting too much authority in the central office or, conversely, at the campus level.

Still, districts can create the right set of conditions for success. Consider how the D.C. district has helped manage and support Lundgren.

The district created networking opportunities for principals to meet with school leaders across Washington. The meetings included with the chancellor of D.C.’s schools and the chief of human capital. Because of such opportunities, Lundgren said, she felt comfortable calling the right administrators if she needed help.

The district also has assistant superintendents assigned to oversee a cluster of principals. Lundgren said her assistant superintendent visits the campus monthly. “She sits down with me after walk-throughs and goes over issues like instruction, hiring, budgeting, and attendance,” Lundgren explained. “She provides support, feedback and help with goals that our school needs to meet in accordance with district priorities.”

As one example, the assistant superintendent coached Lundgren in how she could help someone else on Reed’s team become more of a leader. They also review data to see how the school is progressing.

Research shows that districts can strengthen campus leadership by assigning qualified supervisors to work with principals. A 2013 University of Washington report highlights the importance of “master teachers” who coach principals.

Effective supervisors spend time with their principals, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses. They support the growth of their principals through personal counseling and training networks. As one principal interviewed for the Bush Institute/New Leaders’ report said: “My manager helps me define what the real work is, and then helps me improve at doing the work.”

In return, Lundgren concentrates on modeling good practices for Reed’s teachers, especially in the area of instruction. She started her first year by interviewing every staff member on her campus. Throughout the year, she regularly observed them, as the district required. And she constantly provided instructors feedback.

Why Schools Need Effective Principals

Results from the 2014-2015 school year show that Reed’s students, most of whom are economically disadvantaged, met or exceeded all five academic goals D.C.’s chancellor approved for the school.  (Reed’s data from the PARCC test, which are the exams students take in jurisdictions that use the Common Core standards, have not yet been received.)

A growing body of scholarship reveals the importance of effective leaders. In a 2013 Education Next report, authors Gregory Branch, Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin found that “highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year.” Similarly, the Wallace Foundation, in a series of in-depth studies on principals, found that effective principals can add as much as 20 percent to the achievement of their students.

Yet there is a flipside to these findings. Ineffective leaders can limit the achievement of their students. Branch, Hanushek, and Rivkin discovered that such principals can lower achievement by between two and seven months of learning in a school year.

The two sides of this coin are why it is so crucial that districts have the right policies to attract, develop, and retain strong principals. Student progress, or the lack of it, often depends upon the leadership of their school.

For that reason, districts need to be intentional. As one example, the success of a leader like Lundgren shouldn’t depend upon whether she happens to have a good mentor.  A district needs to have as policy that it will provide supervisors who share the district’s vision of effective leadership.

This is all about creating the conditions within a district so schools can have quality leaders. Lundgren didn’t plan on becoming a school leader, but she is well on her way to becoming one. The good news for students is they stand to win when strong principals with strong support lead their campus.

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