Every School Can Have a Great Principal: A Fresh Vision for How

Great teachers matter—we all know that. But great principals matter nearly as much. We recently profiled three principals who achieved strong student learning growth in their schools in tough circumstances. Forming and leading a team of teacher-leaders proved crucial to all. But then what?

Can great principals take their leadership to the next level and stay connected to teachers and students? Could they reach all schools, not just the fraction they reach today?

At  Buena Vista Enhanced Option Elementary in Nashville, the principal, assistant principal, and the school's "team of leaders" meet each week. The leaders are outstanding teachers who lead small teams of teachers covering one or more grades or subjects.
At Buena Vista Enhanced Option Elementary in Nashville, the principal, assistant principal, and the school’s “team of leaders” meet each week. The leaders are outstanding teachers who lead small teams of teachers covering one or more grades or subjects.
(Photo by Beverley Tyndall)

We asked just that, and here’s our answer: yes.

In An Excellent Principal for Every School: Transforming Schools into Leadership Machines, we share our vision for how districts and charter networks can reach a lot more students and teachers—potentially all—with great principals, for much higher pay, within regular budgets.

You might recognize this concept, since we’ve floated—and implemented—similar ideas with teachers in Opportunity Culture schools in several states already (including unionized districts). We’ve now extended our thinking to principals.

We envision four essential ingredients to provide far more schools with excellent principals:

Commitment. Districts commit to reaching all students with great teaching and all teachers with great leadership. Pursuit of these goals drives school staffing and design decisions.

Multi-Classroom Leaders. Great teachers lead small teams covering one or more grades or subjects, co-planning, co-teaching, and coaching teachers, and they are accountable for student outcomes of the whole team and for teacher development. They earn far more, too.

Schoolwide Team of Leaders. Principals lead their multi-classroom leaders as a team of leaders to improve instruction and implement a culture of excellence schoolwide.

Multi-School Leadership. Great principals extend their reach to small numbers of schools as “multi-school leaders” while developing principals, and principals-in-training, on the job. They also earn more.

If every great principal eventually led four schools, on average, as a multi-school leader, then every school could have an excellent, proven principal in charge of student learning, teacher leadership, and the development of other principals on the job.

A nod to recent teacher-leadership efforts: This leadership machine is powered by teacher-leaders. Not just any teacher-leaders, but ones with a lot more authority and a lot more accountability, and pay, than usual.

How? Opportunity Culture models extend the reach of excellent teachers and their teams to more students, for more pay, within budget. A team of teachers and administrators decides how to redo schedules and reallocate money to fund pay supplements permanently, in contrast to temporarily grant-funded programs. Schools provide additional school-day time for planning and collaboration, typically with teacher-leaders, whom we call multi-classroom leaders, leading teams and providing frequent, on-the-job development. Multi-classroom leaders provide frequent, in-depth support to the teachers on their teams—far more than a principal can for 20 to 50 individual teachers. Early outcomes indicate far more high growth and less low growth among students than comparable schools and strong teacher satisfaction.

To complete the leadership machine, principals must lead multi-classroom leaders as a team to drive instructional excellence schoolwide. As teacher-leaders take over responsibility for instructional excellence with the principal, a noninstructional operations manager role can take the place of an assistant principal position in most schools. In addition to focusing noninstructional duties away from principals, the operations manager role does not require the same level of education and certification.

This saves money to pay multi-school leaders substantial supplements. Paid principal-in-training residencies in some schools can also save money and become possible by having neophytes step up from multi-classroom leadership—where they’ve already learned to lead adults—and work under a multi-school leader.

These staffing changes allow multi-school leader (MSL) pay of at least 10 percent more than principals, potentially 20 percent more on average—and far more if experienced, successful MSLs take on a couple more schools than our proposed average of four.

With the right underlying supports, Multi-School Leadership creates a sustainable leadership machine: a larger pipeline of great leaders for schools and teaching teams, developed on the job from the start of their teaching careers, and earning far more than usual, within recurring budgets.

It could also bring more potential leaders into teaching and improve the implementation of curriculum and instructional changes. Imagine [insert your favorite curriculum element or teaching method] with excellent teachers in charge of implementation, supported by excellent principals.

What’s scarcest of the essential ingredients? Commitment. The rest is doable, as early Opportunity Culture schools have demonstrated.

Ultimately, research indicates that better leadership pays off in higher levels of student growth and achievement. For principals, teachers, and students, it’s time to let great principals extend their reach and lead schools that are leadership—and learning—machines.

–Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel

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