In most cases, that means it gets pushed aside by more immediate priorities. Despite the fact that principals themselves often cited coaching and encouragement as major factors in their own development, most struggle to find the time to offer similar support to high-potential leaders in their buildings. Less than half of the APs and other full-time leaders in our survey said they receive frequent coaching and feedback on their performance from their principals.
Most school systems have not created a culture in which formal leadership coaching and development are a key part of what school leaders are expected to do and how they are evaluated. And most systems in our research have yet to find a way to bridge that gap. Obviously, this is something we want to address. Addressing the problem, however, requires a system-wide commitment to freeing up the time for current leaders to help develop the next generation.
One district we studied has made working with APs a priority for principal supervisors. District school principals are, on average, responsible for supervising more than 40 individuals. Principal supervisors are just as swamped, often overseeing 20 to 30 schools and about to staff in some form of leadership role. This breadth of responsibility is far wider than we see in other fields. People in corporate leadership positions typically are responsible for five to 15 subordinates, with lower spans when overseeing more complex and customized activities.
Organizations with a focus on talent development design leadership roles with a dual objective: They evaluate individuals based on both current performance and future potential. Those who fall short on either dimension are moved off the leadership development track. But leadership roles in schools work differently.
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They are designed and filled with little consistency and without close system oversight. A more formal process is needed with a clear pathway to leadership for those that are interested. Relying on an informal system based on short-term priorities and a fragmented building-by-building perspective leads to stagnation: Too many stepping-stone roles are filled by educators with little interest in leadership. Leaving APs in their positions indefinitely comes at a high cost.
They may be playing a valuable role today, but they are filling a seat that that might otherwise be used to give more ambitious leaders an important development experience. This effectively clogs the arteries of the leadership development pipeline by limiting available stepping-stone opportunities and discouraging others from seeking such roles.
Many school system leaders recognize that the AP role, in particular, is a wasted development opportunity. But culturally, the status quo is hard to change. While sitting district school leaders spent only 3. Superintendents find themselves with a persistent dearth of internal candidates ready to step into the principal role. That leaves them with a difficult choice: As the chief of human resources in one district put it: The persistent difficulty school systems encounter when openings occur can be captured in one telling data point: Fully half of the principals in our research were hired within one month of the start of the next school year.
The fire-drill nature of the hiring process is partly a result of insufficient investment in the systems needed to evaluate and cultivate the highest-profile candidates coming through the pipeline. But schools also lack insight at the final step of the process: School officials lament that despite the fact many candidate have been in the system for years, their historical performance relative to others is rarely a major factor in the application process. More than two-thirds of school leaders believe their system places more importance on candidate interviews than past performance data see Figure One root cause of the problem is that schools have historically failed to invest in the tools and processes most leading organizations use to collect and analyze the performance data that underlies sophisticated pipeline planning.
Another HR official agreed that a lack of meaningful ways to evaluate talent leaves officials guessing when it comes to both nurturing strong candidates and promoting the best ones. The raw talent is out there. A roadmap for change. Eliminating them will require an extensive makeover in the way most school systems structure and manage their stepping-stone roles, and it will require a much stronger commitment to inspire, develop and select truly transformational leaders.
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Creating a better leadership development model, in other words, will require extraordinary leadership. Many of the school systems in our research recognize this challenge and are working hard to address it. A number of them have begun to devise and implement creative approaches to solving some of the thorniest issues. New leadership development models are starting to take shape. The emerging best practices we saw in our research, coupled with our extensive experience in leadership development in other sectors, led us to three broad recommendations that can collectively help school systems take a major step forward on the journey to develop more transformational school leaders.
The necessary first step in finding leaders capable of transforming schools is to create a clear vision of who those leaders should be. What are they being asked to do? What qualities and skills must they possess to succeed? Bringing about significant change requires creating strong linkages between overall goals and the capabilities of those charged with achieving them. Many of the school systems in our research have embraced this approach and are developing new leadership standards and the systems to support them.
The Denver Public Schools DPS , for instance, launched a multi-phased initiative in to develop a framework that both defines principal effectiveness and creates the evaluation and feedback mechanisms necessary to help principals meet those expectations. While the Denver framework includes a number of criteria common to other systems, it is not a cookie-cutter solution imposed from the top down. The act of defining great leadership must include the participation of sitting school leaders, teachers and other important stakeholders.
That creates buy-in—a collective aspiration that lays the groundwork for the difficult changes ahead.
That becomes a pragmatic tool for assessing whether a current or prospective school principal truly has the right skills. It also adds precision when placing specific candidates in specific jobs. With a well-defined set of system-wide standards in hand, high-level conversations about leadership qualities give way to hard-nosed assessments of whether candidates actually possess the required capabilities.
And for the system as a whole, it drives a deeper understanding of critical gaps in the existing talent pool and helps build a necessary consensus around the importance of taking bold actions to address those shortfalls. Transformational school leadership requires both a fundamental belief that better outcomes are possible and an extraordinary combination of skills. Those skills can only be developed through a mix of on-the-job experience, high-quality training and strong mentorship. School systems need to move toward a model that provides all three.
