Rethinking Leadership

How do you improve schools? Start by coaching principals, says new study

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Gary Hughes (right) talks with his supervisor, Craig Hammond, at Nashville's J.T. Moore Middle School. Hammond spends a half day every other week working collaboratively with Hughes under an emerging administrative support and coaching model used by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Gary Hughes remembers rolling his eyes last year after learning that Nashville’s new school superintendent was completely revamping the way principals like himself would be supervised.

After all, as a 10-year school administrator, Hughes thought he had done just fine under the previous system. Occasional drop-in visits from central office personnel found that his school was in compliance with all district rules and regulations.

But beginning last fall, his new supervisor, Craig Hammond, began coming to J.T. Moore Middle School for about a half day every other week — visiting classrooms with Hughes, reviewing student achievement data together, and talking through ways to support individual teachers.

“I was not happy about the change,” Hughes recalls. “It was like a bunch of new hoops I was going to have to jump through.”

This month, as he began his second year under the new supervisory model, Hughes feels “transformed” as a school leader. He also believes that what he’s learning in collaboration with Hammond is trickling down to improve the quality of instruction in classrooms at J.T. Moore.

“This approach is about support, not compliance,” said Hughes. “It’s changed the way I think about what I do.”

Hughes’ experience mirrors the findings of the first three years of a four-year study into the role of those who supervise school principals. The research, by Vanderbilt University and Mathematica Policy Research, suggests that radically changing the job description of such supervisors to emphasize coaching and mentoring instead of operations and administration could refocus school communities on improving student achievement, retaining more teachers, and strengthening school climate.

The findings also have major implications for how central offices are designed — with a shift from a top-down compliance model to a more bottom-up one that focuses on servicing schools.

“This is a good news story about district reform,” said Ellen Goldring, the report’s lead author and a Vanderbilt professor of educational leadership and policy.

“It’s about fundamentally changing the supervisor role in a way that principals report that they’re feeling more supported and equipped. But in order to make that new role effective, it became very clear that central office also needed to rethink and realign to that perspective.”

Reshuffling priorities

The study, which is part of the Wallace Foundation’s $24 million Principal Supervisor Initiative, was based on changes made between 2014 and 2017 at six urban districts in Broward County, Florida; Baltimore, Maryland; Cleveland, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa, Long Beach, California; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Each district revamped the supervisor’s job description; reduced the number of schools each supervisor was responsible for; trained them on how to coach and support principals; and restructured the district’s central office to shift administrative, operations, and compliance tasks away from those roles.

With the changes, most districts reported that their supervisors were spending an average of 63 percent of their time working directly with principals to help them hone their skills in instructional leadership. That’s thought to be significantly more one-on-one time than in years past, when supervisors had substantially larger portfolios.

“That’s a lot of time that a principal has someone to plan with, problem-solve with, receive support,” Goldring said.

"This approach is about support, not compliance. It’s changed the way I think about what I do."Gary Hughes, principal

While Nashville’s district was not part of the study, Director of Schools Shawn Joseph heard about the initiative while working in Maryland public schools and adopted some of its components when he became leader of Tennessee’s second largest district in 2016.

That meant restructuring the central office so that each supervisor was overseeing about a dozen schools instead of the previous 30 or so.

Such investments are one of the biggest challenges — but also one of the most critical components — of facilitating meaningful instructional engagement with principals, said Sito Narcisse, Nashville’s chief of schools.

“We believe the lever of change for improving schools is through the principal,” said Narcisse.

The study has other implications for states like Tennessee, which launched a teacher evaluation system in 2011 that requires principals to observe classroom instruction and critique their teachers.

“There’s clearly a shift in the role of principals,” said Goldring, whose next report will focus on how the supervisory changes impact principal effectiveness. “But how do we coach and develop principals so that they can better coach and develop their teachers? That’s what this research is all about.”

Leadership matters

When it comes to the impact of school-related factors on student learning, research shows that school leaders are second in importance only to teachers — but also can have a multiplier effect on the quality of teaching.

Historically, however, principals’ professional development has been limited to periodic workshops and trainings that focus mostly on administrative, operational, and compliance issues. They rarely receive ongoing, embedded coaching and problem-solving support based on the instructional needs of specific schools.

The Wallace Foundation identified existing principal supervisors as a potential resource to change that dynamic in large urban districts.

“They already have one foot in the schools and one foot in central office,” explained Jody Spiro, the foundation’s director of education leadership.

But few districts have taken that route on their own.

