George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

New Help for School Administrators: Programs and Initiatives Offer Guidance

Support for school leaders is on the rise.

October 1, 2000

Principal Mike Chappell appreciated the focused nature of the University of North Carolina’s Higher School Performance Program.

Credit: Mike Chappell

"[The principalship is] a position that is absolutely critical to educational change and improvement. A good principal can create a climate that can foster excellence in teaching and learning, while an ineffective one can quickly thwart the progress of the most dedicated reformers."
-- Richard Riley, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education

Riley's words, spoken during one of the Department of Education's Town Meetings in June 1999, echo the sentiments of educators and policy makers throughout the country. And yet, until fairly recently, meaningful, ongoing professional development for the nation's instructional leaders has been the exception, not the rule.

All that's changing, though, as more and more local, state, and national education entities hold their principals accountable for the success and failure of their students. In its 2001 budget, the Clinton administration proposed allocating $40 million toward its School Leadership Initiative, a plan to establish regional training centers for principals. Throughout the country, many private foundations are also earmarking significant dollars to programs and research related to professional development for principals. (To view this link, you must be a registered user on the Edweek site. Registration is free.)

Many of these new initiatives have a two-pronged focus: helping principals develop strong organizational and leadership skills and providing them with tools and strategies for improving academic performance.

That's as it should be, says Vincent L. Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). He notes that the most effective professional-development program is one based on the specific circumstances in which a principal is working.

Other key components of an effective professional-development program for principals, says Ferrandino, include

  • self-assessment tools or strategies.
  • cohort groups for support and the exchange of information.
  • mentoring relationships to assist new principals.

Combining Theory and Practice

At leading educational institutions such as Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, continuing-education and professional-development courses have been serving principals for nearly two decades.

And as school districts throughout the country focus on raising standards -- the principal's critical role in that process -- these higher-education centers are responding with new programs designed to meet changing needs. Though they haven't abandoned their discussion of educational theory, center leaders recognize the importance of providing nuts-and-bolts assistance to help meet the challenges facing school-site administrators today.

Take, for example, the Higher School Performance Program, offered by UNC's Center for School Leadership. This two-year-old program, part of UNC's Principals' Executive Program (PEP), was designed specifically to address the needs of principals at low-performing schools -- schools that find themselves at risk of not making state-assigned progress on the standardized test. For that reason, hands-on data analysis (of school test scores, parent and teacher survey results, and more) is an integral component of the Higher School Performance Program.

Participants bring data from their own school with them, explains PEP assistant director Alice Maniloff, so the analysis -- and subsequent corrective measures -- are specific to their particular school and circumstances. Once participants have a handle on the data, the next step is to focus on programmatic and structural changes to improve academic achievement. Topics addressed include aligning curriculum to meet state standards, instructional monitoring, and teacher support and supervision.

Help from Critical Friends

In addition to five intensive three-day sessions on the UNC campus, principals receive year-round support from retired administrators -- called critical friends -- who act as mentors to their less experienced colleagues.

"The principals were coming to Chapel Hill to have hands laid on them, to learn the word," says Maniloff. "But I realized what would really make a difference for participants was a supportive person -- someone they could talk everything over with and get advice from throughout the year."

As with any mentoring program, matching up participants was one of the most difficult -- and crucial -- aspects of the program. Maniloff and her associate, Kathy Tuten, visited the principals' schools and met with or spoke to all the mentors before final matches were made. They then held a daylong introductory session for the mentors at the UNC campus to prepare them for the task that lay before them. "I didn't want them to go and take over," says Maniloff. "We talked about what it means to be a mentor, about active listening and about developing rubrics to follow."

A second session for mentors was held during the school year.

Reflections of a PEP Alumnus

Mike Chappell knows what it's like to be in the hot seat. Like every school principal, he's on the front lines in the ongoing struggle to raise student achievement. And like his counterparts at schools throughout the country, he's accountable for the success -- or failure -- of his students.

Given the high stakes of student achievement in North Carolina -- school staff receive bonuses when students do well on state tests, and outside "improvement" teams are assigned to turn the lowest schools around -- it's no surprise that Chappell, principal of Zebulon Elementary School (a part of the Wake County Public School System, in Zebulon, North Carolina) does whatever he can to stay on top of statewide standards and assessment trends. But that doesn't mean he takes whatever professional-development offerings come his way. "I always ask myself, 'Is the time I'm going to put in worth what I am going to get out?'" explains the principal of four years.

When Chappell read about the Higher School Performance Program, he knew immediately it was the course for him. "PEP has been around for a number of years, but it had always been a fairly generic sort of boot camp for principals," explains Chappell. The Higher School Performance Program, by contrast, is a highly focused effort to help principals of struggling schools achieve higher academic achievement.

Chappell, who was a member of the first cohort of principals to participate in the yearlong program, says it provided just the right mix of theory and practical application. During five multiday sessions on the UNC campus, participants wrestled with test-score data, studied various methods of curriculum development, and explored such critical issues as student conduct, instructional monitoring, and teacher support and supervision.

In addition to taking those five trips to UNC, Chappell worked with a retired principal, David Bryant, who served as his mentor and coach, meeting with him several times throughout the school year. (Between visits, the pair kept in touch via e-mail.)

"I'd tell David about a project or a change I was considering and he would give me his honest opinion," recalls Chappell. "He told me when he thought something would work and when he thought we weren't quite ready."

Portable Knowledge

Although Chappell has since moved on to a new principal position, he says the skills and strategies he learned during his year in the Higher School Performance Program have been invaluable at his new school.

Through the program's detailed data-analysis sessions, Chappell came away with not just an understanding of his own school's test scores but also a much more refined sense of how to evaluate programs, scheduling, and class assignments to improve performance. Those are skills and lessons that can apply to any principal position at any school.

"We looked at performance in terms of student placement, instructional technology, textbooks, teaching style -- from every angle you could imagine -- even the daily schedule," says Chappell. The net result, he adds, is that he learned how to turn data into action.

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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