Nothing is more important to leadership development than a rich set of real-world management experiences. In our work across education and numerous other sectors, we consistently see the majority of leadership development coming through opportunities to actively lead other adults in a day-to-day role. This is as true in schools as it is in other sectors. Developing candidates with the management talent to lead complex organizations requires giving them a broad range of leadership experiences along the way.
That begins with a system-wide effort to create meaningful and consistent stepping-stone roles that have a strong leadership component. Designing teacher leader and AP roles in this way attracts and encourages talented leaders while giving them opportunities to develop the skills they will need in both their current and prospective roles. Several of the school systems in our research have made this a central focus of their leadership development efforts and the results are encouraging see Figure For many school systems, setting a more consistent set of expectations can be a difficult structural and cultural shift—and understandably so.
AP and teacher leader roles are usually centrally budgeted but locally structured. There are many good reasons for that—each school situation is unique, and empowering school leaders to deploy talent in their buildings as they see fit is generally a good thing. But this model also makes it very hard to ensure that individual schools structure and fill enough of these roles with an eye toward leadership development. Absent a longer-term perspective on how they can contribute to retaining and developing potential leaders, there is a natural tendency to define these positions too narrowly.
Our research shows that principals tend to structure teacher leader roles to incorporate a narrow set of tasks that can get done despite a full teaching load rather than structuring them as if developing the next generation of school leaders was among their highest priorities. They often take a similar short-term view of AP roles, designing them around those tasks they least prefer to do. The lack of consistent expectations and a common language around what great performance looks like make it difficult to assess talent and match the highest- potential leaders to the best opportunities across the system.
Spotting potential stars in the less-visible teacher leader stage of the talent pipeline poses an even greater challenge. School systems need to embrace more common definitions and push for a consistent set of expectations across like roles in comparable buildings. It does mean that systems should move toward clearly defining what skills and competencies should be incorporated into distinct stepping-stone roles, even if they vary somewhat from building to building.
If we expect people to take on other significant responsibilities, we have to give them time to focus on those things. The KIPP Knowledge Is Power Program network of charter management organizations has been an early innovator in setting a high bar for its school leaders, including its teacher leader and AP roles.
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KIPP has augmented its school leadership competency model with what it calls a Leadership Progression Roadmap, which describes in detail the specific skills that candidates develop as they move from one role to the next. By clearly defining key teacher leader and AP competencies, it has raised the collective aspiration for these roles without being overly prescriptive around exact job designs across a diverse portfolio of member schools.
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KIPP recognizes that keeping strong teachers in the classroom is a key priority. But creating clear pathways gives those who aspire to leadership a better idea of what to expect when they transition into the next role, while also giving principals a clearer picture of the skills they should be cultivating. The idea—explicitly stated—is to begin building the skills needed to advance along the leadership progression toward an AP job.
Available time is a crucial consideration in designing meaningful stepping-stone opportunities. Schools have to find ways to structure teacher leader roles so they include both significant responsibilities and sufficient hours during the day to focus on them. That will often require creativity in freeing up time for added responsibilities without compromising teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Several of the systems in our research have devised innovative solutions.
This budget scheme allows YES to give teachers significant leadership development opportunities without taking top performers out of the classroom. Rather than develop all of the curriculum at the central office, for instance, YES has devised a Course Leader position that hands a significant portion of that job over to teachers. YES gives them a reduced course load but expects them to prepare learning content and planning materials, write assessments and support other teachers.
YES also offers teachers several instructional leadership positions such as Dean of Instruction. School systems also need to build time for leadership development into the principal and principal supervisor roles. Principals need an organizational structure that enables them to spend more time mentoring potential leaders within their buildings. Principal supervisors need to support and monitor them, while keeping track of available talent across the system. Leaders don't develop uniformly across schools, and often the best candidate for an opening in one building might be found in another.
To be effective, principals and principal supervisors need to have spans of control that are manageable. As we noted earlier in this report, principal supervisors in many systems oversee as many as 25 schools.
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But several of the systems in our research, including the Houston and District of Columbia public schools, have moved aggressively to ease the burden by giving them a more reasonable portfolio of 10 to 12 schools and focusing their role more formally on leadership development. In Houston, principal supervisors are now called School Support Officers and are expected to be a key resource for the principals they manage.
The District of Columbia Public Schools has dubbed the role Instructional Superintendent and has shifted the responsibilities to include instructional leadership. Reducing these spans is not always simple, of course, particularly in budget-constrained environments. While some systems may be able to add supervisory resources without too many barriers, others will need to dig more deeply to find some, or all, of the budget needed to do so. We have seen several districts and CMOs take a close look at costs—particularly general and administrative costs—and think critically about the relative value of various expenditures.