Even though these educators are responsible for evaluating principals and usually report to the chief academic officer, they tend to focus on “putting out fires” — things like parent complaints and broken air conditioners — instead of coaching teachers.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
From left: Principal Gary Hughes confers with supervisors Dottie Critchlow and Craig Hammond about the upcoming school year. Critchlow helps oversee support for school leaders under the Nashville district’s new supervisory model.

Dottie Critchlow recalls what it was like to supervise Nashville principals under the district’s previous model. With about 28 schools to monitor, giving all of her principals meaningful critiques was logistically impossible, she said.

“It was like saying to a mama, ‘Who do you love the most?’” said Critchlow, who now coaches the district’s principal supervisors. “The answer is ‘the kid who needs me the most.’ I spent a lot of time with brand new principals figuring out the job and others who weren’t being effective. It wasn’t about developing instructional leaders; it was about maintenance.”

Last year under the new model, Hammond monitored a dozen schools — the average number that the study landed on for effective engagement between supervisors and their principals.

“If I had 20 schools, I’d start losing track of who’s where,” said Hammond, himself a former principal. “This number allows me to walk with principals in a building, to give feedback, and remember the things that I see.”

The investment paid off when Hughes received his first evaluation from Hammond. It was, the principal said, an “aha! moment” — the most meaningful feedback of his career.

“It’s clear he knew me, understood my school, and really thought this through,” Hughes said. “He was very in tune with what I needed to improve.”

Fixing Special Education

Advocates’ survey of parents and teachers alleges Chicago special education reform has been slow, underresourced

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, speaks at a press conference about the survey.

Despite the state taking over Chicago schools’ troubled program for special-needs students, both education services and communication with parents remain woefully lacking, advocates for families alleged Monday.

The groups, including Equip for Equality, Parents 4 Teachers, Access Living and Raise Your Hand, released a survey of 800 parents and teachers that indicated that the Illinois State Board of Education’s reforms have fallen far short of its promises, six months after a state probe found Chicago schools violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services, such as  speech and occupational therapy, busing, classroom aides,.

There continues to be no remediation plan for the thousands of students who were illegally denied services,” said attorney Olga Pribyl, who heads Equip for Equality’s special education clinic.

Representatives of the state board and Chicago Public Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Advocates called on Illinois governor-elect J.B. Pritzker to commit more resources to monitor assigned to oversee Chicago special-education reforms. The office has three staff members, half the number advocates had requested. “We are asking Pritzker and his transition team to recognize the critical need to reform special education at CPS,” said Chris Yun, an educational policy analyst with the disabilities rights group Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • Three out of four respondents reported knowing of one or more students not receiving services because a service provider was unavailable due to staffing shortages. Special education teachers were the most unavailable service provider, followed by paraprofessionals and nurses.
  • Many parents don’t know what changes the monitor has initiated. About three-fourths of respondents had not heard about the school district’s monthly parent trainings about the rights of special education students. While about 60 percent knew of changes tied to the state’s investigation in special education in Chicago, but fewer than 10 percent had seen the  new policy guidelines.
  • About two in three parents who have attended meetings designed to map out their child’s school services — known as an Individualized Education Program —  this year reported they weren’t given a draft of the plan five days in advance of the meetings as required.
  • About 80 percent of teachers and staff reported that IEP meetings neglected to mention compensatory services for students whose services were delayed or denied.

Natasha Carlson, a K-4 teacher who co-chairs the special education committee at the Chicago Teachers Union, said the survey results represent a broader failure by the school district and monitor to ensure students with disabilities are protected.

“This is most likely the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

But the school district maintains that its special education program is among its top priorities.

“CPS has been working with ISBE to build on the progress the district has made in the past year and ensure our diverse learners have access to the best possible education,” said spokeswoman Emily Bolton in a statement. “The district remains fully committed to working with advocates, parents, and educators to continue to strengthen our special education program and ensure the needs of all students are met.”

The statement from the school district highlighted efforts taken with the state so far, including trainings for teachers and parents, an updated procedural manual for special education, hiring scores of case managers, paraprofessionals and specialists, and increases to the district’s special education budget. The statement also touted the hiring of specialists to help families navigate the planning process for their children’s services, and the establishment of a parent advisory council.

You can read the full survey report below.

Annual Regional Analysis

Where Chicago students travel the farthest to school, questions about why residents dodge neighborhood campuses

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and other district leaders hosted a community meeting on Thursday about the Annual Regional Analysis.

At a forum designed to explore solutions to putting top-rated schools and programs within reach of all Chicago students, residents of Greater Grand Crossing pushed Chicago Public Schools to help dispel stigmas they say makes their campuses a tough pitch to prospective families.

Nearly 100 residents, educators and school district leaders convened Thursday at Chicago Vocational Career Academy High School to review a district report on enrollment trends, school quality options, parent choice and program variety.

