Washington Plays Critical Role in Improving School Leadership: An Open Letter to Secretary DeVos and Congress

Dear Secretary DeVos, Sen. Blunt, Sen. Murray, Sen. Alexander, Rep. Cole, Rep. DeLauro, Rep. Foxx, and Rep. Scott,

To transform schools, you need strong school leaders.

President Trump’s proposal to cut $9 billion from the U.S. Department of Education, particularly his call to eliminate all funding for the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, a.k.a., Title II, Part A, removes the federal government from the business of school leader development. This move goes against everything we know about what makes schools great. I am writing to urge you to consider the critical role the federal government plays in assuring that all schools around the country, charter and district, particularly schools in need of tremendous improvement, have strong leaders at the helm.

The research is clear: We can’t have great schools without great school leaders. Leaders from both parties recognized and addressed this through ESSA last year, including support for states to provide high quality training for school leaders. As I’m sure you know, leading a school is a very tough job. Principals need to know how to lead teachers in improving instruction for all students; how to create and maintain a safe and supportive school culture in which all children are valued; and how to work with families and communities to ensure students’ success for all students. These are just some of the best school leader practices that experts across the field have identified as being critical for transforming schools.

As we focus on giving our children the skills they need to succeed in college and careers, we need to ensure our principals know how to lead their schools in ways that ensure students are learning. These skills are not necessarily intuitive, and are not typically learned on the job as teachers. Principals need effective support and training to develop and continually improve their leadership practices. Research has found that high-quality school leader preparation requires, among other things, experiential learning, ideally in the form of an in-school residency, and the support of a mentor to guide the aspiring leader through her training.

The federal government can play a critical role in two ways: First, the Department of Education, under your leadership, can send a message to states that developing and supporting strong school leaders is critical to a school’s success. The importance of and need for strong principals is true across the U.S. All children deserve great principals to ensure they get the best possible learning opportunities, whether in Missouri, Washington, Tennessee, South Carolina, or Michigan.

To make it possible for states to do this work, you must also maintain the federal school leader programs already in place. As you might imagine, effective school leader training is not cheap. Conservative estimates place the cost at about $50,000 per principal. “What?!” you might say. “What do we get for that investment?” Well, for one thing, principals who are trained well are more likely to stay in their school leader roles. At the NYC Leadership Academy, our aspiring principals program aligns to research-based school leader development principles, and our practices have shown results: 85 percent of the hundreds of aspiring leaders we have trained in New York City since 2003 are still in educational leadership positions, most of them as principals. Because of their training, they have felt equipped to stay in this tough job.

States, districts, and charter management organizations pay a much higher price when they don’t invest in quality training. When a principal leaves a school, students’ reading and math achievement drop, and the district has to spend at least $75,000 to train, hire and place a new principal.  

You and your agency can lead states and districts in being shrewder with their funds by maintaining some of the federal programs already in place for growing our nation’s pool of great school leaders:

  • Title II, Part A, funds state efforts to prepare, train, recruit and retain effective teachers and school leaders, and can be used to revise evaluation systems, reform school leader preparation programs, and develop critically needed residency and mentoring programs.
  • The School Leader Recruitment and Support Program (SLRSP), formerly the School Leadership Program, provides funds for states and districts to recruit, train, place, support, and retain effective school leaders in high-need schools.
  • The Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program provides funds to universities and non-profit organizations, particularly nontraditional programs serving high-need districts, to recruit, select, and prepare, or provide professional development for teachers, principals, or other school leaders.
  • The Teacher and School Leader Incentive Fund offers a range of supports for teachers and principals, including coaching and job-embedded professional development. This program is intended to rethink educator pipelines to get the best talent in schools that need them most, in part by offering performance-based compensation.
  • The Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program (formerly the Investing in Innovation (i3) fund) encourages educators to come up with innovative leadership models and learn more about what works best. This program supports states, districts, or non-profit organizations in developing, researching and expanding innovative strategies and interventions for addressing persistent education challenges.

Without strong school leaders, we will never transform our schools. We urge you to maintain and increase federal support for school leadership.

Sincerely,

Irma Zardoya

President & CEO, NYC Leadership Academy

About the Author — Irma Zardoya

Irma Zardoya is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the NYC Leadership Academy.

When a principal leaves a school, students’ reading and math achievement drop, and the district has to spend at least $75,000 to train, hire and place a new principal.  You can lead states and districts in being shrewder with their funds by maintaining some of the federal programs already in place for growing our nation’s pool of great school leaders.

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