With an objective eye and sometimes difficult discussions on trade-offs, they have found opportunities to shift budget allocations associated with lower-value activities to those deemed to be higher priority, such as adding additional supervisors. In districts with smaller spans, the frequency rose sharply: Open positions tend to be filled in a rushed process, and everyone crosses their fingers, hoping for the best. School systems can change that dynamic by putting in place processes to actively promote, monitor and support their talent pipelines.
The most successful leadership development organizations we see in other sectors focus aggressively on selling the benefits of both staying with the organization and rising to leadership. But they also know that key roles must be broadly coveted and viewed as prestigious. This is especially true of highly demanding roles with significant stress.
These jobs often look far less attractive to those on the outside looking up than to those who already hold them. Absent an active effort to change perception, many talented candidates may never put their hat in the ring. While school systems have historically expended little effort in actively promoting leadership roles, our research suggests that this is changing in many districts and CMOs.
This is a crucial first step in actively managing a talent pipeline. They are formally recognizing outstanding performers, ensuring compensation is competitive and creating broader leadership opportunities for principals themselves by including them in important district-wide initiatives. The District of Columbia Public Schools, for instance, honors outstanding principals at its high-profile Standing Ovation awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center. Principals are executive-level talent and the district will invest in their development.
The Denver Public Schools, for instance, is hosting a series of seminars on school leadership roles and deploying HR officials to communicate informally with people interested in follow-up. The Houston Independent School District has built out a section on its website specifically for information on leadership development opportunities. Several other districts have formed school-leadership recruiting teams.
The objective of these pipeline-building efforts is to broaden the potential pool of interested talent progressing down leadership development pathways. Producing an active short list of those who are ready to move into larger leadership roles is essential to ensuring those individuals get the additional mentorship and leadership development training they will need to be prepared to successfully step into those impending vacancies. A number of school systems in our research have taken some important steps in this direction.
In Denver, sitting principals and instructional superintendents must rate their junior leaders against clear succession criteria and nominate promising candidates for inclusion in selective leadership development programs. District leadership has also started semi-annual talent review processes to talk through the readiness of each AP and the effectiveness of sitting principals. The public nature of these moments is an ongoing prompt for principals and principal supervisors to take accountability for leadership development.
It also creates a common language for assessing talent in the pipeline. This type of structured effort can make a profound difference. Denver, with funding from The Wallace Foundation, has made significant progress in filling its school leadership pipeline with high-potential leaders. Some of the charter organizations we studied have made even greater progress: These rigorous efforts to fill the pipeline and assess the talent moving through it have another benefit.
They make it easier for school systems to see where the arteries are clogged. Leadership roles have to serve a dual purpose: Schools should have an abundance of quality teacher leader roles. Some will naturally go to veteran teachers with a desire to stay in the classroom, and others will go to skilled teachers rotating for a period of time through an expanded role in which they have an opportunity to make their mark. But a significant percentage of these roles need to be opened up to teachers with a real interest in advancing further down the path toward school leadership.
The District of Columbia Public Schools has addressed this issue by building it into the leadership competency model for all principals. School leaders will be evaluated in part on their ability to identify and strategically place outstanding talent in key roles. Similarly, the New York City Department of Education has developed a leadership pipeline designed to move strong teachers into leadership positions and proactively move them along a pathway to AP and principal.
In many ways, however, the AP role poses a more difficult challenge. Not only are there far fewer of these key positions in schools, but, as we demonstrated earlier, they often are filled with career APs who have neither the ambition nor prospects of advancing to school leadership. The result is that districts are constantly struggling to fill principal vacancies from within. The keys to building a strong AP bench are to set a high bar for these roles, create a clear and standardized set of job expectations, and put in place robust systems to assess and monitor talent.
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As with teacher leaders, several districts in our research have established clear AP competency criteria and charged principals with ensuring their successful development. Making sure that the highest-potential teacher leaders and APs are getting what they need to develop is essential to keeping the pipeline fresh.
These programs can also provide a terrific opportunity to further assess and evaluate who among these standouts is most ready to move into a larger role. A number of districts in our research have moved aggressively in this direction. Denver has created a series of development programs at each stage of the path to principal, designed to provide training, peer interaction and exposure to strong mentors see Figure Principals nominate up to five teachers each year for the Teacher Leadership Academies, a group that meets monthly to discuss and hone leadership skills.
Twenty-five promising APs can then take advantage of a pair of one-year residencies designed to prepare them to take over as principal.
Said Denver Superintendent Boasberg: We know from hundreds of examples nationwide that dramatically better outcomes are possible at the individual school level, even in the most challenging of educational environments. We have the opportunity to replicate these results at greater scale by more systematically developing talented educators into a deep bench of prospective leaders with the experience and ability to build an extraordinary school.
Our research with districts and CMOs working on this issue highlights both the challenge and the opportunity. Many of these school systems are making important progress on the long journey to fundamentally rethink leadership development. They are dramatically raising standards, encouraging more-talented educators to consider the path to leadership, creating more meaningful stepping-stone roles, and devising systems to both evaluate and manage those moving through the pipeline.
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