Teamwork Matters in the Making of a Great Principal

Learn more about Eva Chiang, Ph.D..
Eva Chiang, Ph.D.
Managing Director, Leadership and Programming
George W. Bush Institute

There is much we don’t know about education, but this much we do know: Dynamic principals drive student achievement. Stand-out leaders...

There is much we don’t know about education, but this much we do know: Dynamic principals drive student achievement. Stand-out leaders improve the performance of their schools by strengthening instruction, building teams and engaging parents. The difference between having an average and an above-average principal can impact student achievement by as much as 20 percentage points.

School districts, educators and parents naturally want this type of leader, who is decidedly not the old school principal with the booming voice and authoritarian manner. Today’s effective principals are instructional leaders, multiply talent throughout the building and create expectations.

Rarely, though, do such leaders suddenly appear. Districts produce the right conditions for them to emerge. In short, the districts make great principals.

In an earlier essay, we looked at the making of a principal through the eyes of, well, a principal:  Katie Lundgren in Washington, D.C. In this essay, we look at this challenge through the eyes of a superintendent: Tom Boasberg, the head of Denver Public Schools (DPS). 

Boasberg has seen leadership from a variety of perspectives. After teaching in China, the Stanford-educated lawyer served as chief of staff for the chairman of Hong Kong’s first Democratic Party. He then worked for the Federal Communications Commission and later a telecommunications company. By the time he landed Denver’s head job, Boasberg had learned lessons from leaders in government, politics and business.

A primary goal of his tenure, as well as that of his predecessor Michael Bennet, has been to build leaders that improve the achievement of students. This has meant redefining the job of a principal, hiring leaders who can meet the modern dimensions, training and supporting them, and giving them the freedom to do their work. This work has not been done without challenges, but the district has been intentional about these goals.

Denver’s making of a principal

The hiring part works this way: Denver has a clear definition of the role of its principals. This started under Bennet and accelerated when DPS under Boasberg developed a framework for what a principal is supposed to do. That process involved considerable input from principals themselves.

“This is one of the more challenging jobs out there. One person can’t do it all, so principals need to attract talented teachers, motivate them and build strong teams of teachers. This is a tall order, and it starts with a willingness to learn.”
–Tom Boasberg, Superintendent, Denver Public Schools

With an idea in mind, the district has sought out talent. DPS identifies prospective leaders, and then puts them through a number of tasks to make sure they can successfully lead a school. 

The training part comes next, which districts often cannot do solely by themselves. Denver, for example, trains some of its future principals and assistant principals through the University of Denver’s Ritchie Program for School Leaders.  No preparation program guarantees success, but here are ways in which the two collaborate:

  • DPS staff members teach classes in the program as adjunct instructors. DPS and the University of Denver faculty meet weekly throughout the year.
  • The curriculum for the program is tied to the DPS School Leadership Framework, and the Ritchie Interns, as participants are known, are assessed using the DPS principal evaluation system.
  • DPS provides a paid, full-time internship for all Ritchie Interns. These internship positions are designed to allow the interns to practice leadership skills and behaviors that are priority to DPS.
  • Program graduates are put into the DPS preferred candidate pool for assistant principal positions, yet they still must go through a competitive process to secure a position.
  • Once graduates receive a leadership position, they receive follow-up coaching and mentoring from DPS. There is additional coaching and mentoring once a person becomes a principal.

Beyond the Ritchie Program, DPS’ training process includes assigning teams from the front office to work directly with principals. They answer questions on everything from budgets to personnel to benefits.

For some principals, managing a budget can be a steep learning curve, so the district provides financial teams that can help with Excel sheets and other budget charts. Similarly, the team assigned to a school can quickly answer a principal’s questions ranging from curriculum to personnel matters.

This arrangement works both ways, too. The teams learn the needs of the campuses to which they have been assigned. They see them as their schools.

The support part comes in various ways, but none more important than the role of principal managers.  Denver has focused on hiring instructional superintendents who coach principals, much like Katie Lundgren’s mentor in Washington, D.C. developed her leadership skills

Denver Public Schools now have a ratio of about one instructional superintendent for every eight principals. This ratio is as extraordinary as it is important. In some districts, the ratio can be as high in large districts as one supervisor for every 40 or more principals. To be effective, supervisors cannot be spread too then.

“Being a strong instructional leader is only the ticket to the dance. Becoming a truly effective principal is something different. That part of the job requires a strong set of values, a deep focus on student learning and achievement, and the ability to inspire students, teachers and parents with a vision.”
–Tom Boasberg, Superintendent, Denver Public Schools

Denver has improved its supervisor-principal ratio by cutting spending elsewhere and investing in this part of its work. The district even got rid of some meetings at headquarters so supervisors can spend more time on campuses. 

Of course, the position of principal manager only works as well as the people who occupy that position. Denver and all districts need to find the right leaders for that job, just as they must for the principal post itself.

The freedom part includes increasing the authority of principals to run their schools. This includes allowing principals and their school-based teams to decide the curriculum. The district may recommend programs but the principals determine which curriculum to use.

Principals also have authority over staffing and budgets. They make the call about such issues as class size, field trips and technologies.

At the same time, the district pays attention to the school’s work and aligns resources like human resource personnel to make sure the campus is meeting its mission. This is part of balanced autonomy, which means both the front office and the principal share responsibility for the success of their school.  

Of course, all of this has to do with finding the right balance. “Delegation without the capacity to use the authority leads to chaos, but delegation with capacity and direction  has the potential to lead to innovation and success,” says Richard Laine, director of education for the National Governors Association.

It’s all about being intentional

Some of these fundamentals are in play in other districts as well. Hillsborough in Florida. Charlotte-Mecklenberg in North Carolina. The Dallas school district.

Districts that develop strong leaders are intentional about this work, too. They know the role of the school leader has been elevated over the last several decades. Principals must lead the way or their schools and students will be at risk. Students, after all, must meet rising academic standards if they are going to compete in a hyper-competitive economy. Schools also need to show their students are actually learning and progressing.

Yet many obstacles stand in the way of creating successful principals.  To grow strong school leaders, districts need to shift their thinking about who does what in their districts. They need to make the principal’s job more doable, more protected, and more supported so that the job appeals to our most talented professionals.

This needs to be a job that people truly want to do, and are able to do effectively. This is a tall order, as Tom Boasberg says. But schools, parents and communities will benefit when districts are able to make — and keep — great principals.

Eva Myrick Chiang is manager, Education Reform and Research and Evaluation, at the George W. Bush Institute. William McKenzie is editorial director at the George W. Bush Institute