Tag Archives: school leadership

We Don’t Know What the Superintendency Looks Like, and That’s a Problem.

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

We’ve talked a lot this week about the teacher pipeline. My colleagues have dug into issues like innate inequities in teacher hiring and the retention of high-performing teachers. There’s absolutely work to be done to ensure districts recruit, train, and retain high-quality educators, and we’re able to ground these efforts in demographic data, with insight into teacher and principal demographics from the Department of Education’s National Center on Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey. As we make efforts to diversify and expand our teacher pipeline, it’s valuable to know what our current teacher workforce looks like, especially on a state-by-state level.

First graders answer questions for a project about bees. Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

What we don’t have though, is reliable, state-level data on school superintendent demographics. While we look to improve teacher pipelines, we should not ignore leadership pipelines. And if we don’t know what our existing superintendent pool looks like, it can be challenging to determine how or even if that network could be expanded.

The American Association of School Administrators prints an annual Salary and Benefits Study, which includes survey data capturing school leader demographics. Unfortunately, the survey’s 15 percent response rate prevents it from being truly representative. While we can make broad estimates about the country’s 13,674 districts and their respective leaders based on national figures, there is not, to my knowledge, a publicly available data set of state-level superintendent demographics across race and gender. Anyone know of such a set? I’d love to talk: kirsten.schmitz@bellwethereducation.org.

These roles are powerful, and representation matters. If we can’t analyze broad trends in school leadership at the state level, we miss opportunities to highlight states with diverse administrators, as well as those which may benefit from targeted outreach and recommendations. The same questions we ask about educator diversity — like “is our teacher workforce representative of our student population?” — can be applied to superintendents. We could further answer equity questions around wage gaps, mentoring, and access to leadership opportunities. And finally, as several of the nation’s largest school districts scramble to appoint new superintendents from a finite applicant pool, this field landscaping work becomes especially valuable.

We can and should work to improve our teacher pipeline. But we should also strive to know more about our school leaders. Knowing where we stand is the baseline first step, and it shouldn’t be this challenging to get there.

What I Learned About Retaining Teachers From Having Done It Badly as a New Principal

Photo via Flickr user jeffdjevdet

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

As schools across the nation get back into gear, top of mind for principals and leaders is how to keep the teachers they’ve hired. I can tell you now: free coffee in the workroom, t-shirts during teacher appreciation week, “carrot and stick” methods, or other gimmicks by themselves don’t keep teachers. Teachers stay when they experience genuine care and investment from their school leaders and managers. Gallup’s well-known research, which led to the creation of the Q12 survey to assess employee engagement, points directly to the impact of a strong manager. Their research reiterates the common idea that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Similarly, teachers don’t leave schools, they leave principals and leaders who haven’t been able to engage them. I learned this the hard way.

At the start of my first year as a principal, I hired a team of twenty one. By the end of the school year, only seventeen remained. Of the seventeen, only seven continued on into the following school year. While some of the seventeen were let go, I knew that too many of them had quit.

I felt frustrated and exhausted. I remember taking those seven remaining teachers out for dinner and asking them: “Why did you stay?” Their responses became my first leadership lesson as a new manager: They said: “We were the ones you invested in,” “we were the ones you trusted and gave leadership to,” and “we were the ones who you showed that you cared [about personally].”

This was hard to hear but true: these were the teachers who I invested in more, trusted, and encouraged, especially when they were struggling. I was thankful for this feedback. Moving forward, I tried each year to create this feeling for my whole team and not just a select few.

Here are some of the key changes I made and the ones I suggest to leaders:

Know the individuals on your team

No matter how big your school is, you need to know the individuals on your team. Know their strengths, areas of growth, interests, and aspirations. Ask about their significant others, kids, and life outside of the school — take a personal interest in them. Leverage a situational leadership style to tailor your support of them. Use your head and your heart when working with them. If you hired them, hopefully you care enough to see them not just as the teacher who teaches in room 202 but as a whole person.

Coach and develop your team

Make sure they have a coach who is providing personalized development, even if it’s not you. Ensure this is happening on a consistent and regular basis, and regularly make time to check in with them yourself on how their coaching and support is going. This includes joining coaching sessions to offer input and push the quality further. Plan professional development that is tailored and differentiated, whether that includes choice in sessions or structured pathways such as teaching fellow programs. Create stretch opportunities for them to grow in areas they may not even recognize as strengths yet.

