Here's How ESSA Can Create Strong, Diverse School Leadership

Mar 15, 2018 12:00:00 AM


When I became principal of Ranson IB Middle School in 2011, one of the first challenges I faced as principal was one that never came up in my training: There was a power outage on the first day of school and I had 1,000 students sitting in classrooms with no lights and no air on a hot summer day in North Carolina. The job of today’s principals is complex and demanding, encompassing everything from school culture to community engagement to, most importantly, ensuring effective, engaging teaching in every classroom—all of which I learned and deeply practiced as a principal-in-training with New Leaders, a nonprofit organization that develops teacher leaders, principals and principal supervisors, and advances sound leadership policies. As it turns out, I also learned how to think quickly on my feet when the electricity goes out! While Ranson IB was one of the lowest-performing schools in the district when I first assumed the principalship, [pullquote position="right"]four years later our school’s gains were among the largest in the state.[/pullquote] In fact, Ranson IB scholars, mostly students of color who come from low-income families, were growing faster than students in 90 percent of North Carolina schools. Key to my—and, ultimately, our—success? Strong training, a top-notch leadership team, and support from skilled supervisors. My experience has shown me that school transformation is hard, it takes time, and—with strong, diverse leadership shared at the classroom, school and system levels—it is both possible and sustainable. And the research backs me up. One-quarter of a school’s influence on how much children learn is directly attributable to the quality of the school’s leaders. Further, shared leadership models are key to improving schools. And students of color benefit when their teachers and principals share their background. The implications are clear: To improve student learning, we must make smart investments in leadership. As a doctoral student this past fall, I partnered with New Leaders to investigate how states are utilizing leadership as a strategy to meet their goals for school and student success. We examined the plans submitted by all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), our K-12 federal education law. Our findings are summarized in Prioritizing Leadership: An Analysis of State ESSA Plans. Overall, [pullquote]we found that every single state has committed to directing some portion of its federal funding to leadership.[/pullquote] States have proposed a wide range of leadership investments:
  • 36 states have proposed investing in teacher leadership. Delaware, for example, provides districts with a toolkit on developing teacher leader roles and strategies that are clearly defined, yet locally adaptable to meet the unique needs of students and schools across the state—an approach that reflects recent research on effective teacher leadership.
  • 41 states have homed in on the acute leadership needs of underperforming schools. For example, Texas has committed to providing instructional leadership training for principal supervisors, principals, assistant principals and teacher leaders in districts and schools identified for improvement by the state’s accountability system.
  • 41 states are leveraging leadership to advance equitable access to great teachers. They acknowledge that the best teachers want to work for the best bosses. Louisiana, for example, is partnering with districts across the state to increase the number of effective teachers serving students in rural communities, including by expanding a fellowship for rural principals.
Ultimately, these plans are just writing on paper. The most important work states will undertake comes during the next phase: implementation. States must now take the bold steps necessary to get a well-prepared, well-supported leader in every school, especially those serving the children and communities most in need. We are at a tipping point. States have an exceptional opportunity to use their authority to set a high bar for those who have the privilege of leading our nation’s schools and ensuring all related policies and practices support this effort. To that end, we’ve identified four key lessons to guide their work moving forward:
  1. States must attend to the full spectrum of leaders, from teacher leader to principal and principal supervisor, and from the novice to the expert. For example, Rhode Island plans to launch an initiative to align competencies for district, school, and teacher leaders. And the Missouri Leadership Development System (MLDS) distinguishes the skills of principals along their career paths, from emerging to transformational.
  2. States must tap outstanding, diverse talent for leadership roles, especially effective educators of color and others historically underrepresented in school leadership, by supporting preparation programs and districts to reimagine their recruitment strategies. For example, Montana’s Indian Leadership Education Development Project recruits American Indian educators into leadership positions for schools that serve large populations of indigenous students.
  3. States must shed ineffective practices and support districts and schools to do the same—even if those practices have been implemented for years. Maryland, Michigan and Minnesota, for example, are each developing an approved list of effective, evidence-based interventions for districts and schools and will provide them with technical assistance on how to identify and invest in other proven programs and strategies to meet local needs.
  4. States must collect and use data in smarter ways to identify leadership gaps, target solutions and support continuous improvement, all the while reducing unnecessary reporting for districts and schools and moving toward greater collaboration (rather than compliance) in support of the state’s ambitious leadership agenda. As a start, they can include specific, actionable leadership-focused questions in the local ESSA plans districts must submit to the state.
These plans represent a marked shift from the past, when school systems all-too-often failed to recognize—and therefore, failed to prioritize and invest in—the important role principals and other school leaders play in creating schools where teachers and students thrive, together. Unfortunately, federal funding for these state leadership strategies is at risk. Congress has proposed eliminating funding for Title II and other federal programs—including the School Leader Recruitment and Support Program—that can be the engine propelling state and local leadership initiatives. States have made clear they are ready to prioritize leadership, and we can’t let this opportunity get away from us. Let’s tell Congress: Support teachers and students by funding leadership.
Photo courtesy of author.

Alison Welcher

Alison Welcher is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership at Harvard University. She has served as a teacher, school leader and district administrator in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. As a school leader, she led a middle school turnaround leading to local, regional and national recognition, including a profile with “Getting Smart: 100 Schools Worth Visiting” in 2014 and in the book, "Breakthrough Principals: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Stronger Schools," which inspires principals across the country to value and invest in teacher leadership. Alison recently completed the Teach For America School Systems Leaders Fellowship and the Relay GSE Leverage Leadership Institute. She holds a bachelor's of arts in English from Spelman College and a master’s degree in Risk and Prevention with Adolescents at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Alison is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Educational Leadership program.

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...