Rogers: Great School Leaders Make Great Schools. How Leadership Support for Principals & Superintendents Makes All the Difference for Kids

When it comes to school reform, everyone has their go-to solution. Some argue for community schools. Others insist on school choice. Still others believe that closing failing schools is an essential step.

Truth be told, much of the solution is already in schools nationwide. When education leaders have the support and training they need, student outcomes soar. The recent dramatic turnaround of Chicago’s schools gives new evidence for a leadership-focused approach, and experts believe that dedicated investments in school CEOs helped fuel the Windy City’s academic reversal.

Whether building a nonprofit or developing the next iteration of the iPhone, effective leaders get things done. A few districts like Chicago have taken up the issue of educational leadership. But many education systems are still losing leaders at astounding rates. In fact, nearly 50 percent of school CEOs leave during their third year in the role.

If America truly wants a world-class education system, it must strengthen and retain excellent school and district leaders. After all, great leaders are at the center of great schools, and strong principals can have a large impact on student achievement. What’s more, principal turnover is costly — nearly $75,000 a hire — a burden that disproportionately affects our lowest-performing schools.

School leaders play a powerful role in the development of teachers. Teachers cite a lack of strong principal leadership as one of their main stressors, and many leave the profession due to a lack of administrative support. Among teachers who recently left one mid-America school system, half cited school leadership as the reason.

Clearly, investing in leadership and talent development for schools and districts benefits students and teachers alike. But not nearly enough has been done. Many principals do not consider their jobs sustainable and often work 80-hour weeks. As for the job of a superintendent, one Pennsylvania school system head described it as “essentially a 24-hour-a-day position.”

Other fields know the value of great leadership, so they provide good paychecks and robust support. A colonel in the United States Army earns as much as $135,000 annually while receiving extensive professional development. In business, the examples are even more robust. American companies devote nearly $14 billion to leadership development each year.

Reformers in other nations have committed to improving their school leaders. Singapore, for example, has rolled out programs to develop future school leaders, while Shanghai has a rigorous career ladder that ensures that strong teachers have the opportunity to become teacher leaders. In Ontario, Canada, teachers who want to become principals undergo their own training regimen — the Principal’s Qualification Program — that focuses on leadership and managerial skills.

So what’s to be done? The 2015 renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, the nation’s landmark education law — also known as the Every Student Succeeds Act — offers new opportunities, among them allowing states to use federal funds to create leadership training programs.

States now must step up to the plate and roll out better, more targeted programs. This includes ongoing professional development around everything from time management to fiscal strategy. Education leaders also need opportunities to collaborate with their colleagues to learn best practices and grow as professionals.

There are some promising steps in the right direction. The Chicago Public Education Fund, for instance, offers principals in the district a 12-month program designed to increase their leadership skills, and a number of recently released evaluations have found that the program is one reason for the recent jump in student outcomes in the city, which now leads the nation in student growth.

Here at The Holdsworth Center, we are investing $230 million in a leadership institute that works with districts over five years to build leadership capacity and develop top talent. We have also put our staff into schools so principals can receive job-embedded support. Over the next 10 years, we hope to serve 30 districts, 1,500 principals, and 3,000 school leaders in our home state of Texas.

It’s not easy to be an excellent school leader, to be sure. To be successful, they must set visionary goals, establish high standards, and manage a diverse set of stakeholders from students to school board members. Leaders also, in the words of former principal Kerry Purcell, need “to help teachers become better teachers.”

Whether in a conference room or a classroom, we know leadership matters. Principals and superintendents are critical to the success of millions of students across the country. If we really want to invest in students — and our country’s future — the nation must prioritize great school leaders.

Kate Rogers is executive vice president of The Holdsworth Center.

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