Ask questions and listen to them

Be genuinely curious about their opinions and feedback, even if you don’t use all of it. Create the space for them to share constructive ideas and thoughts about improvement. Let them know when you have used their feedback or ideas. Gallup’s research affirms that employees who feel like significant contributors to their organization and believe their “opinion counts” experience a higher level of satisfaction in their workplace. If I had not taken my seven returners to dinner, asked them for their honest feedback, and genuinely listened to it, I would have missed out on a vital leadership growth opportunity for myself.

Be patient with them

Understand that they will make mistakes, drop balls, miss deadlines, arrive late, call out sick last minute, etc. Use these moments as a learning opportunity to reset expectations and plan for the future with them as opposed to becoming annoyed, holding a grudge, or looking for their next mistake. Keep the bar high and provide direction, support, and scaffolds to help your teachers get there.

Empower them

Create opportunities for as many team members as possible to lead and shape aspects of the school. Create opportunities for your teachers to start and lead initiatives that allow them to bring other aspects of their personal life into the school. This spreads leadership and ownership of the school while also enriching it with diverse perspectives and points of view. I remember the day my principal asked me to lead my grade-level team even though there were more experienced teachers on it. He and I didn’t know then that he had sowed the seeds of school leadership by recognizing something in me.

Show your appreciation

You should be your teachers’ biggest fan. Celebrate your teachers’ growth and accomplishments. And just like in an interpersonal relationship, don’t wait for Valentine’s Day or birthdays to show appreciation. Take a page out of the 5 Love Languages and demonstrate your appreciation in a variety of ways, like by saying “it was great watching you in action with your kids today…” or by genuinely spending time with your teachers. I fondly remember chatting it up with my teachers as they headed home after school.

Become the kind of manager our teams need us to be — our kids and communities can’t afford a revolving door of teachers.

Four Lessons for School Leaders from STEM School Principals

 

By Johannes Rössel [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Career and technical education (CTE) is having something of a moment. An October Brookings report found that media mentions of the term, which commonly refers to programs teaching specific career-oriented and technical skills, have quadrupled in the past four years, and in 2015, 39 states instituted new CTE-related policies, many of which increased program funding.

While researching high-performing CTE programs, I was able to connect with two school leaders: Earl Moore, principal of Highlands, New Jersey’s Marine Academy of Science and Technology (M.A.S.T), and Jeff Brown, principal of Strathmore, California’s Harmony Magnet Academy. Both schools have a STEM focus, and while the institutions have their differences, four shared lessons emerged:

1. Career and technical education isn’t what it used to be — we’ve come a long way

When I think about vocational programs, I immediately visualize my own eighth grade shop class. It was a six week crash course — a literal crash, we hung drywall and then smashed it to patch it — and while I took away some foundational hammering and sanding skills, the background wasn’t connected to my eventual career aspirations.

But that’s not what many of today’s CTE programs look like, and it’s certainly not the case at M.A.S.T. or Harmony. In recent years, Harmony has added a student-run enterprise program, courses in biomedicine, and a summer coding camp targeting young women. Brown spoke to Harmony’s engineering program’s constant innovation cycle: “We’re always pushing the envelope to develop new opportunities for students; we’re constantly working to find a new way to make it more real.” Moore credited his school’s success to its ability to reinvent itself: “M.A.S.T. today is not what it was in 1981…the key to a successful CTE program is the ability to change with the times.”

2. Get you a program that does both — combining an academic core with STEM-centered courses prepares students for high-value jobs after college graduation

Both M.A.S.T. and Harmony pair traditional academic core classes with CTE-specific coursework. Both leaders found integrating a technical curriculum with a college prep foundation to be especially powerful. “Teaching academic subjects through a technical lens provides immediate opportunities for application, and students really learn at a higher level. We can’t be just a school,” says Brown. M.A.S.T. also combines CTE-specific experiences with traditional academies. All students take four years of Math, English, Social Studies, and Naval Science, but they also have the opportunity to learn on a 65-foot research vessel called the “Blue Sea.” In addition, all M.A.S.T. students participate in the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

3. Teacher preparation and professional development matter more than ever

Just as CTE has changed over time, how we teach it has changed, too. It’s critical for teacher preparation and development to evolve with the field. Moore links his staff’s ability to prepare M.A.S.T. students appropriately to an increase in ongoing professional development offered at the school and an awareness of the constantly changing skills and knowledge industry leaders are prioritizing, which are reinforced through partnerships with local businesses. “It’s an investment in money and resources,” he says, “but you need to give educators the professional development they need to achieve the goals of the program.”