Known as the Annual Regional Analysis, it has spurred conversations about school quality, barriers to education equity — and fears of painful decisions to come amid an ongoing enrollment crisis. The school district presented hard numbers behind the problematic trend of shrinking neighborhood schools.

In a part of the city where students have one of the city’s longest commutes to school, district officials reviewed evidence of a troubling dynamic: students skipping over their neighborhood school and traveling long distances for other options.

The district’s chief school development officer, Hal Woods, drew from the report’s data about school quality, enrollment trends, choice patterns and programs, and reviewed data on the Greater Stony Island region, one of 16 planning areas defined by the city.

The region includes 10 communities in addition to Greater Grand Crossing, including South Shore, South Chicago, Chatham, Avalon Park, and Roseland. While clusters of middle class and affluent residents live in the area, most neighborhoods in the region have lower median household incomes.

As of last school year, when the analysis was compiled, the Greater Stony Island Region had about 24,000 students, most of them black, at nearly 50 schools.

Like in other parts of the city, many of the schools with neighborhood attendance boundaries suffer from underenrollment, bad reputations, a lack of of high-demand programs and low school quality ratings. But plenty of families are also skipping over top-rated schools.

This map shows the number of IB program seats per 100 students available to elementary and high school students in each planning area.

Attendees Thursday representing neighborhood schools said they don’t have shiny new buildings, or the finances or resources to wage a robust marketing campaign as many charter schools do. They sought district support to combat bad reputations and to inform other parents  – beyond school ratings – about the good things happening on their campuses.

“Are students choosing schools in their region? I think this is a really critical slide to look at for folks in this room,” Woods said, lingering on a chart showing average commute times for students across the city.

Local elementary school students commute an average of 2.6 miles, the farthest of  any region in the city. At the high school level, Greater Stony Island is tied with the Far Southwest Side region for the longest student commutes, an average of 5 miles compared with the citywide average of 3.6 miles.

In the past four years, the region has lost at least 2,600 district students – or 10 percent of its student population compared with a 6 percent drop citywide. The region had more than 4,200 unfilled, top-rated elementary school seats, but there are only about 450 unfilled Level 1 high school seats.

Of the four high schools in the area with neighborhood attendance boundaries, only Chicago Vocational is in good standing, according to the district’s school rating system. The other three neighborhood schools, including Harlan Community Academy High School and Hirsch Metropolitan High School, all suffer from low ratings and dwindling enrollment.

Meanwhile, the only schools in good standing or building enrollment are charter schools like Gary Comer College Prep with the Noble Network, or South Shore High School, a district-run selective enrollment school, and all draw attendance from across the city. Some attendees accused the schools of siphoning students from neighborhood schools with attendance boundaries.

But nearly two in three high school students leave the region altogether, “which is the high for all ARA regions,” Woods said.

In small discussion groups, attendees questioned how well school ratings actually convey quality, emphasizing that economic development, safety of the school neighborhood and the climate inside also factor into parents’ decisions.

Many said that the district should help schools suffering from stigma communicate their accomplishments and benefits, whether via social media, websites or billboards.

“We have wonderful things to offer — how are we going to market that at CPS?” said Wenda Royal, community school resource coordinator at South Shore Fine Arts Academy, speaking for a group of participants.

“There’s perceptions of schools that go back 10, 15, 25 or more years, that are no longer accurate,” Woods agreed.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Chicago schools parent Sherretha Richardson.

Sherretha Richardson, a parent of three district students at Carnegie, Kenwood and Bouchett who lives in the East Side community, said marketing is especially important for schools whose ratings might not reflect a school’s successes.

“You look at Chicago Vocational, and you see a Level 2-plus. But you have Level 1-plus administration and teachers as far as their effort, their energy,” she said.

She said the district has to do a better job of engaging parents with technology.

“This meeting here, for the parents that couldn’t come out, there should have been a webinar, they should have had it on the internet, where the parents could have chimed in and actually heard what was going on,” she said.

District CEO Janice Jackson was paying attention.

“One of my commitments is really to restore the credibility and the integrity of our school system, and it starts with sharing more information, and that’s what this event is about tonight,” Jackson said in opening remarks.

She’s begun an initiative that allows schools to request programs like the International Baccalaureate on their campuses. The alternative, she said,  “is what has occurred for too long, which is the people in charge, me, my team, sit around a conference table, look at a map, look at data, and make decisions about who should get what.”

“What I say to some of the people who have a problem with this is that you can demand community engagement, but you cannot tell me how to engage the community,” she said. “And I think this is the right approach, I think this is what we need to do to make sure everybody feels like they have a fair shot.”