As school leaders, principals are positioned to send a strong message about equity and excellence in their buildings and campuses through their deep commitment to ensuring every child’s needs are respected and nurtured. Ensuring all principals have access to the kinds of high-quality professional learning that helps them become effective, equity-centered leaders is an important investment that yields outsized impact, according to Paul Fleming, Learning Forward’s Chief Learning Officer. “Principals have been called multipliers of teacher effectiveness,” he said. “An effective principal positively impacts an entire teacher faculty and, therefore, their students. With just under 100,000 principals in the United States, there’s a scale piece to focusing on developing school leaders that is really powerful and achievable.”

Working with states and systems to support equity-centered school leaders is one focus of Fleming’s practice at Learning Forward. He formerly served as Assistant Commissioner for the Teachers and Leaders Division at the Tennessee Department of Education, where he led the development of Tennessee Leaders for Equity Playbook. That resource was developed through the state agency’s participation in the ESSA Leadership Learning Community (ELLC) network, a unique initiative funded by The Wallace Foundation created to intentionally foster collaboration among multiple education and community-minded organizations in order to increase effective and equity-minded school leadership. Tennessee’s was one of 11 state teams that participated in the ESSA Leadership Learning Community project.

Fleming said the Tennessee ESSA Leadership Learning Community team was able to develop a robust equity action plan because of the unique perspectives and priorities from each team member. That is consistent with findings from a 2022 report authored by education policy researcher Paul Manna, who considered the impact of the ESSA Leadership Learning Community initiative and compared it to that of another Wallace Foundation leadership-focused effort, the University Principal Preparation Initiative (UPPI). The two are distinct efforts but both sought to improve systems that lead to a stronger pipeline of high-quality principals.

Manna’s report, States as Leaders, Followers, and Partners: Lessons from the ESSA Leadership Learning Community and the University Principal Preparation Initiative,” focused on states’ roles in fostering conditions that enable principals to thrive in ways that support teaching and learning. He found:

  1. State standards are a powerful cross-cutting policy lever that when used in districts and universities, can shape specific decisions about training, developing, and supporting principals.
  2. When states foster networks that connect districts, university, and others, creative problem-solving emerges that can enhance the likelihood of principal initiatives succeeding.
  3. States, districts, universities, and other partners can achieve better results for principals when each entity plays to its strengths within a collaboration.

In a conversation with Gail Paul, Learning Forward’s blog editor, Fleming reflected on new evidence about supporting school leadership coming from a litany of research and initiatives and what it means for the field.

Gail Paul: From your perspective as former principal and state policymaker, and now an expert on Standards for Professional Learning, what stands out to you about recent findings about school leadership? And how should education leaders act on the findings?

Paul Fleming: It’s been just since 2021 that Jason Grissom and colleagues published research on principals’ influence on students and schools that identified four principal practices linked to effective outcomes: (1) high-leverage instructional activities, including teacher evaluation, feedback, and coaching; (2) building a productive culture and climate that supports effective instruction; (3) facilitating collaboration and learning communities, and; (4) strategic management of personnel and resources. That report describes what the principal role now requires to lead effectively and reach all students.

Last year’s update on outcomes from two multiyear school leadership initiatives – the University Principal Pipeline Initiative and the ESSA Leadership Learning Community – demonstrates how that can be achieved. It’s through the networks between university preparation partners, districts, and states. It’s through coherent and aligned state policies that incentivize, reward, and accelerate programs that focus on these four behaviors.

Just as Grissom and colleagues’ report lays out four key leadership behaviors, Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning provide a roadmap for developing strong, instructionally focused principals, through our equity standards (Equity Practices, Equity Drivers, and Equity Foundations) and also through our leadership standard.

Gail Paul: Talk about the importance of standards as central to the work of improving policy and practice around school leadership.

Paul Fleming: One big takeaway from Paul Manna’s report is that state standards can shape decisions about training, developing, and supporting principals. There’s a nice parallel between the importance of state standards and our Standards for Professional Learning, which do not exclude leadership. In fact, leadership is a big piece of our standards. Standards are a system, and focusing on creating equity-centered principals requires a systems approach.

We have found that it is beneficial for leaders to understand how standards overlap and interact. At Learning Forward, we present the commonalities from National Educational Leadership Preparation standards, Professional Standards for Educational Leadership, and Standards for Professional Learning within a crosswalk that is also explicit about how they align around supporting Grissom’s four behaviors of effective leadership.

The main point here, which goes back to Manna’s report, is that if you’re not anchoring your program and your state and district work to a set of strong leadership standards, you’re behind the game. And, a key piece for districts, states, and provinces to be aware of is that equity-centered leadership is not a separate program, it’s not an add-on. It’s the approach to create a systemic leadership development model. You’re not just tinkering with your district system; you’re actually trying to revise it to embed principal leadership into the DNA of your system.

Equity-centered leadership is not a separate program, it’s not an add-on. It’s the approach to create a systemic leadership development model. Click To Tweet

Gail Paul: Tennessee’s ESSA Leadership Learning Community focused on producing an equity playbook to help school, district, and community leaders advance equitable outcomes for all students. What is happening in other places?

Paul Fleming: To me, Tennessee’s work with the learning community was about a state successfully participating within an ecosystem of policy and practice to deliver a very practical, very usable, guidebook. Manna’s main points about the importance of networks underscores that you must have diverse partners to further this work. Tennessee’s equity playbook, which was updated in 2022, was born from that model.

At Learning Forward, networks are one of the ways we work to ensure continuous improvement for principals and other school leaders. The Wallace Foundation chose Learning Forward to design, implement, and evaluate professional learning convenings for district partnership teams under its Equity-Centered Pipeline Initiative. For example, through this network, we are supporting how Columbus City Schools in Ohio embeds equity into all departments and services in the district and centers the voice of principals and other stakeholders in doing so.

Gail Paul: Do most folks know what a pipeline represents?

Paul Fleming: Sometimes people think a pipeline ends when somebody becomes a day 1 principal. But principal pipeline is really the continuum of all the phases of a leader lifecycle from aspiring, recruitment, and identification to veteran principals who need ongoing professional learning. Jason Grissom and colleagues’ research showed that high-quality and highly effective principals can actually contribute three months’ additional learning for those students that are in their building. Every student deserves a great teacher and a great principal – and this only happens by design – it has to be embedded within a comprehensive professional learning system in order for it to actually happen.

Additional resources:

Aligned standards keep students, teachers, and leaders moving in the same direction (this article includes the table of how three sets of standards intersect and align with one another and with the four drivers of effective school leadership, which Paul Fleming refers to in this blog.)

Learning Forward’s selected resources for equity challenges tool

Learning Forward’s featured leadership resources

The power of equity-focused professional learning