4. It takes a village — and also local businesses — to get it right

No school is an island — not even a marine sciences academy. Both Brown and Moore underscored the support of local industry and community partners, from college professors to government officials, in developing their curriculum to align with workforce needs. Says Moore, “Vocational schools really need to be in tune with their local businesses.”

Region-specific programs can foster mutually beneficial relationships. Student interns are both learning and contributing to their community.

Researchers found high school CTE participants are more likely to graduate on time and less likely to drop out than students who do not take CTE courses. At the same time, some policy makers voice concerns around equity and access, as well as wide variation in CTE program quality. There’s a lot to unpack, but programs like M.A.S.T. and Harmony show positive student outcomes using hybrid vocational and academic curriculum are possible.

Looking at Leadership to Combat Teacher Turnover and Sustain School Improvement

This is the third in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Photo by Eric E. Castro via Flickr

In recent blog posts, I’ve been looking at the impact of teacher turnover on school improvement efforts and ways schools, states, and districts can address this challenge. But what about turnover in leaders, such as principals, district leaders, and superintendents? Leaders can have a huge impact on the culture, priorities, and strategies of their schools and districts. Recent studies have found that principals had a significant effect on teachers’ overall job satisfaction, and that the quality of administrative support could strongly influence teachers’ decisions to leave or stay. Given this reality, efforts to address teacher turnover should not overlook leaders.

Despite the demonstrated importance of strong, stable leadership, leaders in urban schools and districts continue to turn over at high rates. Leadership turnover can be caused by some of the same factors as teacher turnover, such as retirement, performance issues, or competitive offers elsewhere. A single change in leadership can reverberate through a school or district, for better or worse.

Principals in the Pathway Schools Initiative were fairly stable over the course of the Initiative. Of seven schools participating in the Initiative, three retained the same principal throughout all five years of the initiative, and two experienced only one change in principal leadership. This is unusual for high-poverty, urban schools, where principals turn over even faster than teachers. Nationally, 22 percent of public school principals and 27 percent of principals in high-poverty public schools leave annually. Two schools in the initiative, however, experienced more frequent leadership transitions — including one elementary school that had a new principal almost every year of the initiative.

Even when principals stayed the same, changes in district leadership had an impact on schools. All three of the traditional school districts in the Initiative changed superintendents and reorganized district leadership at least once. This is not surprising based on national trends: The average urban superintendent lasts barely three years, and the role of an urban superintendent is increasingly high pressure and politicized. These people were key liaisons between the Initiative partners, schools, and districts, and every time a district leader changed, it took time for their successors to build working relationships and learn about the Initiative.

Churn in district leadership is also frequently accompanied by changes in district strategies, and teachers and principals in Pathway Schools reported to SRI International evaluators that this sometimes hindered progress at the schools. Especially in the larger districts involved in the Initiative, Pathway Schools had to negotiate for the flexibility to pursue their goals differently from what other elementary schools in their districts were doing. With changes in leadership and accompanying changes in district strategies, this process had to be repeated, creating potential uncertainty and mixed messages for principals and teachers.

A change is leadership isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a district or a school — like teachers, leaders change for all kinds of reasons. Still, districts should take every possible step to retain high-performing and high-potential leaders where they can, and to simultaneously plan for succession and create a pipeline of new leaders from within their staff. Potential solutions to consider include: building a complete district framework for principal talent management, instituting school leader residencies to create effective new leaders, and facilitating smooth transitions with extra support for new leaders. Schools and students shouldn’t start from scratch when leadership changes occur.

Local Turnover Challenges Require Locally Tailored Solutions

This is second in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

Evidence show that high teacher turnover is hurting long-term improvement efforts in many urban schools, and yet the problem remains. To ensure improvement efforts actually take hold, education leaders at the state, district, and school levels must pay closer attention to teacher turnover, examine its causes within their own local context, and develop strategies that will keep highly effective teachers in schools where they are needed most.

