ATLANTA – State officials gathered here with national experts for the annual SREB Leadership Forum to focus on improving school leaders’ training and support, as the region strives to lead the nation in improving school leadership-preparation programs, school district and university partnerships and students’ readiness for college and career training.
SREB Senior Vice President Gene Bottoms called at the forum for states to help school districts work much more closely with university-based graduate programs that prepare many principals to identify stronger candidates and make admissions much more selective. School districts should identify educators with a missionary’s mindset, with a "burn inside" for working with students as prospective principals, he said.
"We've been making progress in our region" in developing more effective school leaders and in improving their training and support, but SREB states have much more work to do, Bottoms added.
Leslie Hazle Bussey, a senior researcher for the SREB Learning-Centered Leadership Program, presented initial findings of a benchmark report showing each of the 16 SREB states’ progress on many indicators of improvement in school leadership. The goal is "a high-quality, effective school leader that knows how to help teachers, improve instruction and engage every child," Bussey said.
Three SREB states — Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee — have met many of the criteria deemed by SREB to be indicative of improvement in state policies and practices on school leadership. Several SREB states have made progress in recent years in setting strong school-leadership standards that guide leadership improvements in each state, Bussey said. "Quite a few of the 16 states in our region (are developing) a comprehensive set of policies" to improve principals’ preparation, she said.
For example, 92 percent of the chairs of university-based principal-preparation programs surveyed by SREB for the benchmark report said they had seen major redesigns of their programs in the past five years. Eighty-seven percent reported strong partnerships between their programs and local school districts.
But other results suggest less progress in other areas of improving school leadership training.
Too many university-based programs still allow candidates for the graduate programs to be admitted without any consultation from local school districts. About 57 percent of those surveyed said that principal candidates are still self-selected in their areas, indicating that districts do not identify specific candidates for such programs, and admissions remain wide open for many graduate-level programs. Bottoms has labeled such programs "cash cows" for universities that too often do not provide schools with outstanding principal candidates.
Also alarming, only 48 percent of those surveyed reported an emphasis on helping principals advance students’ reading and writing skills — an urgent need in middle grades and high schools, Bussey said. While SREB has shown that many middle grades and high schools do not help students learn to read and write at the advanced levels required for postsecondary studies or a good job, many principals’ and teachers’ training still does not cover literacy in depth.
Worst of all, only 36 percent of those surveyed said that principal-preparation programs explicitly prepared principals to help improve high-need schools. Bottoms called this survey result troubling because SREB states have large numbers of the nation’s "dropout factory" high schools as identified by Johns Hopkins University. Without better-prepared school leaders, states cannot expect major gains in achievement and better learning environments for students in struggling schools, Bottoms said.
SREB President Dave Spence told the forum audience that school and district leaders have a crucial role in readying more students for college and specialized career training – helping more students meet higher academic standards than ever before. He described SREB’s intensive work with states such as Texas, Virginia and Kentucky to help them begin to create college- and career-readiness standards, to measure students’ progress on them, to provide senior-year courses designed to catch students up, and to provide professional development for educators in this area.
Spence added that more principal- and teacher-preparation programs need to provide intensive training on improving reading and writing achievement in the middle grades and high school – which SREB signaled was the No. 1 urgent need in public education in a major report last year. Several states are responding with statewide adolescent literacy programs aimed at addressing the problem.
Alabama Assistant State Superintendent of Education Sherrill Parris agreed. While her state is a national leader in improving reading achievement, too many schools’ results still lag behind their peers. Some public schools still "don’t have the rigor they need. … They're not expecting enough of those students," she said. Parris added that it’s "difficult to prepare (principals) to do what they’ve never seen," to be instructional leaders. Many "have never witnessed that in their careers."
SREB researcher Jon Schmidt-Davis detailed a forthcoming report on the impact of school district-level practices on principals’ abilities to improve student achievement. Bottoms and Schmidt-Davis discussed throughout the conference the need for districts to plan for strategic improvements in school leadership. A panel discussed this issue, including Carroll County, Georgia, Superintendent Scott Cowart; Montgomery County, Maryland, schools’ chief academic officer Jody Leleck; and Myra Whitney, associate superintendent in Memphis.
Other highlights from the forum:
Jon Schnur, the chief executive officer and co-founder of the nonprofit, New York City-based New Leaders for New Schools, described five areas of emphasis that his alternative principal-preparation program uses in major cities. They include relentlessly driving better teaching and learning daily, higher expectations, personal responsibility for achievement among teachers and school leaders, better talent/counseling out of poor teachers, and personal leadership skills.