Leadership Development: A Critical Component of School Reform

By Darla Edwards

When I became a principal, I finally understood the true meaning of Spiderman’s words: “with great power comes great responsibility.” While Spiderman has the power to save lives, principals have the power to change and influence many lives.  I realized that leadership has such a tremendous impact on students’ success, school climate/culture, teacher effectiveness/retention, and family engagement.  Graduate classes can never fully prepare you for all of the complexities and demands of the principalship.  More than half of principals quit after five years.   Many districts devote more funding and time to teacher preparation and much less to principal preparation. 

Unfortunately, just four percent of Title II funds have historically been spent on professional development for school leaders. According to the New Leaders’ publication, Prioritizing Leadership: Opportunities in ESSA for Chief State School Officers, “one-quarter of a school’s influence on student learning can be directly attributed to the effectiveness of its school leaders” and “an outstanding principal can improve student academic achievement by as much as 20 percentage points.”

If schools are constantly struggling without realizing any substantial gains in student achievement, district administrators should really take a close look at the investment and priority that they have given to leadership development within the district. 

 Many school reforms focus on curriculum standards, assessments, teacher quality, and accountability systems.  As a result of the Every Students Succeeds Act, we may begin to see more of a focus on comprehensive educational leadership reforms. ESSA recognizes the importance and impact of principals by creating new and expanded opportunities to strengthen school leadership, specifically in our nation’s highest need schools and communities.

Title II, Part A allows each state to invest almost eight percent of its total allotment to attract, prepare, develop, and retain school leaders.   This is promising because we will see states develop more innovative principal preparation programs, comprehensive school leadership strategies, and robust capacity building trainings for school leaders.  

When I served on the Virginia Board of Education, I had the opportunity to participate in the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) study group on school leadership. Through the generous support of the Wallace Foundation, we had the opportunity to learn about some of the most effective principal pipeline initiatives around the nation focusing on how districts recruit, prepare, and retain quality school leaders.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools offers a variety of preparatory options for aspiring school leaders. The district also provides coaching and mentoring for principals during their beginning years of service.  During my visits to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, I have been extremely impressed with the quality, caliber, and expertise of their principals.   

In order to develop the most effective leaders, districts must partner with universities to provide well-connected development opportunities that extend throughout the careers of school leaders. .

In October 2016, the Wallace Foundation selected seven universities and their state and district partners to participate in a new $47-million initiative to develop models over the next four years for improving university principal preparation programs.    According to a recent Wallace-commissioned study, Improving University Principal Preparation Programs: Five Themes From the Field, 80 percent of district superintendents are dissatisfied with the quality of principal preparation programs, and many universities also believe their programs have room for improvement. These university partnerships will be extremely beneficial in equipping and shaping our next generation of school leaders. 

While it is exciting to see the opportunities for leadership development embedded in ESSA, hopefully we will begin to see even more innovative programs, partnerships and training opportunities for the success of school leaders.  

We know that Spiderman has the option of returning to the ordinary and average life of Peter Parker, but the only option for the school leader is continuous growth and improvement to achieve extraordinary results.