Developing effective strategies to retain great teachers in high-need schools first requires confronting some common misconceptions about teacher turnover. First, there is not a nationwide, generalized teacher shortage, and the profession is not shrinking. In fact, the teaching workforce grew by 13 percent over the past four years, while the student population grew by only two percent. Instead, there are acute teacher shortages in specific geographic areas, districts, and subject areas. Second, while turnover tends to be highest in urban, high-poverty schools, not all high-poverty schools have high turnover, which means this challenge can be overcome. Third, higher turnover rates in high-poverty schools are not primarily because of students’ needs. Teachers who leave their jobs because of dissatisfaction often rank organizational factors in schools — such as administrative support, salaries, lack of time, and lack of faculty influence in school decisions — higher than student factors when explaining their decision to leave.

A local program in Minnesota’s Twin Cities is an interesting case study for turnover variation. Minnesota’s teacher workforce is growing overall, though not as much as national trends: Minnesota teachers grew by 5.8 percent in the past seven years, compared with 3.2 percent growth in the number of students. But, like national trends, in many geographic areas and teaching specialty areas, hiring and retaining effective teachers can be extremely difficult. In the first post in this series, I looked at a subset of elementary schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities that participated in the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. These schools’ populations included high concentrations of students who are low-income (89%), students of color (91%), and dual language learners (50%). As I summarized, teacher turnover varied from year to year and between schools. Even within the small sample of the Pathway schools, some schools had little to no turnover some years, or turnover on par with state averages. The relationship between teacher turnover and student achievement was inconsistent, nevertheless, turnover affected school improvement efforts. 

The chart below, from the Minnesota Department of Education Teacher Supply/Demand report, can give some very broad ideas of why teachers leave the teaching profession or move to another school district in Minnesota, but it provides a limited picture because it does not include teachers who change schools within their districts or change roles within their schools. Moreover, teachers’ reasons for leaving likely look very different in the high-poverty, urban elementary schools in the Pathway Schools Initiative than they do statewide.

Some of the most common reasons for leaving, according to the data available here, are personal reasons, retirement, and interdistrict competition. 40 percent of teachers leave for “personal,” or “unknown” reasons. National data suggest common “personal reasons” could include things like caring for one’s own children or dissatisfaction with school leaders and school culture. Not all these challenges can be solved completely at the school or district level, but some can. Some promising solutions, drawn mostly from national examples, and inspired by conversations with stakeholders involved in the Initiative, are:

  • District Policy Incentives: It’s important for larger districts to consider how their staffing policies can impact teacher assignment and transfers, especially for high-need schools. Teacher contracts and district policies can sometimes encourage teachers to transfer schools within a district, prioritize transfers and placements based on seniority with no input from principals, or set up incentives for effective teachers to transfer away from high-poverty schools. Different district policies and contracts could account for some of the turnover differences among the Pathway schools.
  • School Strategy, Culture, and Leadership: School culture, school strategy, and school leadership are huge contributors to teachers’ job satisfaction in any school. District and school leaders need strategies and tools to track the experiences that teachers and students have in schools and identify implications for turnover, student achievement, and improvement efforts. Taking surveys of school climate or culture offer one way to uncover problems before they cause turnover. The Initiative required participating districts to use the 5Essentials school culture survey across all their schools — and these revealed a wide range of teacher satisfaction and experiences. These results could open up a dialogue that gets to the heart of some stubborn turnover challenges.
  • Targeted Incentives: 16 percent of Minnesota teachers leave their jobs for a teaching job in another school district. Minnesota district hiring leaders say salaries and a competitive teacher job market are their top barriers to teacher retention. To address this challenge, other district leaders could consider various kinds of performance-based pay structures and targeted incentives to retain high-performing teachers in high-need schools and subjects. Action is especially needed to recruit and retain highly effective teachers in hard-to-staff roles, like special education teachers and specialists in teaching English language learners.
  • Hiring and Induction Supports: Hiring and induction supports can be key to breaking cycles of high turnover. Evidence from other school districts suggests that induction supports for newly hired teachers can increase student achievement and improve retention, and in recent years many large districts have reformed their hiring practices to put more decision-making power at the school level.

There won’t be just one solution for teacher turnover in the Pathway Schools, or other schools struggling with teacher retention. But, to move forward, school and district leaders must better understand reasons for turnover and target appropriate solutions, including, but not limited to, targeted incentives; hiring supports; district policies; and school strategy, culture, and leadership, with a strong grounding in school-by-school data.